/ 10 April 2014

Oscar Pistorius tests new limits of disability

Oscar Pistorius was proof for many disabled people that they could match the able-bodied.
Oscar Pistorius was proof for many disabled people that they could match the able-bodied.

Some say murder accused Oscar Pistorius is doing people with disabilities a disservice by blaming a heightened sense of vulnerability on his lack of lower legs. Others say Pistorius is right: disabled people are seen as soft targets, and serious debate is needed on whether they should get subsidised handguns.

The Paralympic athlete, on trial for the murder of his girlfriend, Reeva Steenkamp, started giving evidence this week in the Pretoria high court and everyone seems happy that disability came into the spotlight and hope it will change the lives of others, regardless of the outcome.

“In the most unlikely event that he is found guilty and must serve a sentence, then the discussion becomes what kind of facility he must go to, and whether it is friendly to the disabled,” Olwethu Sipuka, the spokesperson for activist group Disabled People South Africa (DPSA), said.

As a successful Paralympian, Pistorius was a role model to other people with disabilities, but he became a universal superstar by breaking into the able-bodied Olympics. Organisations that had long struggled to convince the country that disability could be conquered suddenly found the going much easier and exploited the opportunity.

But it has become clear that opinions are sharply divided.

Medal vs pistol
“You can’t hold up a gold medal in one hand and a pistol in another,” said Ari Seirlis, chief executive of the lobby and advocacy group, QuadPara Association of South Africa. “We chose not to say a word, but then Oscar started the debate [and] said to the world ‘I feel vulnerable because of my disability’.

“And we’re saying he didn’t earn the right to use that as an excuse; when he earned the gold, he took away his right to use that excuse.”

In many ways, people with disabled are considered a homogeneous group. Had he met the income and asset thresholds, Pistorius, one of the fastest men on the planet, would have qualified for the same state disability grant as a quadriplegic with little or no mobility.

In the Paralympics, however, distinctions are drawn between different types of disability to make competition fairer and therein lies Seirlis’s bugbear: in Paralympic terms, Pistorius is among the most abled of the disabled.

Seirlis’s organisation was among those that made a poster child out of Pistorius and featured him on the front page of its magazine.

Tax exemptions
The day before he shot Reeva Steen­kamp, Seirlis said, Pistorius phoned him for help with the paperwork that would allow him to import a Maclaren sports car without paying the usual duty (which is waived for vehicles modified for use by disabled people). But now Seirlis uses phrases such as “scraping the bottom of the barrel” about Pistorius.

“We feel he has downgraded the view that people have of us in order to try and get himself some leeway with the judge and the assessors,” Seirlis said.

But that is far from a universal view. The DPSA is gravely concerned about the risks faced by disabled people, Sipuka said. The fear of violent crime is rooted in reality, even for Pistorius.

“People are saying, ‘Why would this disabled person have so many firearms?’ – because this is a guy who understands the kind of society we find ourselves in, where people with disabilities are soft targets and are victimised.

“Many of our members with wheelchairs have guns. In the townships, they tell us that, when they come from getting their grants, they know they [the criminals] will attack.”

Subsidised handguns
No organisation for people with disabilities wants to court controversy but, in private, some have floated the suggestion that handguns should be subsidised, tax-free, easily accessible, or all three, for people able to use them but limited in their mobility and ability.

But they will settle for some attention, by way of the Pistorius trial, to be paid to the disadvantages disabled people face in dealing with the legal system – the lack of sign-language interpreters to take statements and complaints from the deaf, the lack of Braille transcripts of court proceedings, the wheelchair-unfriendly nature of public buildings and the inaction over pleas for help, protection and support.

Others simply want those who work hard to attain equality, and are lionised when they achieve it, to stick to that narrative.

“The fact is that Oscar became famous because he is well built, because he is strong, for no other reason,” Seirlis said. “When you become famous for that, you can’t revert to vulnerability again when it suits you.”