Capability Before Disability

Since early last year the news headlines have mostly consisted of Covid…Covid….and more Covid. There hasn’t been a lot of good news for quite some time, so when the Olympic Games started a few months ago I was quite relieved to have something else garner my attention. My poor covid fatigued brain really enjoyed having a break from all the bad news and something to inspire a little excitement. 

I am not a great follower of sport. I don’t follow any of the football codes. I might take an occasional interest in the tennis, but not enough to stay up to the wee hours of the morning. But I do love the Olympic and Commonwealth Games. It’s not so much about the glory of gold medals, although it is always nice to see our athletes on top of the podium. It is the spirit of the competition and the display of sportsmanship and occasionally, sheer grit and determination, that I enjoy. I like to cheer on our athletes and I get excited when they do well, especially in the swimming relays. Mostly though, I really like the way we celebrate all our athletes achievements, whether they win a medal or not. All we can ever ask of anyone is that they do their best.

I know there was a bit of controversy over whether the Olympic Games should have gone ahead or not, but I am so glad they did. I think we all needed something to celebrate, something that could bring us all together, even if we were all watching from home. There were lots of moments to celebrate for us Aussies. As usual, there was the swimming and the rowing and the sailing.  I don’t know what it is about water. Perhaps it’s an island thing or all those swimming lessons that are a staple of an Australian childhood. Although I don’t remember my swimming teachers getting as excited about my swimming prowess as much as coach Dean Boxall. I thought his performance was pretty cool and very Australian. 

The two Olympic highlights that stand out for me are Peter Bol and Ash Maloney. Peter Bol didn’t win a medal, although he came close, but it is his story that makes his achievement so memorable to me. His family left war-torn Sudan for Egypt and then eventually arrived in Australia. In those early years, would Peter or his family have ever dreamed that one day he would be running in the Olympic Games? We can never know what kind of contribution migrants or refugees can make to our community until they are given a chance. Representing your country at the Olympics is a pipe dream for most of us, but every one of us, whether we are born here or somewhere else, can all make a valuable contribution. We don’t always have a good track record for accepting migrants and refugees in Australia, but Peter had some really wise words to say about inclusion:  

“Get to know the person, instead of the assumptions”

Peter Bol, The Guardian

The second highlight was Ash Maloney’s bronze medal in the decathlon. The decathlon is a strenuous event: ten events over two consecutive days. It is definitely not for the faint hearted. Ash Maloney’s bronze medal is Australia’s first medal in that event, but it is hard to know, though, which will be remembered most – Ash’s bronze medal or the selflessness of his training partner and friend, Cedric Dubler. In the last event, the 1500m track race, despite being injured, Cedric gave everything to get Ash over the line. First of all he ran in front to give Ash something to concentrate on, then he roared at Ash to get his butt moving and sprint to the finish line. After the race, Ash said, “I could feel his voice bouncing in my cranium like a bat out of hell.” Ash Maloney may well go on to win more medals in future Olympics, but I think that Cedric Dubler’s name will go down in sporting and Australian history for a truly memorable act of heart and mateship.   

I love watching the Olympics but I love the Paralympics even more. 

Image by Seth Kane – Unsplash

The Paralympics is about more than just sport. It is about showing people with disabilities living life and excelling at a high level. Starting in 1948, the Paralympics has grown to become one of the most watched international sporting events, alongside the Olympics. It is only since the Seoul Olympics in 1988 that the Paralympics has been held in the same host city as the Olympics but it has taken much, much longer to attract anywhere near the same kind of media attention. In previous years I can remember the hours of free to air television time devoted to the Olympics, but when it came to the Paralympics, it dwindled dramatically to 30 minutes of highlights. London 2012 and the superhumans campaign was the game changer.

In retrospect, we might question the perception of people with disabilities as superhuman. They are not superhuman. Yes, they can be inspirational, just as inspirational as other elite athletes, and yes they may have had more challenges in life – but how much of that is because we live in a society that is not designed and structured with disability in mind. However, London 2012 was instrumental in changing perceptions about disability. No longer were the Paralympians viewed simply as “disabled people,” but as elite athletes in their own right.

The Paralympian movement has continued to grow, going from strength to strength, but this year, Tokyo 2020, it received unprecedented media attention and free to air television coverage, like never before. It was just fantastic. There are so many memorable moments it is hard to know where to start: Murder Ball ( wheelchair rugby), Swimming (of course), Madi de Rozario’s marathon gold medal, Wheelchair Basketball, Cycling and Tennis. I loved being able to watch whole games of rugby and basketball and all the swimming heats, as well as the finals. For the first time, we could learn all the ins and outs of goalball, but there was one thing that has really struck home to me. 

Image by Lisa Keffer – Unsplash

Dan and I were watching some of the table tennis. Dan has never really been that interested in watching television, except for his favourite movies,  but I noticed that he was paying particularly close attention to one Australian table tennis player – Samuel Von Einem. It was really interesting because Samuel has autism. I have often suspected that Dan recognises when someone is on the spectrum. His closest mates from Yellow Bridge are mostly on the spectrum too. I don’t think anybody ever told Dan – he just knew. In the same way, he just seemed to know that Samuel had autism. Samuel was like him. It was probably the first time that Dan had ever seen someone like him playing sport on the television. Representation is so important because it helps to form positive and more accurate perceptions about disability. It is also a clear demonstration of participation, contribution and belonging in the wider community.

 It was also so good to see former Paralympians as hosts and reporters, and for the current Paralympians to become household names. As an Australian I was so proud of our Paralympians. They spoke so beautifully after their events and are fantastic role models for any child or person with a disability, for anybody actually, with or without a disability. For those of us who live or work within the disability community, this is not news to us, but if we wish to break down the barriers that exclude people with disabilities from employment, recreation and community opportunities, then it is vitally important for all Australians to see people with disabilities as they truly are – wonderfully human.

Visibility increases awareness, and awareness leads to change. The increasing high profile of the Paralympics is good for people with disabilities. These things have the opportunity to create a trickle down effect. The technology that goes into the development of the running blades can then be applied to ordinary prosthetic walking legs. Sporting programs for elite athletes with disabilities can lead to sporting programs and opportunities for every person with a disability, for a person like Dan. When we used to live out west, Dan participated in a Special Olympics gymnastic program run by the local gymnastics club. It was speared by one of the special education teacher-aides, who also taught gymnastics. Dan learned routines for all the same apparatus that is used in the Olympics – rings, high and parallel bars and so on. Sadly when we moved to Toowoomba I couldn’t find a similar opportunity. Access to sporting activities is quite hard outside the capital cities. The success of the Paralympic movement can change that. It can also lead to questions about what else people with disabilities could achieve – if they had the right support. 

“Our society is perpetuated into thinking that disability is a debilitating, horrible thing to go through…this is just not true in most cases”

Matthew Haanappel, ABC

For too long disability has been seen as something awful, something to be ignored or hidden away. For too long it has been seen as something debilitating that leads to a poor quality of life. For too long the focus has been on the disability rather than the ability of the person. Perhaps it is the fear factor. Disability can impact anyone from any class, nationality, gender or age. We don’t have to be born with a disability. We can acquire one through illness or accident. Any one of us could become a person with a disability in the future, if we are not already. You only have to look at the Paralympic teams to find plenty of examples of people who acquired a disability later in life and it was life changing. There is no doubt that some people are dealt some pretty tough cards in life, but it is how they have dealt with them that is more important. The Paralympics is important because it is a clear demonstration that there is life after disability and it can be great. Different, maybe, but equally great. As Australian para-cyclist Carol Cooke says, we need to see “capability before disability.”

There are 1.2 billion people in the world who are living with a disability. That’s about 15% of the world’s population. People with disabilities are the largest minority group in our society but they experience some of the most exclusion and marginalisation. They face significant barriers and discrimination getting into the workforce, and if they do, they are most likely to be in low-level positions. When was the last time you saw a company CEO with a disability? Dan used to do work experience in a supermarket when we lived out west. The staff thought he was fantastic. They said he did a better job than many of the other young workers who were paid to do the job. But so far, we haven’t been able to find any supermarket manager willing to give Dan a go. They don’t see what he can do. They just see a person with a disability. And so they miss out on having their shelves perfectly stacked. I hope that one day we will find someone who will see Dan’s capability, not his disability.

This is why the Paralympic movement is so important – it has the capacity to change perceptions about disability. It prompts some soul searching about the way people with disabilities are often treated and can be a driving force for changing the attitudes and structures that exclude people with disabilities from full participation in community life. 

We can already see the beginnings of change. In Australia we have had the roll-out of the NDIS, a significant and life changing undertaking. While it’s not perfect and I have my fair share of complaints about the workings of its bureaucracy, it has changed lives. We are seeing increased stories about disability in the media. There is increased representation of disability – still a way to go yet, but still… Tokyo 2020 has ramped it up another level with increased media attention. But one of the things that has been really encouraging, is the groundswell of support for our Paralympic team and the Australian Paralympic fundraiser where over $2 million dollars was raised through the purchase of virtual seats. Their initial goal was $500,000. This money goes to developing sporting programs and increasing access with specialised equipment, training and so on. It starts at the top and it filters down and it is so heartening to see the support. Maybe it was there all the time, and people just didn’t know, because it wasn’t visible.

So we bought some virtual seats too. It was just a small thing that we could do to show our support for the Paralympic movement in Australia and for people with disabilities. We were just happy to purchase our seats and watch the virtual stadiums fill. But I never expected what happened just a few weeks ago. A little warily I answered a call from an unfamiliar number and was blown away to discover it was one of the paralympians calling to say thank you. I never expected that. We were just happy to do our bit, but I had a lovely chat with Amber Merritt, from the Australian women’s wheelchair basketball team. I told her about Dan and she hoped he would have the opportunity to get involved in para sports too.  

The Tokyo 2020 Paralympics was also important for the launch of the WeThe15 campaign – a ten year international campaign to change attitudes, raise awareness, break down barriers and increase accessibility and participation for people with disabilities. It aims to be the biggest human rights movement for people with disabilities. The Paralympics puts the attention on elite para athletes, but as Australian sprinter Scott Reardon pointed out, not everybody with a disability is experiencing the same level of opportunity, support and participation as they are. WeThe15 aims to change that and make accessibility, opportunity and participation the norm.  I encourage everyone to check out the website, sign up for the newsletter, and be aware of the little things you can do to help this become a reality. 

It is my hope that one day all people with disabilities will be seen for their capabilities and not their disabilities.

“When disability becomes perfectly ordinary and normal, we are better as a society. When we accept and celebrate difference, not sound it out as something special, we will all receive dividends from it.”

Matthew Haanappel, ABC

3 thoughts on “Capability Before Disability

    • Thanks Gwen. Disability issues are always going to be close to my heart and it is one of those things where we never quite know what may be around the corner for us. I quite like the term “not yet disabled,” and if it were to happen to us or one of our loved ones, how would we like to continue living our lives. I really do hope we are on a roll for major change in the way disability is perceived and supported. Thanks for reading – I know it was a big one!

      Liked by 1 person

      • I was in a wheelchair for a week and it was confronting waiting at traffic lights, etc, being overwhelmed by others standing over me, and being dependent on people to push me around. Yet I have met several who have had life-changing accidents and have managed the transition with grace and dignity. I can imagine the adjustment they have had to make.

        Liked by 1 person

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