Looking back at the Paralympics: a very personal story

December 19, 2012 at 9:12 am (Disability, humanism, sport)

Will the Paralympics have a lasting effect? Will 2012 turn out to have been a decisive year in changing perceptions of disabled people?

From behind Murdoch’s paywall: a rather moving  and very honest piece by Matthew Syed from The Times of September 8 2012:

My cousin Zoobi – and a million other human stories

First we saw freaks; then they were just pure athletes

Zoobi, my cousin, is a dwarf. She came to live with us in the summer of 1982 from her home town in Karachi: a brown-skinned, short-limbed 14-year-old in the heart of suburban Reading. Her family wanted her to broaden her horizons, to benefit from a British education. My parents, who have always believed in the extended family, welcomed her with open arms.

I look back on those years with considerable guilt. I was a year younger than Zoobi and I knew my father hoped that I would warm to my cousin. He hoped that she would go out on bike rides and shopping trips with me and my friends. He thought that if I accepted her without inhibition, others would, too. And he hoped that this would do wonders for her self-esteem and self-image.

But I didn’t accept her. I listened to my dad telling me to be kind and friendly, and I nodded dutifully. But it didn’t change anything. She was just too different. I could see people peering at her when she left our house, examining her curiously long body and stumpy limbs. They would point and giggle. When I was with her they stared at me too. I worried that they would think there was something wrong with all of us. The problem wasn’t Zoobi’s character, which was (and is) generous, wise and compassionate. It was that she was — how can I put this? — too different.

Perhaps all forms of human insularity emerge from tnhis sense of otherness. I imagine that my callow feelings of resentment resembled those of British people in the 1940’s, when the first wave of West Indian immigrants arrived on these shores. Black skin was pretty much unprecedented back then and it was common to stare, point and giggle. It was also common to resent. They are just too different. Too unfamiliar.

In the case of disability, this sense of unfamiliarity has been bplstered by a particular and sinister form of ghettoisation. The ghettos have not been geographical, as they often are with race, but institutional and moral. The locking up of the mentally ill in the 19th century was merely one manifestation of a society that for decades attempted to airbrush disability from view. The inaccessibility of transport, pavements, shops and buildings effectively excluded wheelchair users from the public world. The disabled were not merely unfamiliar; they were pretty much invisible.

Things have got better, of course, in recent decades. The disability rights movement may not have the media profile or resonance of, say, the civil rights movement, but it has been quite effective. Anti-discrimination legislation, greater access to public spaces and an extended understanding of equal rights have all changed lives. But progress has been slow. The sense of unfamiliarity, of otherness, remains. A sense that their world is not quite our world.

And it is in that sense that the Paralympics has been a game changer. If we are honest, many of us started watching these Games with a smidgeon of discomfort. Alongside the curiosity was an elevated sense of the grotesque.

The spectacle of athletes dragging themselves along the floor to the edge of the pool, or rolling around on the floor in the volleyball: all these were jarring for a simple reason. We are not used to staring at disabled bodies and their banal-herioc challenges.

Eleven days on and things have changed quite dramatically. We should always resist the temptation to claim more for sport than it deserves. But this time sport has been transformational. The perceptual distortion gradually subsided, then disappeared altogether. We are no longer watching a group of outsiders trying to play an eccentric form of sport.  Rather, we are watching sport. We are no longer watching stereotypes, with embarrassment or condescention, but real people. People with hopes and dreams and moral weaknesses. The sense of otherness has been destroyed by the narrative force of their human journeys.

Ellie Simmonds has had a particular effect on me. Simmonds is a dwarf with a sparkling personality, a megawatt smile and an outstanding ability to swim fast. She has wowed us with her brilliance, but also with her charm, her ambition and her elation at winning gold medals. We have become familiar with her story and, as a result, have come to see her not as a token — not an example of a medical condition — but as a person.

And I suspect that if a dwarf were to move into suburban Reading today the response would be radically different. She would not have to endure the pointing and the insularity. She would not have people shunning her because of her physical shape any more than a black person would be shunned for the colour of her skin.

And she would not have the indignity of a cousin turning his back on her out of distaste and social embarrassment.

Above: Ellie Simmonds

1 Comment

  1. Robin Carmody said,

    The sad thing to me is that the Olympics and Paralympics already feel like a ghost, a brief moment of wonder that nonetheless left no real legacy and changed nothing. Everything it might have benefited is being cut back (see back page of Wednesday’s Grauniad), football has charged back in an even nastier and tawdrier and cheaper form. Neoliberalism seems already to have overpowered and eroded the ground gained in those weeks. Maybe I’m wrong, but I fear I’m right, and I wish I wasn’t.

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