My last posting was about Oscar Pistorius, the Olympic runner who wears bilateral “carbon-fiber devices” when he runs. Four years ago he was declared ineligible to run at the Olympics in Beijing because the “Cheetahs”, as the devices are called, were thought to give him an unfair advantage. Since then, that decision was reversed, and Pistorius, who had bilateral lower leg amputations at 11 months of age, was allowed to run on his Cheetahs in the men’s 400 meter race and the 4×400 relay in the London Olympics. What is usually viewed as a disability had first been declared an unfair advantage (a new and different outlook, to be sure), and then was subsequently declared NOT to be an unfair advantage and Pistorius was allowed to run. The meanings and the boundaries of disability and ability were thoroughly scrambled in this sequence of events.
Last week, another marathon of sports activities took place in London — the Paralympics. I was in England and Wales during the week, and a strong awareness of and interest in the Paralympics was obvious throughout the countryside. Over and over again, we saw these Games on the television sets in pubs, Bed and Breakfast places, hotels, and the airport. The first Paralympics was held in Rome in 1960 and it has been held every 4 years since then, making this year’s competition the 13th. Four thousand two-hundred and eighty athletes from 164 countries took part. The top three final rankings by country were China, Russia, and Great Britain.
The great variety of Paralympics sports represented in the games is very enlightening to the uninitiated: wheelchair tennis, wheelchair rugby, swimming, equestrian competitions, wheelchair basketball, power lifting, and road cycling to name just a very few. Charles Walker, a British participant in sitting volleyball, said, “It’s made people realize that athletes are athletes and people are people.”
I think, even more than the realization that people are people, was evidence of a collective shift among those who attended or watched the games — a shift from a focus on what was “missing” in the participants to what was present. Our daughter, who was with us on our travels, exclaimed over and over how “amazing” the performances were. Clearly, her comment referred to what the competitors were actually doing and accomplishing, not on whatever their disabilities were. It was, in fact, a shift from disability to occupation — clear and simple.
I felt as though the people who were watching were in some ways making their way into the world of occupational therapy. I realize that the Paralympics represent a rarefied atmosphere of extraordinary people and accomplishment — as do the Olympic Games. Yet, to sense the shifting focus of the worldwide audience from a) disability as only undesirable and evidence of something missing, to b) social participation and accomplishment through occupation by people with disabilities, was highly gratifying.
Oscar Pistorius took part in the Paralympics as well as the Olympics. The South African set a new Paralympic record and won the gold medal in the men’s 400 meter race. And someone came up with a great new term to describe people running on the carbon-fiber devices: Oscar Pictorius is referred to in the media coverage as a “Blade Runner.” To me, this term smacks of energy and skill and accomplishment — and it does away with the need to differentiate between abled and disabled and the use of offensive terms of comparison such as “intact” runner or runners having “biological legs.” And in many ways, that, too, is “amazing!”
We flew home from England on this past Monday, a day when many of the Paralympians were also going home. The airport was jammed, and people using wheelchairs were prominent in the crowds. The courtesy and respect shown by the airport personnel as they assisted people through the lines and security requirements and onto their planes was unwavering. Boarding times started earlier than usual to accommodate any needed extra time for the athletes. Later, on arrival in Detroit, wheeled chairs were lined up in the jetway for our de-boarding, waiting to assist the Paralympians through baggage claims, customs, and connections to their next flights. The scene embodied real daily life, successful social participation, and occupational engagement at its finest.