For today's blog, I was planning to continue my series on the aspects of my disability that has translated themselves into business assets. However, I have decided instead to offer some thoughts on the Para Pan Am Games which got underway last Friday in Toronto. I had the opportunity and the pleasure to attend the opening ceremonies and that got me thinking about the way to disability and success is perceived by society.
Let me start off by saying that I found the event enjoyable first and foremost. The parade of athletes from the 28 participating nations was fun to witness up close and the lighting of the flame was also a treat to be there for. However, I found the lack of disability presence in the show itself to be highly disappointing. The stage was not wheelchair accessible. The masters of ceremonies were not visibly disabled and did not identify as people with disabilities. Of the dozens of performers and dancers who participated in the show, only a few of them appeared on the surface to have disabilities. To be fair, there may have been some among the cast who were non-visibly disabled and chose not to disclose, but it could not have been that many. Given that there are a number of disabled dance troupes, comedians and other performers I fail to see why the Para Pan Am Games chose to kick off a marquee celebration of disability and difference by reinforcing the able-bodied status quo.
I also feel it necessary to offer some thoughts on the language of disability that was used throughout the event. Let me first say that I absolutely support all athletes and I recognize how much of a tough road it is to compete at the highest level. That being said, I found a lot of the language extremely troubling. It seemed as though these athletes were not being celebrated for their athletic ability. They were instead being celebrated for overcoming their disability. Words such as "overcoming" and "exceeding" were peppered throughout the two-hour spectacle. The final portion of the torch relay was preceded by a video narrative of two athletes who beat the odds, overcame physical challenges and reached sporting pinnacles.
I find this approach highly problematic because it reinforces the notion that having a disability is a personal tragedy and that we need to embrace something normal (like sport) in order to rise above the disability. Why can we not celebrate these athletes as just awesome athletes? Why can we not talk about the disability as being an asset to them rather than as an aspect of their life that they need to rise above? There are still so many people in this world who view disability as one of life's ultimate tragedies and I believe that the language used at the opening ceremonies on Friday night is a huge contributor to that stigma. It makes it sound as though unless we can push past the disability to achieve sporting greatness, life with physical or cognitive differences is not really worth it.
I, for one, will never win a Para Pan Am or Paralympic medal and I am perfectly happy with my disability. In fact, I wouldn't have it any other way!