(Disabled) Sports

Skimming through my twitter feed, as I do before bed most evenings, I was a little disheartened to discover the following story from the local Metro Newspaper’s twitter feed, entitled: “Canada advances to World (Sledge) Hockey final.”

Why the brackets? I’m guessing it is supposed to be a joke, although I’m not exactly sure why it would be funny. At best, the individual controlling the Metro twitter feed1 felt that perhaps more people would read the story this way because the deployment of brackets helps to separate it from other tweets about “Canada” and “hockey,” of which there are many. But at the same time this delineation is exactly what makes this tweet so problematic — we still feel the need to segregate the achievement of Paralympic athletes from those of presumptively “real” athletes; athletes who aren’t disabled at all, but rather, are the pinnacle of human physical achievement. Coverage of disabled sports is often wrapped in this sort of “gold star for effort” coverage, where the subconscious objective of the article is more to celebrate an individual being an athlete despite being disabled rather than merely celebrating athletic achievement. Of course, sports journalism has always had its narratives, perhaps none more overwrought than the underdog triumph fable, but the division of “real” sports and “disabled” sports is a relatively new trope caused by sports media realizing they could no longer ignore Paralympic/Special Olympic sport (largely because of the advocacy of my two favourite Joshs–Josh Vander Vies and Josh Cassidy 2 ) while at the same time not knowing exactly how to cover these stories. After all, if it’s about disability than it’s gotta be different. Sports journalism isn’t the only culprit here, as there is always the desire to temper achievements with the addendum of disability: Stephen Hawking isn’t a scientist…he’s a disabled Scientist!

Ultimately, how we cover disabled sports, specifically this seemingly innocent tweet by the London Metro team, helps to elucidate the oft non-apparent fault lines in our acceptance of disability. We talk so much about acceptance and inclusion in Canada, yet even in covering a story we can all understand and empathize with (athletic achievement) we still must keep a healthy distance (pun intended) between “us” and “them.” Only once we are ready to grant disability access into the realm of “normal,” understanding that people truly do come in all shapes and sizes, will we finally be able to talk about sledge hockey without the addendum.

  1. Note: I’ve been contacted by the local Metro and it was, in fact, not done locally but was tweeted by someone at the national office. The headline was apparently taken from the article pushed out on the wire by the Canadian Press, also picked up by Sportsnet here sans brackets.
  2. Although note that both of these fine gentleman brand themselves on their websites with terms like “motivators” and “leader,” unlike most mainstream athletes who wrap themselves in more traditional terms around athletic performance. I’d argue here that the Joshs feel the pressure to be more than just an athlete…they must also be inspirations

Timmah! (repost)

I was sitting at home last night watching television when an old episode of South Park came on called “Up the Down Steroid” (s08e03). As I sat snickering at the immature (but brilliant) jokes I found myself becoming extremely uncomfortable with how the creators had chosen to represent individuals with intellectual disabilities in this particular episode. As I gradually became more and more upset with the flagrant use of the word “retard,” a moment of sheer transcendental brilliance occurred in a scene that I believe completely encapsulates the disability rights movement.

Without delving too deeply into the plot line of the episode, Timmy (my favourite supporting characters who happens to use an electric wheelchair) discovers that his friend Jimmy has been using steroids to gain an edge in the upcoming Special Olympics competition. Disturbed by Jimmy’s outbursts of rage, Timmy approaches Jimmy and begs him to stop taking the pills but Jimmy feels that the issue is not up for discussion. As a result, Timmy decides to report to the school’s guidance councilor with the hopes of getting Jimmy the help he needs, but, there is one problem; the only thing Timmy can say is his own name. The scene proceeds to depict Timmy attempting to tell Mr. Macky (the councilor) that Jimmy is taking steroids through the use of limited hand gestures and varying tones of the words “Timmy” and “Jimmy.”

While this leads to some cheap laughs at the expense of Timmy’s speech impediment, I believe there is an even deeper connotative meaning that can be decoded from this situation. In this scene, Timmy is physically prevented from communicating with a nondisabled individual; however, his disabled friend, Jimmy, is able to understand him perfectly. What I find so incredible about the Timmy character is that he perfectly represents the traditional interaction of the disabled with the nondisabled public. While we are all individuals, with different personalities and abilities, many nondisabled individuals seem to only hear us speaking the gibberish of a young child, treating us accordingly by raising their voice, speaking slowly, and avoiding any big words or subjects of consequence. I feel that what the creators of this series are really trying to do with the Timmy character is not to satirize a boy with a disabled, but rather, poke fun at the traditional perceptions of what our society constructs to be the ‘disabled child’.

Unfortunately, I fear this is a fairly accurate portrayal of the mainstream perception of the disabled, whether it is an overt or subliminal understanding. It is for this reason that advocates of the disabled and disabled activists must band together to encourage people to stop trying to see people with disabilities, but rather, to simply listen.


Rumble in the Jungle: Tropic Thunder vs Intellectual Disabilities (repost)

Last year, Internets were abuzz over the past few weeks over the launch of the new Ben Stiller movie “Tropic Thunder” and the American-led boycott by advocates for individuals with intellectual disabilities. The argument is that the movie presents a negative representation of individuals with intellectual disabilities through a borderline-obsessive use of the word “retard” and a “Simple Jack” storyline, which allegedly aims for cheap laughs at the expense of people with intellectual disabilities.

Being a disabled advocate who is currently studying representations of disabilities in the media, I had to check out this movie and see what all the buzz was about. Although not immediately sure how I felt about the movie, upon further reflection I’ve decided I quite enjoyed it and don’t agree that this movie slanders individuals with disabilities.

Now, before I go any further, I will admit that I have never been diagnosed with an intellectual disability and do not consider myself to be directly a part of that community, although I did coach a Special Olympics hockey team for several years.

Having said that, I feel it’s important to look a little closer at this movie and not immediately classify it as trash just because it uses the cursed “R” word excessively. A quick glance at the Simple Jack storyline reveals the storyline is not taking shots at people with intellectual disabilities or attempting to get laughs at their expense. At its core, Tropic Thunder follows in the vein of many recent comedies, and arguably any comedy worth watching, in that it’s attempting to push the audience to a place they may not be overly comfortable confronting and then poking fun at our prudish perceptions. The goal here is to imply that these social faux pas may actually be ridiculous and require re-evaluation. What has been lost on some viewing this movie is that it’s a satire and is not attempting to make truthful claims about people with disabilities.

What this movie IS attempting to satirize, however, is Hollywood itself. Rather than poking fun at people with disabilities, Tropic Thunder is quite obviously taking aim at the Academy’s obsession with mentally challenged characters and the near-absurd parade of questionable movies that have been given the title of “masterpiece” simply because an actor pretends to have Down syndrome or autism (read: I Am Sam, The Rainman, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Forrest Gump, etc). It can be argued that these types of movies can be quite positive, inspiring audiences to “be better people.” At best, these movies help to show people that individuals with disabilities can contribute to society in a meaningful way, putting a face to disorders that are oft monolithic and marginalized.

But at their worst, films like I Am Sam contribute to a prevalent paternal superiority felt by the nondisabled, promoting the notion that people with disabilities have it so tough compared to everyone else and “normal folk” all have a lot to learn from those living the “simpler life.”

Ultimately, these films normalize what I like to call the “disabled hero syndrome,” where any accomplishment, no matter how easily achieved, place disabled character upon a pedestal of triumph. For accomplishing the simplest of tasks, we are often showered in patronizing complements and congratulations, to the point that every time I manage to go to the washroom anywhere but all over myself I half expect I’ll make headline news, complete with ticker-tape parades, a big achievement medal for bravery, and accolades raining from the rafters. While the disabled life can be difficult and sometimes we do go to extraordinary lengths to accomplish things some may consider medial or inconsequential, I’ve always found it strange when people are astonished and inspired by me completing a task that the nondisabled are simply expected to manage.

It is this superiority complex that Tropic Thunder so aggressively satirizes, to much success. If you ask me, we should not be boycotting or chastising Ben Stiller, we should be thanking him!