The Paralympics Did Inspire Me But Not In The Way You Might Think

02/10/2016 21:00
YASUYOSHI CHIBA via Getty Images

Just over a week after the fireworks of the Closing Ceremony brought the Rio 2016 Games to a close, I find myself in the midst of what I can only describe as post-Paralympic summer blues. All I've talked and tweeted about for the last month or so is gold medals, world records, and The Last Leg. With all of that celebration, anyone would think I'd won a medal myself. (In my dreams, I suppose...)

Of course, as was the case in London 2012, the Paralympics in Rio cause some controversy and heated discussions this year. Within the sports, allegations of doping and manipulation of classification systems have been rife. In the disabled community, some argue that disabled people shouldn't be labelled "inspirational" simply because they have an impairment, and that using Paralympic athletes as fodder for "inspiration porn" is both condescending and ableist. Others say that events such as the Paralympics create an unattainable expectation that anyone with a disability can overcome theirs with a bit of hard work and sweat - as if the physical realities of an impairment were a mere tiny hindrance.

Now, I'm not saying that I disagree with any of these criticisms. There was a big part of me that got frustrated whenever I saw or heard anyone in the mainstream media, particularly able-bodied commentators, focusing on the "inspirational" backstory of an athlete before talking about their sporting achievements. And when the viral news story of the four T12/13 visually impaired athletes running the 1,500m faster than the equivalent medalists in the Olympic event started popping up on my social media feeds, I braced myself for the patronising deluge of "wow this is so inspiring!!" comments from people who used to (and will probably continue to) consider the Paralympics as a token gesture for disabled people to join in with once every few years.

But for me, as a person with a disability I've had since birth, having the opportunity to watch the Paralympics means so much more to me than just being an "inspiration" in the most sentimental of senses.

Growing up largely in the able-bodied world, it was very rarely (if at all) that I saw disability in the public eye. Those few examples that were mentioned in the news or featured in television shows or movies seemed to be created solely to inspire a largely able-bodied audience. They either touted a saccharine message about "overcoming adversity", or aimed to elicit pity and sympathy, with the underlying moral suggesting, "surely your life can't be as bad as this!"

Obviously, as an impressionable child, this had a huge impact on my perceptions of disability. With nothing on which to base my own self-image of my body and my disability, I always imagined myself in my mind's eye as being able-bodied. I could stand tall (well, 4 feet and a bit) without my scoliosis affecting my posture or my kyphosis giving me a hunchback. I had four straight, un-bent and fully mobile limbs, and a body that could run, jump and generally just move around perfectly well.

Disability was always seen as a negative. It was a "problem" - that was the word we used in my house to talk about my impairment - that I just had to learn how to deal with. While I wouldn't say that it held me back, it definitely limited what I could do. I'd been told that I wouldn't be able to do things because of my disability for so long, that eventually I began to internalise that "can't do" mentality.

It wasn't until I was an adult and left my protective childhood bubble that I really began to realise how different my body was from most other people. Over time I went through the often painful process of rebuilding myself mentally, a process that still seemed so difficult when society's perceptions of me and my body hadn't really shifted much further forward.

But that big seismic moment of change, that moment that completely shattered my own ideas of disability and what a "disabled" body could do - for me, that came in London 2012 with the Paralympic Games.

I had the opportunity to go to the Opening Ceremony and four days of events in the Olympic Park, including wheelchair basketball, swimming, athletics. It was only five days in the Park in person, but virtually everyday on the television at home. And I loved every minute of it. Walking into each venue and seeing these events in person, was the first time that I found myself in a place surrounded with people like me - people with disabilities.

I could walk around and not feel like people were staring at the way I was walking, or the fact that sometimes I used a wheelchair. I could just be me. And here we weren't being sidelined, and we weren't just being tolerated. We were celebrated.

A lot of people took issue with the slogan "Meet the Superhumans" that was used to advertise the Paralympics in London; I enjoyed the fact that it gave me a new mindset to consider disability, especially my own, and that other people seemed so much more welcoming of disability. That feeling of acceptance, of a sense of belonging that I'd never really felt before anywhere else, is something that will always stay with me.

The Paralympics, along with all other sporting events for athletes with impairments, plays a hugely important role in influencing both the current and future generations' conceptions of disability. Given that substantial media coverage exists (which isn't always a given), the Games and its athletes have an incredible opportunity to reach millions of young people with disabilities, as well as those recently affected by impairment. By breaking through their own glass ceiling and fighting their way into the public eye, they are able to have a significant impact (far more than I think they could have ever imagined) on the disabled public's perceptions, beliefs, and confidence in themselves.

It baffles me, then, that Paralympic sport continues to be snubbed. They receive so little attention, media coverage and funding, especially when Olympians easily receive infinitely more airtime, money and adoration from the public for doing the exact same job. Newspapers don't splash their front pages with Paralympic medal successes, even though less than a month ago you couldn't escape Olympic fever.

Athletes have also been critical of the fact that television cameras celebrate Paralympic successes on the track, but practically disappear when the para-sport world championships and other events roll around. Not only does this lack of coverage show how deeply ingrained into society ableism is, but it also does a great disservice to the efforts of thousands of athletes. Their feats of sporting prowess should be celebrated, regardless of what society believes they're supposedly "lacking". If anything, the Paralympics deserves more glory for its efforts to challenge and breakdown the inherent ableism that has become so entrenched within our society.

It shouldn't have to take one huge event held every four years to have a conversation about the way we talk about disability. It shouldn't have to fall on the shoulders of the Paralympic Games to change people's opinions of disability. But we should take the opportunity, any opportunity, to talk and think about disability without being ableist. Avoiding disabling language like "suffers from" and wheelchair-bound", using person-first language, simply not talking about "inspiration" when it comes to disability - these are all simple ways that we can challenge ableism. Perhaps then we'll be in a position to better consider the systemic barriers that disabled people face every day.

While I'll probably always grumble about the inequalities between the Olympic and Paralympic Games, I can't deny that the Paralympics have personally had a huge impact in my life, both on me and the people around me. I haven't started magically believing that I could run a 100-metre dash in 10 seconds, but I'm definitely more confident in myself, my own physical capabilities, and my ability to talk about my own disability. It's no longer something that I avoid talking about, or hide for fear of people's judgments.

Maybe because of that, my family don't tiptoe around the subject line they used to. And I love the fact that I can talk about Jonnie Peacock and Liam Malone winning gold medals with my friends (who actually know who Peacock and Malone are) in the same way that people talk about the football - there's no mention of disability, just amazing sport.

So I guess you could say the Paralympics inspired me, but not in the way you think.

They inspired me to celebrate my disability for its diversity.

They inspired me to think about disability as "this-ability", and to not necessarily think about my body's physical and sporting potential, but to appreciate the abilities it does have.

They made me realise that having an impairment isn't necessarily a bad thing - and that there are people out there, able-bodied and disabled, that believe that too.

They inspired me to feel comfortable in my own body, and to not feel alone in being who I am.

They made me proud to be disabled.

Mathy Selvakumaran is a member of Trailblazers, Muscular Dystrophy UK's network of young disabled campaigners who campaign to remove the barriers that prevent them from leading full and independent lives. Their recent report Move the Goal Posts highlights the lack of access to sports venues.