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The Paralympics truly all-conquering athletes

August 30, 2012 ·  ,


London’s Paralympics, starting next week, have the potential to serve as a watershed in the way society as a whole regards people with a disability. The competitors will be as fit and physically honed as any of their predecessors in the London Olympic Games. The physical and mental skills required to be a top-class wheelchair basketball player, for instance, are no less admirable and enviable, and no less hard to acquire, than in the traditional form of the sport.

Judging by the demand for tickets, that message seems to have been well received by the public at large. Athletes compete against each other, but also against their own limitations, and that will be as true in the forthcoming Games as the previous ones.

Though there is still prejudice and intolerance to be overcome, the public perception of disability has already changed considerably in the past few decades thanks to campaigns in Parliament led by people like the late pioneers Alf Morris and Jack Ashley. Morris steered through the 1970 Chronically Sick and Disabled Persons Act, the first of its kind in the world. This recognised that disabled people had the right to the same quality of life as everyone else and that any physical impediments that stood in their way that could be removed, should be.

This became known as the “social” model of disability, which saw disability as arising from the way the physical environment was well adapted to suit what was seen as “normal”, but poorly adapted for those whose physical capacities departed from those norms. They were, in short, the victims of discrimination consciously or unconsciously willed by society, not victims of disability per se.

Nevertheless, the alternative model of disability, sometimes called the medical model, does still have insights to offer. It is right, for instance, that research should continue into the repair of spinal injury where new treatments offer some prospect of improvement. But Paralympians know all about the treatment of injury, as their sporting activities are just as susceptible as any others to sprains, bruises, torn ligaments or worse. They also know all about using technology to enhance athletic performance. So to argue that there is a fundamental ideological conflict between the medical model and the social model, as some disabled rights campaigners have sometimes done, is to oversimplify a situation that needs to be more nuanced.

One of the problems is language itself. The phrase “differently abled” has never caught on as a substitute for “disabled”, but it conveys an important truth. Those with these different abilities should not be patronised as pitiable victims of some personal tragedy, but seen as simply representing an alternative – and by no means inferior – way of being physically human. They are entitled to respect for all their rights, including their right to take part in sports, due to their equal God-given human dignity.

Every person is incapacitated by personal limitations to some degree; and every athlete, in the Paralympics as much as in the Olympics, makes the maximum effort to overcome them. It is that which makes these events so moving and exciting, and why they have captured the public imagination.


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