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

Savvy Media Ltd: Media Sales executive - Crawley

£25k + commission + benefits: Savvy Media Ltd: Find a job you love and never h...

Austen Lloyd: Corporate Solicitor NQ+ Oxford

Excellent Salary: Austen Lloyd: CORPORATE - Corporate Solicitor NQ+ An excelle...

Reach Volunteering: Financial Trustee and Company Secretary

Voluntary Only - Expenses Reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: A trustee (company d...

Recruitment Genius: Senior Project Manager

£45000 - £65000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is a fantastic opportunity...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Muslim men pray at the East London Mosque  

Sadly, it needs to be said again: being a Muslim is not a crime

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
In a world of Saudi bullying, right-wing Israeli ministers and the twilight of Obama, Iran is looking like a possible policeman of the Gulf

Iran is shifting from pariah to possible future policeman of the Gulf

Robert Fisk on our crisis with Iran
The young are the new poor: A third of young people pushed into poverty

The young are the new poor

Sharp increase in the number of under-25s living in poverty
Greens on the march: ‘We could be on the edge of something very big’

Greens on the march

‘We could be on the edge of something very big’
Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby - through the stories of his accusers

Revealed: the case against Bill Cosby

Through the stories of his accusers
Why are words like 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?

The Meaning of Mongol

Why are the words 'mongol' and 'mongoloid' still bandied about as insults?
Mau Mau uprising: Kenyans still waiting for justice join class action over Britain's role in the emergency

Kenyans still waiting for justice over Mau Mau uprising

Thousands join class action over Britain's role in the emergency
Isis in Iraq: The trauma of the last six months has overwhelmed the remaining Christians in the country

The last Christians in Iraq

After 2,000 years, a community will try anything – including pretending to convert to Islam – to avoid losing everything, says Patrick Cockburn
Black Friday: Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Helpful discounts for Christmas shoppers, or cynical marketing by desperate retailers?

Britain braced for Black Friday
Bill Cosby's persona goes from America's dad to date-rape drugs

From America's dad to date-rape drugs

Stories of Bill Cosby's alleged sexual assaults may have circulated widely in Hollywood, but they came as a shock to fans, says Rupert Cornwell
Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

Clare Balding: 'Women's sport is kicking off at last'

As fans flock to see England women's Wembley debut against Germany, the TV presenter on an exciting 'sea change'
Oh come, all ye multi-faithful: The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?

Oh come, all ye multi-faithful

The Christmas jumper is in fashion, but should you wear your religion on your sleeve?
Dr Charles Heatley: The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

The GP off to do battle in the war against Ebola

Dr Charles Heatley on joining the NHS volunteers' team bound for Sierra Leone
Flogging vlogging: First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books

Flogging vlogging

First video bloggers conquered YouTube. Now they want us to buy their books
Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show: US channels wage comedy star wars

Saturday Night Live vs The Daily Show

US channels wage comedy star wars
When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine? When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible

When is a wine made in Piedmont not a Piemonte wine?

When EU rules make Italian vineyards invisible