‘The Paralympics Paradox’ – how it hurts disabled people

Is it allowed for someone to write a piece criticising the Paralympics? It seems like something that would annoy the neurotypicals. I sense pearl clutching in the near future.
That said, let’s begin anyway.

The Paralympics exist as some sort of sacred cow of inspirational disability appreciation. And I wouldn’t argue against the fact that Paralympians, incredible as they are in what they do, can be be a source of huge inspiration for individual disabled people and communities across the world.

However, when viewed through the able-bodied or neurotypical gaze, that ‘inspiration’ takes a darker, sometimes deadlier, turn.

Unlike with the ‘normal’ (see able-bodied, neurotypical) Olympics, where the athletes involved are rightly viewed as the best-of-the-best of what humanity has to offer (acknowledging that the majority of people will not be able to do what they do, and that is literally why we celebrate them), the Paralympics are held up as an example of what all disabled people ‘could’ achieve with a little bit of spunk and a can-do attitude.

And that distinction is a dangerous one.

When I heard that an autistic woman, Jessica Jane-Applegate, had won a(nother) medal in the 2016 Paralympics, my initial sense of excitement and swelling pride was soon overtaken by that horrible sinking feeling.

I was never going to represent my country in swimming, or indeed in any other sport, so what would the people hailing her an ‘inspiration’ think of me? What would I think of myself, as the message of ‘you can do anything!’ mixed with the knowledge that, actually, no I can’t? What if the momentary interest in autistic women stretched no further than a lump of metal around someone’s neck? Would the same people basking in the achievement of producing a medal-winning autistic athlete feel that same sense of warm affection if they saw me pressed against a wall to desperately trying to hold back a meltdown? Would these people stand beside her, or me, or any of us, as we took to our lanes in the most challenging tournament of all: fighting for the scraps of the support we deserve?

A guest on The Last Leg (a comedy chat show hosted by two disabled people and their token non-disabled person) once said that they felt that disability assessments for support had become harder as a result of the success of the London 2012 Paralympics (I have searched for this clip, to no avail – if anyone has it, please let me know). Because why the hell should they believe that we need help that desperately when they’ve just seen a man with no legs run 100m in ten seconds?

This is particularly prescient in an age where cuts to support for disabled people are being justified by shifting the goalposts of ‘need’ – fuelling an increasing sense that disabled people are just held back by a bad attitude, and that their need for support is actually just a lack of willingness to ‘pull themselves up by the bootstraps’. In fact, bolstered by these messages,trickling down from official heights in order to excuse government sanctioned cuts, hate crimes against disabled people have been on the rise in the UK.

The unfortunate truth is that the kind of ‘inspiration porn’ found in the coverage of something like the Paralympics is used to further hurt and oppress disabled people.

It’s this kind of attitude that led to my stepmum being denied the mobility components of her disability benefit (they measured the width of her thigh and decided she could walk further she said she could.) It’s this kind of attitude that leads to people reporting their disability-support-receiving neighbour because they saw them stand up once and decided that that means they aren’t as disabled as they think they are. It’s this kind of attitude that leads to disabled people losing their lives at a rate which we should be ashamed of as a country.

During the 2012 Paralympics in London, people hailed the immense interest from the general population (greater than any that had been seen in the past) as a turning point for the acceptance of disabled people in our society. And yet, merely a few years later, the treatment of disabled people in this country was being investigated as a crime against international human rights laws.

The popularity of the Paralympics does not correlate to the acceptance or understanding of disabled people. In any way.

Paralympians still have to urinate on themselves on trains due to a lack of accessible toilets.  One aspiring Paralympian had her chances of making the team slashed because cuts to her disability benefits mean her car – her only means of transport – was taken away:

Tait says when she was called for her PIP interview she was sure she would still qualify for her car. “[I thought,] I’m going to my assessment in a wheelchair. What more evidence do they need?” But within a few minutes of the test, Tait says she began to feel the examiner wasn’t there to support her but rather “to catch me out”. This only increased, she says, when she told him she was training for the Paralympics. “He alluded to the fact someone like me – who can go wheelchair racing – shouldn’t get the same support as someone who can’t … It was like ‘you can do sport, you don’t need help,’” she recalls.

– The Guardian, April 2016

In fact, I often feel that able-bodied, neurotypical people watch the Paralympics to feel good about themselves. Both to get the teary-eyed sense of ‘supporting the inspirational disabled people’ and to use those same ‘inspirational disabled people’ as justification for their bigoted, outdated treatment of the disabled populace.

Because let’s be honest – the majority of disabled people probably won’t be able to reach those heights. And that’s okay.

The definition of success should not be measured on a non-disabled playing field. I have not failed because I may never live independently. Another person has not failed because the communicate using sign language rather than spoken word or lip-reading. Another person has not failed because they rely on other people to move around. We haven’t failed because we accept that our physical or neurological differences are a part of who we are and affect almost everything we do.

The Paralympics shines a spotlight on no doubt talented and wonderful people – but they are people who have ‘overcome’ their ‘challenges’ in a way that non-disabled people deem acceptable.

And in the fallout of the Paralympics, people surge forward, encouraging disabled people into sport clubs, arms wide with their newly found knowledge that ‘disabled people can do it, disabled people can do anything, disabled people are so inspirational’. But, as the months drag on, those same disabled people don’t become the next Johnny Peacock, and instead people realise once again that disabled people need more than just a matching sport and some good old fashioned self-improvement.

We need support. We need investment. We need adjustment.

And that’s a lot more inconvenient for the majority of people to give.

So, instead, they cling to their Paralympian dreams, wrapping themselves in the reassuring knowledge that the disabled people who don’t meet their expectations are lacking: lacking in fortitude rather than funds, and in spunk rather than support. They watch silently as our vital supports are ripped from us, as our budgets are shrunken, and our health and dignity are chipped away. They tell themselves it’s a sacrifice that must be made, that disabled people shouldn’t get special treatment, that maybe we could avoid this if we stopped slouching around feeling sorry for ourselves.

And then around the next Games come, with their reassuring ‘proof’ that disabled people can do everything that abled people can if they try hard enough.

It’s a cycle that is killing disabled people. And I wont allow you to get your feel-good fix out of me and my disabled siblings.

We won’t pat your hand, beaming up at you in gratitude, because you, benevolent and charitable Supporter Of Poor Disabled People, declare that you ‘enjoyed the Paralympics more than the Olympics’.

We are not here to buoy you up with our societally sanctioned successes, whilst distracting you from the exhausting, expensive, frustrating messiness of existing in this world as a disabled person

We have not fought to live good and beautiful lives by our own measures of success, only for our deaths to be framed as a beautiful ‘liberation’ (looking at you, art-of-Stephen-Hawking-walking-away-from-his-wheelchair)

We may not all be Paralympians. But we are all worthy of your respect, deserving of your support, and demanding to be heard. Especially when the last notes of the closing ceremony have petered out.

Author: QueerlyAutistic
Erin Ekins is a queer autistic writer, speaker and attempter of activism. She has an interest in all areas of autistic social justice, but has a particular passion for improving understanding and acceptance of the intersection of autism and queerness. She runs the blog queerlyautistic.com and is the author of the upcoming book 'Queerly Autistic: The Ultimate Guide for LGBTQIA+ Teens on the Spectrum'. By day, she works in campaigning and influencing at a disability related charity, but, by night, she is inhabits a busy space between angry internet person and overly-excited fangirl.

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