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

Volunteer Trustee opportunities now available at The Society for Experimental Biology

Unpaid Voluntary Position : Reach Volunteering: Volunteer your expertise as Tr...

Early Years Educator

£68 - £73 per day + Competitive rates of pay based on experience: Randstad Edu...

Nursery Nurse

£69 - £73 per day + Competitive London rates of pay: Randstad Education Group:...

Primary KS1 NQTs required in Lambeth

£117 - £157 per day + Competitive London rates: Randstad Education Group: * Pr...

Day In a Page

Read Next
A supporter of the Kurdistan Workers' Association holds a placard during a demonstration against Islamic State (IS) in front The Hague  

Nothing will stop Isis except a Syrian truce

Patrick Cockburn
The victory of the NO campaign was confirmed at 6.08am on Friday morning  

Scottish referendum: Partisan fallout, Gordon Brown's comeback and Elizabeth, the Queen of unity

Jane Merrick
Scottish referendum: The Yes vote was the love that dared speak its name, but it was not to be

Despite the result, this is the end of the status quo

Boyd Tonkin on the fall-out from the Scottish referendum
Manolo Blahnik: The high priest of heels talks flats, Englishness, and why he loves Mary Beard

Manolo Blahnik: Flats, Englishness, and Mary Beard

The shoe designer who has been dubbed 'the patron saint of the stiletto'
The Beatles biographer reveals exclusive original manuscripts of some of the best pop songs ever written

Scrambled eggs and LSD

Behind The Beatles' lyrics - thanks to Hunter Davis's original manuscript copies
'Normcore' fashion: Blending in is the new standing out in latest catwalk non-trend

'Normcore': Blending in is the new standing out

Just when fashion was in grave danger of running out of trends, it only went and invented the non-trend. Rebecca Gonsalves investigates
Dance’s new leading ladies fight back: How female vocalists are now writing their own hits

New leading ladies of dance fight back

How female vocalists are now writing their own hits
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam