Monday, September 10, 2012

Champions and disabilities

That's 'our' tennis gold-medalist on the left
Local coverage of the Paralympics catapulted into the limelight yesterday when one of 'our' athletes struck gold. Suddenly the Games, hitherto rarely mentioned, were every channel's headline story. The victorious athlete, a paraplegic since a 2006 helicopter crash, was regaled as a national hero. Nowhere was there even a hint of condescension toward his medal because it was "just" won in the Paralympics rather than in the regular Olympics.
But I've been hyper-enthusiastic about these games from the start. Was I watching them through rose-colored glasses? 
Here is a more critical assessment of them, written shortly before they started, by London Evening Standard journalist, Ian Birrell, himself the father of a disabled child. I am hard put to contradict him:
"There will be well-meaning talk of triumph over tragedy. After all, the media can cope with only a handful of images for disabled people: they tend to boil down to either objects of pity or plucky fighters, both ultimately stereotypes. Rarely are they portrayed as ordinary people living ordinary lives.

More recently another image has emerged, a sinister one that flies in the face of facts but has been fostered by some journalists, broadcasters and politicians from all parties, including some of Mr Hunt’s ministerial colleagues. It is the despised benefit scrounger.

As even the diplomatic Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson says, it would appear there are only two types of disabled people right now — those going for gold over the next few days and those work-shy shirkers fleecing the state.
A misguided campaign to win support for welfare reform by highlighting miscreants has corroded respect for disabled people... Even before the [economic] downturn, the statistics were dismal. Fewer than half [of the disabled] had employment, compared with three-quarters of other Britons — and those in work were paid less than colleagues doing similar jobs and were far more likely to be bullied." [More]
But even Birrel had hopes for long-term benefits to the disabled sector:
"By taking disability into millions more British homes, my fervent hope is the Paralympics help the nation finally come to terms with its most maligned minority — especially with numbers rising fast thanks to medical advances."

My granddaughter, two days old

Now to digress from disability activism.

Since the birth of a new grand-daughter two weeks ago, I often find myself assessing her neurological condition. I scrutinize her every gesture, move and sound for proof that, no, she definitely does not - heaven forbid - have C.'s mystery affliction.

Yesterday, my daughter, R. - the new mother - confided that she too is wary. She fears the new baby's smile resembles C.'s epileptic "smiles", which of course are not smiles at all but rather a stretching of the mouth muscles. (All real smiling ceased when C.'s epilepsy erupted at age 14 months). I tried to reassure R. that only we, the family, can distinguish C.'s epileptic "smiles" from the real item. They are virtually identical. So baby's smiles are bound to be reminiscent of them.

I suppose this dread is common among parents of undiagnosed children. But that doesn't make it any easier to bear.

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