Labelled disabled

We smile affectionately at the Morris dancers and bow if introduced to the Queen. But it does seem to me that in the matter of “games”, such as those currently taking place in Manchester, north-west England, we are taking tradition too far to be healthy.

I nurse a long-standing prejudice against athletics, rooted in my school days and an event called the “hop, skip and jump”, known today as “the triple jump”. My difficulty with the event is, quite simply: why did they stop there? Why not the “hoppity-hop-skip-and-jump”, or the “hop-do-a-somersault-and-jump”? If the triple jump, why not proceed to the quadruple jump?

Athletics presumably celebrates what our ancestors saw as desirable physical attributes on the battlefield.
In the absence of chemical propellants, throwing things made sense, as did fleetness of foot, wrestling and leaping. But it is difficult to imagine circumstances in which those talented at performing a hop, a skip and a jump were of use to the military commanders of the time, unless it was as an early attempt at psychological warfare.

Similarly, the modern qualification of contestants by weight seems to make a nonsense of tradition. Did ancient armies cry “foul” when one side sent a heavyweight champion out against the other’s featherweight? Under present arrangements could David have ever conquered Goliath?

The affront to logic and the corruption of tradition represented by athletics became more personal when I got Parkinson’s and found myself, with the onset of the shuffles and the shakes, catapulted into the ranks of those popularly known as the “disabled”. The label, “disabled”, would be insulting were it not self-evidently a nonsense. Disabled is non-functional. You are not disabled until you are dead and by then the gold, silver and bronze medals are (at least until the quantum world springs further surprises) no longer of relevance.

Across the Atlantic they seem to have developed a greater understanding as to the implications of being dead, referring coyly to the “physically challenged”. It is a term that raises a pertinent question: who is challenging whom?

Conventionally the challenge is for the “disabled” to ape the “enabled”.

So we have the limbless splashing frantically across the swimming pool and the paraplegics in their aerodynamic chairs hurrying along the same roads as marathon runners; races for a fictitious “normality” they are forever doomed to lose.

This challenge smacks of eugenics. It would not be so objectionable if the competitions offered to the “disabled” were such as night-time boxing, which would allow the blind their sensory advantages, or perhaps arm-wrestling for the paraplegic. But, as it is, the events for the “disabled” seem to have more to do with the patronisation of charity than competition. The effect is to eternally confront them with their own limitations.

The necessary classification of these limitations—needed to parcel out the rewards for “disablement”—has reached absurd lengths in the Commonwealth Games where the classification system has become obscure even to contestants: A BBC report (online) quoted a “disabled” swimmer as saying: “It’s difficult to talk about how I will do as it’s not always easy to break down the times of everyone else in the other classifications. That said,” she added, “it is a very fair system.”

How this system would “fairly” allow those like myself, with Parkinson’s, to compete at the games if we demanded the opportunity is difficult to imagine. But then I have no intention of claiming, or accepting, such an entitlement, any more than I would expect a heavyweight wrestler to warble the soprano role at La Scala. But that does not mean the wrestler is “disabled”.

Mankind’s highest aspiration in the modern world is perhaps the exploration of space. It is becoming increasing apparent that major obstacles to this ambition include the problem of human entropy fueled by weightlessness. How are those paragons of “enablement”, the astronauts, to explore our solar system, much less beyond, without the exercise and freedom of movement demanded by their “healthy” bodies and minds?

The extremes of “disablement” are sometimes represented by cartoonists as a brain and an eye floating in a petri dish. The motto at my school was “thus unto the stars”. Taken together they perhaps offer a retrospective explanation for my preoccupation with the silliness of the triple jump.—(c) Guardian Newspapers

David Beresford, a distinguished Guardian and Observer journalist, will undergo experimental brain surgery for Parkinson’s disease in September

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