Inspiring lip service?

I read an article just after the Paralympics which said the media weren’t supposed to call Paralympic athletes inspiring. The recent treatment of Tanni Gray Thompson in relation to the Sport England post reminded me of it. The directive to the media to censor themselves seemed odd when the slogan of both Games was inspire a generation. I should add that when the head of the IPC, the magnificently down to earth Philip Craven, heard about this directive he was unimpressed. Olympic athletes don’t inspire me because they’re too far removed from my life experience. Paralympic athletes, on the other hand, include people with degenerative and spinal conditions and I’m conscious that they compete on the basis that they only compete against people whose disability has a similar overall impact on doing their sport. I can relate to that, even if my experience and reading tells me it’s the exception, rather than the norm, for disabled people to be given the opportunity to compete on a level playing field outside sport.

I’m not without sympathy for the position that able bodied people calling Paralympic athletes inspiring is a bad thing. There is legitimate cause for concern that society tends to demonise many disabled people whilst treating a few like heroes. There is a real risk that people, most of whose medical understanding of disability probably ranks at about year 7 level (I’m applying a similar test to that of a person’s French comprehension years after taking their GCSEs when making that estimate), are unable to begin to understand how and why some disabled people can compete. Channel 4 did a great job of explaining classifications but what the public as a whole need is to understand why a person may be able to do one thing and not another as a result of their disability, even if the thing they can do seems more challenging than the thing they can’t to the able bodied observer. As my own osteopath said, I could potentially compete (I’m a very fast swimmer) because my short muscles are stronger than normal – they have to be to compensate for the weak long muscles which don’t do their job of keeping me upright. Yet, sit me in a chair for 10 mins… We concluded that participating in the Paralympics might well be less painful than being a spectator was! How many people know enough about the structure of the back to understand that?

It’s also true that there can be something rather patronising and hypocritical in all the talk of inspiration, and not just from politicians. I saw hypocrisy from able bodied people, even during the Games. The misuse of the term “inspirational” does offend me. It offends me when it’s used in a context which somehow ends up being derogatory – think “plucky” – and when it’s used by people who thoughtlessly throw it out there because it’s the done thing but don’t reflect the fact that they’ve been “inspired” by their actions. That said, I think it’s also patronising to dictate politically correct rules about what positive wording can be used to a media which often uses extremely negative language in relation to disabled people – compared to that why would we censor the rare occasions when they’re saying something positive?. Did anyone suggest terms people can’t use about Olympians? The problem really lies in the fact that, whatever words you use, attitudes to disability need to change in order for the words, whatever they may be, to be anything other than hollow.

The Games made a difference me and it’s not just because of the Paralympians. The crowds of disabled people who made the trip to London did too. Most of the time strangers can’t tell I have a disability but when my walking and balance go, you can’t miss it. In crowds, when I do need the walking stick, I tend to gaze into the distance so I don’t see people’s reactions. Going to the Paralympics was the first time I didn’t feel uncomfortable with needing a walking stick and being so slow. Ultimately, the shift in my perception of myself and my disability was the key factor behind my getting more active in the disability debate on twitter and writing a blog which, while not exclusively devoted to disability rights, does give them a fair bit of space.

My experience (and others might disagree with me based on their own experience) is that disabled people don’t tend to gather together very much outside of hospitals and clinics, unless it’s to protest about things like benefits reform. There are lots of potential reasons I suppose. The main one is probably just that we’re just muddling on with life – I wouldn’t have the energy for something like that anyway. Within the medical context, I’ve found attending a clinic with other people whose conditions also result in chronic pain helpful. It’s been more helpful to me to get to know other people like me than to hear what the clinical staff have to say (which isn’t to say I get nothing from the clinical side but quite a few of us are old hands when it comes to the technical stuff). Another factor, though, which contributes to the fact that we don’t see disabled people gathering in large groups may be that it’s harder for many disabled people to stand tall (except for people with rods in their back!) because of the way we’re treated. I’m thinking in terms of something like a disabled equivalent to gay pride. To use another example to make the point (because people are dimwitted enough to say it about sexuality), when it comes to something like race, nobody is dimwitted enough to suggest that it’s within the power of the individual to change it or that they should try to do so. The same thing can’t be said of disability. There are plenty of people calling disabled people lazy, workshy etc. I’ve been subjected to that kind of thing in the workplace, including the accusation that I’m making a lifestyle choice. It can be hard when the reality is that you simply aren’t as productive in terms of hours worked than the next person not to feel criticism is deserved. Even after counselling, after the accusations being made against me got too much, I still felt ashamed of what I couldn’t do. My clinic visits helped. It’s awful to say it but knowing other people are treated just as badly helps when you’re being bullied into feelings of inadequacy. The Paralympics were genuinely a turning point for me though. The Paralympics weren’t political but they did say, of athletes and supporters, we’re people too. We have hopes and ambitions, we work at least as hard as anyone else and we deserve to be proud. Some people seemed at the time to have heard the message but it seems as if they forgot it pretty quickly and haven’t been ‘inspired’ to do more than pay lip service to it.

The fact that the PIP reforms rolled onwards with very little opposition from the able bodied majority in the UK speaks volumes. Athletes aren’t normally considered political but the very same Paralympians who had, supposedly, so inspired able bodied people last year were about to be hit by the reforms too when Channel 4’s Dispatches about how PIP will affect Paralympians aired. I thought was a good idea but in the end I wasn’t convinced by it. More than once it was said that disabled people accept there have to be cuts. I can understand that the show’s makers may have wanted to emphasise that disabled people aren’t asking for much but that goes against the rest of the show’s (entirely correct) premise. The Government states it’s primary aim is to improve disabled people’s independence and enable them to work. As the show itself made clear, PIP won’t achieve that. The Government is not simply making a small cut to payments (which I honestly don’t think claimants should find acceptable). It’s taking them off the benefit entirely or moving them to a lower band. This was said in Dispatches but if I didn’t already know this, the references to accepting cuts could muddy the water. Ultimately I doubt this was what failed to change public opinion though, and the fact that Paralympians became involved in the debate and tried to explain the purpose of DLA doesn’t seem to have changed public attitudes at all. So much for inspiration.

I might have been inspired by the Paralympics but there is very little in public life today to suggest able bodied people have been in any meaningful way.

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