Monday, October 8, 2012

The language of dis/abled sport

Video is from the UK's Channel 4, advertising the London 2012 Paralympics through it's "Meet the Superhumans" ad.

Adapted sport, challenged athletes, disabled sport, Paralympics, Special Olympics. These terms use language that bifurcates sports that are explicitly for people with disabilities. This split creates a power dynamic that impacts various cultural flows (Appadurai, 1990). By separating sport categories by ability or impairment, and more specifically by adding qualifiers like "wheelchair" to basketball, "blind" to football, or "para" to triathlon, a subject versus object divide is created that makes the disabled athlete othered by the alternate designation that demarcates itself as different or separate from the prototypical athlete. This invokes an ideoscape of adaptation that makes the disabled athlete viewed as disingenuous at worst or an inspirational novelty at best.

Athletes that require the least amount of adaptation to their sport ventures are privileged. Since the archetypical Western athlete is seen as one that is white, male, able-bodied, and a good citizen of his nation-state, any deviations of this body lends itself to embodied qualifiers. In women’s tennis, Venus and Serena Williams are many times constructed in terms of their not-whiteness, with whiteness considered the default tennis player (Douglas, 2005). Any time their perceived behavior deviates from the script of the archetypical athlete (particularly when the behavior is thought to threaten the interests of the nation), their otherness is highlighted. This is also evident in the case of many indigenous Australian athletes in the Sydney 2000 Olympics (Gardner, 2003; Elder, Pratt, & Ellis, 2006), as well as with the black United States track and field athletes in the HBO documentary Fists of Freedom (Stem & Roy, 1999). The more the hegemonically atypical body resists the mold of the good citizen-athlete, the more resistance it encounters in its athletic pursuits. Resistance itself sometimes forces ideals and institutions, both sporting and general, to adapt.

While adaptation is a common concept in terms of discussions of disability and impairment, it’s a concept generally used to refer to when an existing environment has been retrofitted to accommodate a specific person or group of impairments. Adaptation as a concept assumes an essentialism that privileges the status quo and enforces neoliberal constructions. Stone (2001), when discussing the shift from a collectivist society to a neoliberal one, refers to this as the “’four selfs’:self-respect, self-confidence, self-strengthening, and self-reliance” (p. 58). For a disabled body to be able to be accommodated in society, the person must be able to request the environment be changed in a manner that complies with the policies, procedures, and practices of that setting. The person must also have a familiarity with the financial and technological ramifications of the request for accommodation, and be prepared for the social implications that follow that may require the person to justify their continued need or desire to exist in that space (an opposing viewpoint on accommodation and environmental adaptation is through a concept called universal design, in which an environment is not retrofitted but is constructed to consciously allow as many types of bodies to function at their peak).

Adaptation in regards to sport and athletics is mostly used to denote sports for people with impairments (although can be used in the context of athletic training to refer to physiological adaptation to effort, muscular capacity, or the like). For example, wheelchair basketball as an adapted form of (standard) basketball, sitting volleyball as an adapted form of (standard) volleyball, or ice sledge hockey as an adaptation of ice (standard) hockey. These sports that have abled analogs are usually the most well-known. This is in part due to a palatability factor, for example popular culture’s fascination with the violence inherent in wheelchair rugby, also known as murderball, and partially due to a familiarity factor, in which the adapted sport resembles an able-bodied analog that the audience has previously watched or participated. The advertisement that the British television station Channel 4 created for the London 2012 Paralympics is a good example of this palatability of adaptation. Which bodies are included? Which sports are highlighted? What’s missing?

Elite athletes that participate on the international scene, specifically Olympic or Paralympic athletes, have media narratives that may attempt to generate interest in a particular team, a particular event, or a particular sport. For example, Oscar Pistorus is a track athlete that competed in both the Paralympics as a division F44 athlete and in the London 2012 Olympics. He was one of a very small number of disabled athletes that claimed a sort of dual citizenship in the elite sport world by participating in both events. Many news pieces that discuss his athletic success place his success in light of the congenital impairment that led to the amputation of both of his lower legs, sometimes in vivid detail. The idea that impairment must be biomedically justified combines with the media narratives that require a tale of struggling and overcoming one’s disability to create a supercrip. Supercrip (and superhuman or superhero, in the case of the aforementioned Paralympics ad) narratives are intertwined for disabled athletes.

While disability may indeed be a valid addition to the narrative of the super-elite athlete much like other narratives of struggle against other life adversity, the focus on the origin of the disability (whether congenital or acquired) makes the idea of disability as always able to be overcame a problematic construct. These narratives create a divide between levels of impairment and also levels of socially constructed disability because of the involvement of technoscapes and finanscapes (Appadurai, 1990). Those with more access to fiscal resources, whether by charity, employment, or other means, are more likely to be able to navigate their chosen environment in a way that meets their needs. This means that Pistorus is more able to be seen as able-bodied through the adaptation of specially designed carbon fiber running prostheses (although it could be argued, in Pistorus’ case, that the technology involved clearly marks his body as super-abled or possibly cyborg).

While the concept of adaptation is generally seen as constructive and beneficial to people with disabilities that participate in adaptive sport, it is critical to keep questioning the impact of adaptation on the construction of the disabled body. The continual focus on adaptive sport may overshadow the ways that the disabled community has contributed to the sporting world, like the history of the Gallaudet University football team’s invention of the huddle, and also overshadow the other ways in which people with disabilities find themselves in sport and physical activity.

Dear readers, what do you think?  Does the concept of adaptation impact how sports for people with disabilities are viewed?  Would combining the Paralympics and the Olympics change the perception?

Author sitting in her wheelchair, flexing her arm before a 5k race
My first wheeled 5k...I was the only wheeler

Appadurai, A. (1990). Disjuncture and difference in the global cultural economy. Theory, Culture, and Society, 7, 295-310.

Bernstein, R. (Producer) & Roy, G. (Director). Fists of freedom: The story of the ’68 summer games [motion picture]. United States: Home Box Office.

Douglas, D.D. (2005). Venus, Serena and the WTA: When and where “race” enters. Sociology of Sport Journal, 22, 256-282.

Elder, C., Pratt, A., & Ellis, c. (2006) Running race: Reconciliation, nationalism, and the Sydney 2000 Games. International Review for the Sociology of Sport, 41(2), 127-141.

Gardner, G. (2003). Running for country: Australian print media representations of indigenous athletes in the 27th Olympiad. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 27(3), 233-260.

Stone, E. (2001). Disability, sport, and the body in China. Sociology of Sport Journal, 18, 51-68.

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