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Tuesday, 10 July 2012

How not to welcome the Olympic Flame

Torchbearer 133 Malcolm Fretter carrying the Olympic Flame on the Torch Relay leg through Oxford. Credit: Danny Lawson/LOCOG/PA Wire

On 6th July 2005 I was sitting on the floor of a rented house in Oxford. I was holding my seven-month-old baby boy in my arms, watching a live announcement on TV and explaining to him why it was such great news that the 2012 Olympic Games would be held in London. I spoke a message of hope, equality and peace into his tiny ear.

Yesterday I took my boy, now an exuberant seven-year-old, to greet the Olympic Flame as it arrived in Oxford. We cheered and clapped as it reached the stage in South Park. But this truly once-in-a-lifetime moment was spoilt for me even before I managed to catch a glimpse of the flame. It wasn't the mass of promotional material for a soft drinks company, a bank and a mobile phone manufacturer that spoiled it (although that certainly did not help), it was one sentence of the welcome speech delivered by the Leader of Oxford City Council just before the flame arrived.

The torch was carried into South Park by sports coach Malcolm Fretter. As he introduced him, Bob Price said something along the lines of, 'Malcolm is in a wheelchair, but has made a huge contribution to sport in Wantage'. The problem with this sentence is the word 'but'. It seems such a small and insignificant word. Yet it conveys a deeply troubling message. The assumption behind this sentnece is that Malcolm is an inspirational coach and community leader because he does his work from his wheelchair. Every day he struggles to overcome the adversity that is his disability, every day he fights, and wins, a battle against his impaired body.

This assumption posits disability as something negative which has to be overcome, triumphed over, defeated. It sets up a hierarchy between the able-bodied and the disabled in which the disabled are second-class, always struggling to do things that the able-bodied take for granted. It implies that we would be better off without disability altogether.  It suggests that disabled people who manage to live a 'normal' life are heroes who should be celebrated for their bravery and tenacity.

I have absolutely no doubt that Malcolm has done great work in his community. And I'm sure that being in a wheelchair must be annoying, frustrating and inconvenient at times. I have no wish to denigrate him or his achievements. What I object to is the persistent assumption, by most people, that disability is a hardship, something that we would be better off without. How do you think that makes the permanently disabled feel? Every time someone makes this kind of assumption, especially in public, in front of a 20,000 strong crowd, the negative image that disability has is strengthened. And the disabled become less integrated, more marginalised.

What if we looked again at disability? How might seeing disability in a positive light be better for both the disabled and the able-bodied? It would remind us that bodies come in all shapes and sizes. It would show us that no-one is perfect: some people's imperfections are more visible than others, but everyone has a weakness. And that is fine. It would allow everyone to be happy with their own body, valuing rather than either hating or denying its particular limitations. And it would remind us that surface appearance can be deceptive, that our most interesting and significant characteristics aren't always visible to the naked eye.

I am taking my seven-year-old boy to the Paralympics in September. I want to try and counter the negative images of disability that he is constantly bombarded with despite my very best efforts. Perhaps Bob Price should try and get hold of some tickets. I hear they haven't quite sold out yet.

** UPDATE **
I sent Councillor Bob Price a link to my blog and a letter objecting to his choice of words. I received the following reply which he has given me permission to post on this blog. I post it unchanged and without comment:

Dear Dr Thompson

I am truly sorry if my use of that particular construction has given rise in your, or anyone's mind, to that negative interpretation.

It was not a carefully constructed speech, having been asked to do it only two hours earlier. And in the two minutes max that was allotted I was seeking to to hold up Mr Fetter as one of the 8000 'local heroes' ,as someone who had continued to work very extensively with sports and community groups despite the limitations deriving from his illness.The 'but' was intended to denote admiration and worth.

Thank you for your consideration in drawing this to my attention. I will be more careful in future.

Good wishes

Councillor Bob Price
Hinksey Park Ward
Leader of the Council

1 comment:

  1. Heather, I too hate that general assumption that we, who have "disabilities" are somehow less than, or that we struggle harder to achieve the same thing that someone without physical limitations does. The fact is, in my own opinion, everyone has some sort of "disability" when compared to others. OK, so I see less than people with good vision. But there are some people that are less capable of calculating complex equations without tools, such as calculators, to help them. Does that make them disabled? Some are unable to construct sentences without grammatical and/or technical errors. Does that make them disabled? And some are unable to empathize or express concern for anyone outside of themselves. Maybe that makes them disabled. We all struggle to overcome things. But we all also have strengths that set us apart. I hate this segregation of abled and disabled, but I guess it is just another one of those human coping mechanisms that allows some to feel better about their own shortcomings by somehow determining that at least they aren't "disabled".