‘Don’t DIS anyone’s ABILITY’
Sporting Compass: With Dr Pippa Grange and Paul Oliver
As a sports psychologist and founder of Bluestone Edge, I am fortunate to have many conversations with people about the substance and meaning of sport.
My colleague Paul Oliver also engages with people at all levels across the sporting sector to keep his finger on the pulse of the latest news, views and issues.
In this space each fortnight, we will share some of these stories, insights and possibilities in relation to people, culture, ethics and leadership in sport. I hope you enjoy the conversation and we look forward to hearing your thoughts.
All the best, Pippa and Paul
‘Don’t DIS anyone’s ABILITY’
3 December 2013
Category: SPORT/SOCIAL JUSTICE – equality and inclusion
Guest blog from Paul Oliver
In a deadpan voice, masking the gravity of the words that flowed, the doctor said to my mum: “Your child should not take part in any high-impact activities like jumping or running. He’ll be bed-ridden for two years with his legs permanently strapped to a metal brace.”
He couldn’t have meant two years. Two years was a lifetime! This wasn’t the news a hyperactive, sports-mad boy wanted to hear on his seventh birthday.
I had come off the field from a soccer game several weeks earlier with a noticeable limp, and when it didn’t improve my parents took me to the doctor to see what was wrong. A hamstring injury? Growing pains? Not quite. I was diagnosed with Perthes’ disease – a disorder of the hip joint where the ball-shaped end of the thighbone (the femoral head) loses blood supply, softens and then collapses. The limp was the tell-tale first symptom. Most children with Perthes’ disease recover completely, however it usually takes between two to five years to repair the damaged bone if the medical advice is followed.
My options were laid out before me matter-of-factly: two years immobilised completed in bed to keep the weight off the hip joint; or two years at a minimum on crutches, with my legs in a metal brace. The alternative: ongoing limping and pain with restricted hip function, leading to persisting stiffness and premature arthritis. Without hesitation, I took the brace option and proceeded to get on with life.
That I was different was clear to see – a mini mechano set propelling himself around the playground chasing the ball as he had always done, albeit a little more awkwardly. Otherwise, I was the same cheeky, effervescent seven-year-old with the same bad haircut and freckles that I had been before this impairment, so why would anyone treat me any differently now?
At first, some saw me as a bit ‘freakish’, particularly in the classroom. But once the bell rang for lunch, and the other kids saw me play handball and kick the soccerball just as good (and bad) as them, apprehensions and stereotypes of what a disabled kid could do seemed to drift away. I was beginning to understand that sport was a leveller (even at this age); ability didn’t seem to matter, but having a go did – and laughter and fun trumped prejudice every time.
In a speech to promote this year’s International Day of People with Disability (December 3), Disability Discrimination Commissioner Graeme Innes said: “The biggest barrier faced by people with disability in Australia is the attitude barrier. We are constantly limited by . . . the soft bigotry of low expectations.” As a believer in the potential of sport to create more inclusive societies by breaking down barriers for disadvantaged groups, I watched with great joy how the feats of courage, endurance and athleticism from the London Paralympics last year helped to reduce some of these perceptual barriers and make people reconsider their ‘soft bigotry’.
How could you not challenge your preconceptions of people with a disability after watching the efforts of some of our Aussies heroes such as swimming legends Matt Cowdrey and Jacqueline Freney (who won 16 gold medals between them), or sprinter Evan O’Hanlon, cyclist Susan Powell or the Australian wheelchair rugby team, who won their first Paralympic Games gold medal? After watching the super-heavyweight powerlifting, won by Iranian Siamand Rahman, UK writer Simon Barnes declared: “this spellbinding, extraordinary Games has got us all in its thrall, taking our minds to places we never quite thought we’d dare to go. We checked-in pity at the door when we started watching these Games.” 1 As the BBC 4 ad to promote the Paralympics, ‘Meet the Superhumans’, said ‘forget everything you thought you knew about strength’ and see ‘a world with no barriers’.
However, it seems the beacon of hope that shone forth from the Paralympics, carrying with it aspirations of positive perceptions and greater support and engagement around disability issues, has dulled somewhat as old stereotypes and practices endure. In the UN Secretary-General’s address today, he confirmed that around the world people with disabilities still “face physical, social, economic and attitudinal barriers that exclude them from participating fully and effectively as equal members of society. 2 While Australian Network on Disability’s CEO Suzanne Colbert says that statistics for people with disability had regressed over the past 10 years, despite good intentions and significant reforms. 3 When you consider that almost one in five people in Australia have a disability and one billion people from around the world live with some form of disability, it defies belief that attitudinal barriers still prevent us from building more inclusive societies for all.
In life, perception is everything. Matt Cowdrey’s goal remains to be considered as just another swimmer, not a swimmer with a disability. “To view my disability,” Cowdrey said in an ABC Sport interview prior to the 2012 London Paralympics, “I have to turn around and ask ‘what is a disability?’ The word says that, basically, that it’s something that stops you from doing something. And in terms of missing half an arm, I don’t see that as a disability because it hasn’t stopped me doing anything in life so far.” He added an important clarification – “inside the pool or outside the pool”. 4
I recently watched a video of a 10-year old boy with no vision called Caleb Neyenhuis, who was participating in the AFL’s Auskick program. His story resonated with me in that he must have felt the same joy that I did when I was young at simply joining in, having fun with his friends, getting a fair go and getting on with life. Through his involvement in sport (and the encouragement of his parents and the trainers), his teammates had learnt that Caleb was no different from them in most respects. He wasn’t the ‘poor little blind boy’ – he was a good mate and had a good long kick and handball. Now if anyone tried to bully Caleb or call him names at school, he had plenty of footy allies on his side to stand up behind him and say it wasn’t right. This is the power and potential of sport I’ve known since a young age and still believe in to this day.
I hope you join me in celebrating the 21st anniversary of International Day of People with Disability by recognising the amazing contributions people with disability make every day to their communities. As the Day’s Patron, Professor Ron McCallum, says: “I encourage people to today talk to someone with disability to find out they are exactly like you – with loves, fears, hopes and dreams. If we all become more aware, we will together become a better community”. 5