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Wednesday, 12 September 2012

Superhumans at the Wellcome Collection

Lord Sebastian Coe was right when he said that the success of the London 2012 Paralympic Games means 'we will never think of disability the same way'. Outmoded notions of 'normality', 'beauty' and 'perfection' have been shattered, or at least called into question, by the sheer diversity of the elite bodies competing during the Games.

Oscar Pistorius's Blades
Shaun Botterill, Getty Images

The controversy over the 'Cheetah' blades used by T 44 sprinters Pistorius and Oliveira at the Paralympics brought the issue of 'normality' to prime-time television. The prosthetic running legs used by these athletes are designed for their optimum performance. Unlike early prosthetics - such as those produced for the Thalidomide children in the sixties - Pistorius's legs do not try to blend in or 'pass' as actual legs. They privilege functionality over 'normality', announcing rather than hiding Pistorius's difference from the 'norm'. As such they force us to question why we hold the 'norm' in such high regard. Why should disabled people feel compelled to hide their differences behind artificial replicas of a perfect body part? Why shouldn't a children's television presenter have one arm? Why would contact lenses be used for cosmetic reasons to hide a deformed eye?

The Superhuman show at the Wellcome Collection demonstrates that human beings (both able-bodied and disabled) have been enhancing their bodies for thousands of years. In a provocative exhibition which includes a bronze statue of Icarus, an iphone, packs of Viagra, false teeth, eyes and noses, films about cosmetic surgery and details of how Thalidomide children refused clunky prosthetics in favour of their stumps, we are asked to rethink the ethics of enhancement and the reasons why we feel the need to strive towards a bodily perfection which rarely, if ever, exists in nature.

Superhuman is on at the Wellcome Collection, 183 Euston Road, London until 16 October 2012.

Thursday, 6 September 2012

La Ligne Droite

Régis Wargnier's 2011 film La Ligne droite is a thoughtful and sensitive portrayal of how young athlete Yannick (Cyril Descours) learns to run with a guide after losing his sight in a car accident.
It is extremely rare to find positive responses to blindness in film. As my comments on Amélie and Les Amants du Pont Neuf demonstrate, blind characters are most often portrayed as victims to be pitied, looked-after and eventually saved.
In this film, Yannick's over-protective mother embodies the patronising attitude illustrated in Jeunet's and Carax's depictions. She treats Yannick like a sick child, denying him any autonomy and refusing to let him take responsibility for his own actions. More despicably still, she uses his blindness to trick him into unknowingly becoming complicit in her kindnesses: in one scene she lies about the dice he has thrown so that he can win the game they are playing; in another she secretly pays a prostitute to seduce him.  Wargnier's depiction of these duplicitous actions offers us an extremely well-observed account of how those who do not understand disability treat the disabled. Yannick's mother means well and thinks she is acting kindly. But her behaviour is in danger of imprisoning Yannick in a muted world of caution and care. 
Unlike Carax and Jeunet, Wargnier embeds a critique of this attitude in the film - indeed it is this, even more than the exhilirating race scenes (filmed at an actual Diamond League meet at the Stade de France) that makes the film so compelling. Yannick's encounter with runner Leila (Rachida Brakni) signals the beginning of his liberation from his overbearing mother. It also marks the point where the viewer begins to understand that pity and over-protection are not the most helpful reactions to blindness. It is no coincidence that Leila has just come out of prison: this is a film about liberation. We, like Yannick, spend the film learning how to break free from the negative images of blindness which are still commonly found in both fiction and reality.
La Ligne droite was shown by the Institut français de Londres as part of their Beyond the Body season timed to coincide with the London 2012 Paralympic Games. My thanks go to the Institut français for inviting me to this special screening and giving me the chance to question Cyril Descours (and meet the French Paralympic Judo team).

Monday, 3 September 2012

My Perfect Day at the Paralympics

Waiting for the athletics to start at the Olympic Stadium
I spent Saturday 1st September at the London 2012 Paralympic Games with my husband and our two sons. I was expecting an informative and interesting glimpse into disabled sport: it turned into an amazingly moving and hugely exhilarating adventure.

The fun started as soon as we got off the Jubilee Line in Stratford. The crowds pouring into the Olympic Park were good-natured and exuberant and we were soon captivated by the atmosphere. The boys especially were made really welcome: their cuddly GB Mandervilles (see above) were petted by volunteer after volunteer and they loved high-fiving the giant pointy fingers directing us into the stadium. My white cane and I don't usually like crowds but I found navigation relatively easy thanks to the numbers of helpful volunteers and the mindfulness of other spectators.

It felt both comforting and liberating to be in a crowd made up of a healthy mix of disabled and non-disabled sports fans. Usually my cane attracts stares and sideways glances but here I blended in so much better than usual. It felt great to be carrying a cane and yet not be the centre of attention.  I have never felt prouder to be using a white cane than during the Paralympics.

So why was it such an amazing day? Here are my top 10 moments (in roughly chronological order):

  1. Cheering on Team GB's Richard Whitehead to Gold in the T42 200m final and then singing our hearts out at the Victory Ceremony. I momentarily lost my voice afterwards!
  2. Wishing I could run as fast as the super speedy blind runners and their guides in the women's T11 200m and T12 100m heats. 
  3. Chilling with friends, cider and live music at the Bandstand
  4. Meeting Manderville the Paralympic Mascot
  5. Eating yummy food from around the world including fish, chips and mushy peas, sushi, thai green curry, mango and melon salad and ice-cream.
  6. Shouting with joy at the Big Screen in Park Live as Ellie Simmonds won her Gold in the S6 Women's 400m freestyle.
  7. Dancing the Macarena during 'Fan Time' at the Copper Box.
  8. Being initially mystified and then quickly enthralled by fast-moving Goalball: the women's match between Denmark and Finland was especially thrilling.
  9. Watching the Olympic Stadium turn all the colours of the rainbow as night fell.
  10. Reading the water-words created by Julius Propp's bit.fall art installation under the Stratford Walk bridge on the way home.