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Thursday, January 10, 2008

Sport, Disability, and Media Distortion

Avid golfers probably recall the name Casey Martin. They likely remember Martin was the professional golfer who fought for the right to use a golf cart on the PGA tour. In 1997 Martin sued the PGA under the ADA arguing that a golf cart was a workplace accommodation. Martin's case went all the way to the Supreme Court and, much to the dismay of the PGA, the court ruled Martin was correct.

I have not thought about Martin until this morning when I read the New York Times with my coffee. In the sports section I was interested to read a story about Oscar Pistorius (Study Suggests That Amputee Holds Unfair Advantage). Very few Americans know who Pistorius is. I have heard the name and know he is a world class paralympic sprinter from South Africa. I only know this much because Pistorius has had the nerve to compete and beat some bipedal runners. In short, he is a world class athlete but this is not why Pistorius is controversial. Pistrorius wants to compete in the Olympics against able bodied runners. The International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF), track's governing body, has been and remains opposed to including Pistorius. Even though there is no scientific evidence, the IAAF claims Pistorius' high tech prosthesis called cheetahs give him an unfair advantage over able bodies athletes. The chances of Pistorius ever competing in the Olympics are a long shot at best.

According to the New York Times, the IAAF spent $50,000 researching the Pistorius case and concluded that any disabled athlete that wants to compete against able bodied athletes must prove that any adaptive device such as Pistorius' prosthetic legs does not give them an advantage over able bodies athletes. The IAAF conclusion mirrors recent Supreme Court decisions, especially the Sutton Trilogy, that requires disabled people to prove they are in fact disabled (in the eyes of the court it is possible to be too disabled or, conversely, not disabled enough). When I made this connection between the IAAF and the Supreme Court I realized not much has changed when it comes to the perception of disabled athletes and how they are portrayed in the media.

Disabled athletes and adaptive sports provide mainstream media outlets with endless fodder for what I call feel good stories. Disabled people know what I am writing about--the dreaded 90 second piece at the end of the national news that portrays the "remarkable, "heart warming" story about a disabled person who finishes a marathon or some other athletic event. What is celebrated is not the athletic achievement but the ability of a person to "overcome" obstacles that prove the person in question is amazing. Reducing the accomplishments of disabled athletes to nothing more than such a feel good story is nothing short of demeaning. It reinforces every negative stereotype about disability and conveniently ignores the fact the overwhelming number of problems disabled people encounter are social. At issue is not a disabled person's ability but rather how they handle a specific physical disability. Thus Martin's athletic skills are reduced to a discussion about his request for a golf cart or Pistorius' use of high tech prosthesis. Both men violated a social norm--they are too good. They are significantly better than other disabled athletes and, worse yet, capable of beating able bodies athletes. This does not fit anywhere within the realm of "feel good stories". The result it that the New York Times and other mainstream media outlets do not know what to make of athletes such as Martin and Pistorius. In contrast, like other disabled people I have no such issues. To me, the two men in question are simply world class athletes who deserve respect.


Tom Tuohy said...

Bravo Bill!

This is precisely why Dreams for Kids, began its adaptive sports program for children in Chicago 11 years ago- to give kids with disabilities opportunity to achieve and excel, not for an example of them overcoming their disability.

Those who live with a disability deserve opportunity, not pity. They seek the thrill for competition and the joy of sport, and earn the right to be celebrated for their accomplishments.

As a good friend who was paralyzed at 15 years said once," I ma just like you, just sitting down - but don't make me get up!"

Tom Tuohy

william Peace said...

Tom, thanks for the kind words. I find the mainstream media frustrating to deal with as they seem resistant or incapable of accepting the disabled as fully functioning humans. If change is to occur it will take the form of civil disobedience and young disabled people who grow up to expect (demand) to lead a rich and full life free of prejudice. Dreamsforkids and adaptive sports form a part of that life and are very important. In looking back on why I have led an ordinary life I must credit my parents--they never treated me differently after I was paralyzed at 18 yrs old nor did their expectations for me change.

Tom Tuohy said...


The lessons we have learned from those with disabilities are much the same as you have expressed. " See me - not my disability"

I have never understood why people tend to speak first towards someones visible disability. It is as if they do not understand that we all have disabilities, and none of us would appreciate others defining us by what we are not. We all wish to be defined and celebrated for abilities.

The press? They write this way to cater to our base desires. Instead of writing to inspire and educate, they so often seek to inflame or sensationalize. It speaks to what is small, instead of what is possible and what is great. The press can lift us, yet so often keep us down. I will never understand why they choose to do so.

We need to bring an entire generation of young people together, to learn to see past any perceived differences in each other. This is the goal of our Dream Leaders youth leadership program. For the first ime, groups of young people, from every ability and walk and roll of life, all races, religion, socio -economic background and gender - working together to serve the local and world communities. Learning to accept one another for who they are. They will move on to become the future leaders in every industry, including the media. Somewhere, not too far away, there is brave new world out there.

You have my admiration Bill. Not because you have overcome, but because you are eloquent, passionate, an activist, and you are doing your part to change the world.


william Peace said...

Tom, again thanks for the kind words. I wish I had your optimism. I just posted a follow up on the ban of Pistorius. What has been written to date is so deeply prejudicial I am stunned. AP reports and commentaries in major papers such as the New York Times are all overwhelmingly against Pistorius. The opposition is framed within the framework of providing a level and fair playing field for all athletes--this is just a smoke screen used to ban those who do not conform to society's conception of an Olympian athlete. The ban of Pistorius and the knee jerk reaction to it make me realize just how deep and wide the gulf is between those with and those without a physical disability.

Anittah N. Patrick said...

What really troubles me about this is, how exactly is one supposed to "prove" that their prosthesis does not give them an advantage? Is it, making the prosthesis heavy enough so that it slows the runner down so that they're running in 3rd or 4th place?

It's a lose lose for a non-traditional athlete.

Ruth Madison said...

"the dreaded 90 second piece at the end of the national news that portrays the "remarkable, "heart warming" story about a disabled person who finishes a marathon or some other athletic event."

Yes! Oh my goodness, I'm glad I'm not the only one who hates those. I think my parents suspect I'm a bad person because I'm disturbed by these one-dimensional, "inspirational" stories.

william Peace said...

Ruth, When I complain about such stories people look at me as though I have two heads. How can you be so cold hearted I am asked. I usually say in reply you need to think about it more deeply. I am too polite to say you are an ignorant jerk.