This July and August have been a summer of sport in the UK, with the Commonwealth Games in Glasgow followed by the European Athletics Championships in Swansea. The Glasgow games in particular received a lot of media coverage and a lot has been made of the fact that (unlike other sporting events which host ‘parallel’ events for disabled athletes) the Commonwealth Games integrates disabled and non-disabled events into a single tournament.
Coverage of these games has rekindled talk of the ‘Paralympic legacy’, a phrase in common usage during London 2012. The London Paralympics were predicted to herald a new era for disabled people in this country, validating them as equal and valuable members of society and fostering greater respect for their achievements.
While the Paralympics may have had some success in raising the profile of disabled sports, experiences of many disabled people since then – welfare cuts, increased hate crime and the proliferation of scrounger/skiver rhetoric – reveal a very different story. If anything, the London Games have caused public perceptions of disability to become even more polarised. While ‘superhuman’ Paralympians are praised for their skill and fortitude, the majority of disabled people are viewed as a drain on our economy, at times even labelled lazy, malingering fraudsters. As I recently heard someone comment: if a swimmer with no arms can break a world record, what excuse do other disabled people have for staying home and claiming benefits?
This attitude has been particularly damaging for people with invisible conditions like ME, rheumatoid arthritis, fibromyalgia or Crohn’s disease which have few outward symptoms to indicate disability. Yet each of these conditions can be catastrophically debilitating, often more so than many more obvious disabilities: a healthy wheelchair user (with access to suitable transport and correct mobility aids) can generally work, travel and enjoy an active social life, but invisible chronic illness may prevent an individual from doing any of these.
Thus by raising the benchmark of what disabled people are expected to achieve, the Paralympics may inadvertently have increased the stigma directed towards those whose limitations may not be immediately obvious.
Periodically, the media shares inspirational stories of people who overcome the obstacles of disability to achieve incredible success. Such stories invariably feature the tagline, ‘it just goes to show that disabled people are capable of anything they put their minds to’. However admirable the sentiment, as someone living with a chronic illness, every time I encounter those words it feels like something inside of me dies. Because there are a million things that I’d love to do despite my disability, and if determination or positive thinking were enough to make that happen, it would be my face you’d be viewing on the national news.
I’ve lost count of the number of times a neighbour, friend or carer has cheerily suggested that I write the next best-seller, earn a PhD, establish my own business or join a wheelchair basketball team having seen other disabled people featured for these on the news. And while it’s great that the achievements of high achieving individuals (disabled or otherwise) are recognised in the media, the varying nature of disability means that not every disabled person can be held to the same expectations.
This is no reflection on their determination or individual character however; it simply means that their particular disability limits them in ways that makes their daily achievements seem small and unremarkable to healthy individuals.
As some one who lives with severe ME, I depend on a wheelchair not simply because I cannot walk but for the same reasons a chemotherapy recipient or pneumonia patient might require a wheelchair: Because I’m sick. Incredibly so. And no matter how much I aspire to work, play sport, or lead a ‘normal’ life like other disabled people, the nature and severity of my symptoms mean that at the current time that simply isn’t possible. No amount of determination or positive thinking can imminently change that fact.
Yet, other than the wheelchair, there are no outward signs of anything wrong with me, so people frequently assume I should be capable of the same recreational and vocational pursuits enjoyed by healthy disabled people, mistaking my failure to do these things as a matter of personal choice and lack of motivation.
While not wanting to sound defeatist, or dismiss the achievements of Paralympic athletes, it is highly unrealistic to set ‘Paralympic heroes’ as the benchmark for disabled achievement. If I loaned my wheelchair to a healthy, sport-loving neighbour, would they be expected to beat David Weir in a marathon? Could they outswim Ellie Simmonds or outrun Jonnie Peacock? I very much doubt it. If most able-bodied people couldn’t match a Paralympian, why would the majority of disabled individuals be any different?
While it’s true that many disabled people display incredible capabilities, and no disabled person should be avoidably held back from achieving all that they are capable of, the implication of suggesting that all disabled people can do anything they put their minds too, is that those who don’t achieve greatness simply aren’t trying hard enough. This is a very damaging message for people living with chronic illness, for whom just making it through the day can sometimes be a major accomplishment.
When living with disability, the greatness of our achievements often bears very little relation to the effort we put into them. For someone with depression, ‘just’ getting out of bed in a morning may take superhuman effort. For someone with Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome, ‘just’ walking to the corner shop might show greater fortitude than another person’s marathon. And for someone who is bedridden, ‘just’ summoning a smile for their carers in the midst of their own unimaginable suffering, might be an act of genuine selfless courage.
So let’s celebrate the extraordinary, ordinary achievements of thousands of everyday heroes, unacknowledged and unnoticed in hospitals and homes all over this country. Because their accomplishments might never be considered newsworthy, but they’re certainly praiseworthy. Achievement comes in many forms and the daily efforts of many people in the face of gruelling chronic illness can put even Olympic champions to shame.