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Friday, November 7, 2008

Adaptive Sport Imagery

This Sunday November 9 NBC will broadcast a 90-minute documentary about the 2008 Paralympic Games held in Beijing. The documentary will be narrated by NBC Sports Bob Costas. Produced by award winning NBC Sports producer David Michaels, the documentary will focus on the lives of eight athletes and the men's wheelchair basketball team. The documentary is sponsored by GE.

I look forward to watching the NBC documentary. Readers of this blog know I am interested in adaptive sports and enjoy skiing and kayaking. I ski and kayak because it is fun but am all too aware that the inclusion of disabled people in sports remains out the norm and is socially significant. Society simply does not associate athletic ability with disability. Thus when people see a paralyzed person such as myself skiing or kayaking they often question their preconceived notions of what life must be like with a disability. When participating in sports I feel like I become an ordinary person, that is my disability is not the first thing people observe. In sharp contrast to the positive reaction I get when participating in a sport, the media does a dreadful job covering adaptive sports. Televised stories about adaptive sports reduces the athletic achievements of disabled athletes to "feel good stories". At issue is not the athletic accomplishment but the fact a person "overcame" their disability. This observations is not original but is important. Why is it important? Disabled people in American society are routinely required to provide explanations about disability. Every person I know who has a disability is asked "What happened to you?" or "How did you become paralyzed?" Leonard Davis and Kenny Fries, gifted disability studies scholars, maintain these rude and intrusive questions set the tone for a particular sort of disability based narrative. In Fries The History of My Shoes and the Evolution of Darwin's Theory has written:

when we speak of disability, we associate it with a story, place it in a narrative. A person became deaf, became blind, was born blind, became quadriplegic. The impairment becomes part of a sequential narrative. By doing this we think of disability as linked to individualism and the individual story. What is actually a physical fact becomes a story with a hero or a victim. Disability becomes divorced from the cultural context, and becomes the problem of the individual, not a category defined by the society. The dialectics of normalcy--for someone to be normal, someone as to be not normal--is kept intact.

This narrative is the reason why I dislike documentaries that focus on adaptive sports and disability in general. Disabled people are just not normal every day people. Their lives are ever so special and they are perceived to be "amazing role models" for others. The focus here is exclusively on the individual and a given physical deficit. It is very easy to gush about adaptive athletes. For instance, David Michaels has stated that "In 30 years of covering Olympic sports, I have never witnessed such a rich tapestry of stories and competition. Every race, every event brings wonder and excitement". If adaptive sports are so exciting, filled with such gut wrenching drama why do they not appear on television? Why is there no reporting of adaptive sporting events in newspapers on a daily basis? Why did no major network broadcast the Paralympics? Why does the NCAA basketball tournament in March dominate the news but no one discusses wheelchair basketball? Why are Paralympic athletes woefully underfunded by the USAOC?

The questions I want answers to are rarely if ever discussed. Answers I want to know would require a radical rethinking of the accepted discourse associated with disability. The point I am trying to emphasize is fundamental. It gets to the heart of the disability rights movement. Like others, I do not want to be defined by my disability. I am not Mr. Wheelchair dude. I am a person with a physical disability. I am a human being. I am a father, son, teacher, writer. All these personal characteristics have nothing to do with disability or my wheelchair. Like I said, I am a human being.


lilacsigil said...

At least one major network broadcast the Paralympics for a total of nine and a half hours a day over two channels - it just wasn't an American network. The ABC in Australia (who shared their broadcast with South Africa) put on terrific coverage, with lots of athlete interviews, qualified commentators including previous Paralympians such as Louise Sauvage, and frankly a much better show than the able-bodied Olympics (on a different network) managed. The Australian coverage of the Olympics was so bad that I had to download BBC coverage instead; I had no such issues with the Paralympics.

william Peace said...

I searched long and hard for the Paralympics on mainstream American TV without any luck. Other countries did indeed broadcast the games.

Dunvi said...

My friend was in the paralympics this year. I was mad mad mad because I couldn't watch the opening ceremonies - I had to stream it online (and it was hard to find). America was the only country to completely ignore these games.

Also, my friend is a three season athelete at my old school. But people don't always believe that, and she never would have had the chance to do so if she had not gone to a tiny tiny school.

william Peace said...

Dunvi, Yes, the games were available on line. I think adaptive athletes need a law comparable to Title IX that has revolutionized women's sports. Adaptive gear also needs to be widely available at lower cost. How many disabled people do not ski because they cannot afford to buy or rent a sit ski?