Don't forget the word 'disability', but don't pity it either

The Paralympics offered a positive platform to disabled people, but it's the meaning attached to 'disability' that's the problem.

Share
Related Topics

No one can tell you what your life means. But in the case of a ‘disabled’ life, they try. It is a tragedy, they say. A life better described as an existence. One that sits in the corner as the quiet gratitude is uttered: thank God that isn’t me.

It could be said the Paralympics changed that, it could be hoped this is the legacy it left behind. One where disability is not pitied and ignorable, but strong and screaming to life.

There was a shift in perception as the athletes took to the centre, a shift that couldn’t be avoided. After all, there is no helplessness in elite competition or vulnerability in pain barriers being pushed for the win. There is no passivity in raging as four years of training crumbles before your eyes.

What was merely ‘existing’ became strangely like living. They – the ones who last month were the weakest – were suddenly the strongest, the fittest, the best.

It could be said that the term ‘disability’ is moot in light of this. Indeed, it was what Paralympic committee President Philip Craven said on the eve of the Games. We should, he argued, drop the word ‘disabled’ from coverage altogether. How could these athletes be viewed as anything other than ‘able’?

If the legacy of the Paralympics is to remove the word disabled, then it’s a legacy that has gone badly wrong. The problem is not the term ‘disabled’ but what, by those on the outside, it is said to mean. That ‘disabled’ is thought to be an unsuitable way to describe people displaying world class achievement points, not to progress, but the prejudice that remains: a person with a disability is not thought to be ‘able’.

The word ‘disability’ is not disabling. The meaning that’s attached to it is. That meaning that defines a person singly by one aspect, an aspect that is often said to be frail and tragic.

It is a view that is engrained to such a degree, it even plagued the Paralympians; those ‘superhumans’ said to have reached a level of ability that meant they should no longer be called disabled. They were said to be “suffering” from their disability – a word that conjures images of distress and misery. This, despite the gold medal of victory hanging around their neck.  

Simultaneously, Paralympians were heralded as escaping the term ‘disabled’ while being weighed down by the caricatures that go with it; the caricature that paints disability as a tragic trial that only the bravest can endure.

The word disability is not disabling. The meaning that's attached to it is.

It’s a weight that should not be underestimated, as a post-Paralympic climate scrambles to claim what we’ve learnt. The first lesson, it seems, must be re-defining disability to include ‘ability’.

This is a hard task to tackle, one ironically made harder by the Paralympic shadow. It means admitting, despite the best intentions, perhaps we’ve been getting this wrong. Perhaps we aren’t celebrating ‘disabled success’ if we have to view it as either overcoming tragedy, or cancelling out disability all together.

No one decided what it was to be disabled. But it’s time the question was asked. Before we applaud our new enlightened vision of disability, we should listen to the people having it prescribed to their lives and declaring it to be foreign. As any group used to be told what to think is aware, a life cannot be defined by those looking in but the one who is living it.

Those who live it know there is no benefit in being described as ‘suffering’, no compliment in the idea a part of you needs to be overcome. To see this definition of disability as society making progress will only entrench the problem, perpetuating the myth that disability and ability simply don’t go together.

The Paralympics neither showed us ‘suffering’ nor that success means a person is not disabled. 

It showed us people displaying ‘disabled ability’ were no less disabled for it. No Paralympian’s spinal injury or lack of vision disappeared as they crossed the winning line. They were simply achieving; achieving while being disabled.

If we hope to have learnt something from the Paralympics, this truth has to be it. Only when the word disability is seen as including ‘ability’ will society have understood what it means.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Project Coordinator/Order Entry, Security Cleared

£100 - £110 per day + competitive: Orgtel: Project Coordinator/Order Entry Ham...

Senior Digital Marketing Executive

£35000 - £45000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client based i...

Junior Developer- CSS, HMTL, Bootstrap

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading company within the healthcare ...

Junior Web Developer- CSS, HMTL

competitive: Progressive Recruitment: A leading company within the healthcare ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Prime Minister David Cameron walks on stage to speak at The Confederation of British Industry (CBI) annual conference on November 4, 2013  

Does Cameron really believe in 'British Values'?

Temi Ogunye
The Lada became a symbol of Russia’s failure to keep up with Western economies  

Our sanctions will not cripple Russia. It is doing a lot of the dirty work itself

Hamish McRae
Save the tiger: The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The animals bred for bones on China’s tiger farms

The big cats kept in captivity to perform for paying audiences and then, when dead, their bodies used to fortify wine
A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery all included in top 50 hidden spots in the UK

A former custard factory, a Midlands bog and a Leeds cemetery

Introducing the top 50 hidden spots in Britain
Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

Ebola epidemic: Plagued by fear

How a disease that has claimed fewer than 2,000 victims in its history has earned a place in the darkest corner of the public's imagination
Chris Pratt: From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

From 'Parks and Recreation' to 'Guardians of the Galaxy'

He was homeless in Hawaii when he got his big break. Now the comic actor Chris Pratt is Hollywood's new favourite action star
How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

How live cinema screenings can boost arts audiences

Broadcasting plays and exhibitions to cinemas is a sure-fire box office smash
Shipping container hotels: Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Pop-up hotels filling a niche

Spending the night in a shipping container doesn't sound appealing, but these mobile crash pads are popping up at the summer's biggest events
Native American headdresses are not fashion accessories

Feather dust-up

A Canadian festival has banned Native American headwear. Haven't we been here before?
Boris Johnson's war on diesel

Boris Johnson's war on diesel

11m cars here run on diesel. It's seen as a greener alternative to unleaded petrol. So why is London's mayor on a crusade against the black pump?
5 best waterproof cameras

Splash and flash: 5 best waterproof cameras

Don't let water stop you taking snaps with one of these machines that will take you from the sand to meters deep
Louis van Gaal interview: Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era

Louis van Gaal interview

Manchester United manager discusses tactics and rebuilding after the David Moyes era
Will Gore: The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series

Will Gore: Outside Edge

The goodwill shown by fans towards Alastair Cook will evaporate rapidly if India win the series
The children were playing in the street with toy guns. The air strikes were tragically real

The air strikes were tragically real

The children were playing in the street with toy guns
Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite – The British, as others see us

Britain as others see us

Boozy, ignorant, intolerant, but very polite
How did our legends really begin?

How did our legends really begin?

Applying the theory of evolution to the world's many mythologies
Watch out: Lambrusco is back on the menu

Lambrusco is back on the menu

Naff Seventies corner-shop staple is this year's Aperol Spritz