Disability is a frightening threat to every fit man and woman. It’s a nightmare, a punishment, a death sentence, almost. Or maybe it’s just a parallel road to travel. From my unusual standpoint, I can see both points of view. Perhaps it’s the root of that fear – the foreignness of disability – we should be addressing.
Disability…is a membership of a whole community
Photo: Suffolk Spartans.
Up until this summer I was myself officially deemed disabled. Now thanks to a fairly intensive self-styled rehab programme, plus tool assisted massage, I no longer qualify for that label. It’s been a brilliant change for me, and also fairly bewildering. Since I am a coach with disabled athletes and powerlifters, it has led to some rather uncomfortable conversations. You see, for many, disability isn’t just a wretched tag to describe dysfunction, it’s a membership of a whole community. My athletes want to know where my loyalties lie now: will I continue to want to train them, or am I about to defect to able-bodied sport?
The question is a no-brainer for me. I became disabled, and discovered how marginalised that made me. I was disregarded when applying for jobs, and excluded when I attended sport/ fitness courses. One Circuit Training course instructor told me that I couldn’t join the day’s course at which I had just arrived, after a five hour drive: “I’m not being funny”, she said. (She wasn’t, I agree.) “But there are special courses for people like you”. Hmmmm. Grim times indeed. Emotionally, therefore, I am still connected to my disabled peers.
But attitudes need to change: in the gym, at the Olympics, and in the media. We need more celebrations of paralympic prowess, because most of us don’t even know what is being achieved out there. At Suffolk Spartans, we sent 4 of the 27 national participating powerlifters to the 2011 British Championships. Nationwide, there is plenty of achievement to report. Earlier this year I was privileged to be invited to watch a training session for national hopefuls for Chair Based Throws (Athletics) at Stoke Mandeville. The building was teeming with other disabled sports groups too. At our local disabled athletics club in Ipswich (Orwell Panthers) we have members who compete nationally in Boccia tournaments. Success is inspiring to us all, so why can’t we be presented with more of it on television and radio?
Photo: Orwell Panthers. Chair based throws at Stoke Mandeville.
I don’t want the disabled to be referred to as “plucky”
So here’s my manifesto…
I want to see public attitudes towards disability open up due to more frequent exposure. We need more disability sport reported in the media, and not just as a freakish anecdote with which to round off the news on a light hearted note. I want disabled sportsmen and women treated with the same respect as the non-disabled. I don’t want the disabled to be referred to as “plucky”, and if one of our paralympic powerlifters were to be interviewed by a reporter I would want him/her to be a sports journalist, not someone after a tacky “human interest” story. Let’s do away with the ahhh-factor. Margaret Nicholls, a coach at Orwell Panthers says: “It is disappointing how little coverage the disabled athletes get. As a club we would love to see more high profile reporting, not just of competitions but to celebrate development of their ability.”
Let’s write programmes that challenge not soothe.
I want PTs and Sports Therapists to welcome the disabled into the gym, and find out what they’d like to do, not simply shuffle them off to the fixed resistance machines. Amputees and chair bound guys still want to use the TRX and the ViPR, to box, and work out on the floor. I have trained disabled athletes, amputees, disabled equestrians and clients with cerebral palsy. It’s not so very different: they want excitement, to feel endorphins kick in, to progress and achieve. So, let’s make it happen for them. Let’s write programmes that challenge not soothe.
If Fitness Professionals were to (metaphorically) get behind them, the disabled could really make their presence in sport become a mainstream event. We could be promoting disabled gym members’ progress on the noticeboards, or run inclusion events, inviting the disabled to participate in body pump and Pilates. Fun Runs and 5k runs are further brilliant opportunities to aim high. So we probably won’t make sufficient changes in time to affect fully inclusive attitudes for London 2012. But how cool would it be if the UK were at least the first nation to promote and demonstrate equal media coverage for the Paralympics next year? It might set a new international benchmark for disabled sport coverage.
We none of us can assume being able bodied or healthy as a right. It can be snatched away overnight. But disability can bring about massive change for the good. This week I met an amputee called Stuart who now trains ex-services amputees to play a mean game of golf. He has the backing of influential golf players such as Arnold Palmer, and he is inspiring young men devastated by injury to rediscover sport. We need men like Stuart to challenge our preconceptions, and help mould a more balanced future for Disability Sport. It is not, after all, the challenges we face that define us, but how we rise to meet them.