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Sport through a disability studies lens

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Thursday, August 4, 2011

Jeremy Tynedal, University of Calgary
This entry is part of a collaborative series on disabilities between the Federation’s Equity Issues Portfolio and the Canadian Disability Studies Association/ Association Canadienne des Études sur l’Incapacité

Participation in sport is seen to have health, social, economic and environmental benefits that include self-concept, self-esteem, reduced depressive symptoms, decreased stress and anxiety, improved self-acceptance, changes in anti-social behaviour and enhanced psychological well-being. European citizens see sport as an important vehicle to transmit essential values such as teamwork, discipline and friendship, to fight against all types of discrimination and to promote ethical and social values. In this blog I look at Sport and where it might move through a disability studies lens covering especially the issues of access and the perception of athletes. I conclude that Sport is a field of academic inquiry that would benefit from interdisciplinary approaches that include disability studies.

Disability, Sports and Access
Besides the generally recognized importance of  sport, it is of particular relevance to people with disabilities. The European Parliament resolution on the situation of people with disabilities in the enlarged European Union –  the European Action Plan 2006-2007 (2006/2105(INI) – states, “the important role of sport as a factor for improving the quality of life, self-esteem, independence and social integration of people with disabilities.”

There is a long history of sport performed by people with disabilities. Several international treaties, charters, conventions and declarations address the issue of discrimination in Sport including the discrimination against people with disabilities. To quote from the UN Enable website:

“Persons with disabilities have the right to participate in sporting and recreational activities at all levels; organizing and participating in sports; receiving the necessary instruction, training and resources; and accessing sporting, recreational and leisure venues. In addition, children and youth with disabilities have the right to play and the right to equal access in sporting, recreational and leisure activities, including those within the educational system.”

Although many perceive inclusion in sport disciplines as essential for people with disabilities, the endeavour encounters various problems. Canada has an active strategy to increase the participation of people with disabilities in sport, physical activity and recreation. Yet, Canadians with disabilities represent only 1% of the memberships of national sport organizations. A European Parliament report on social inclusion and physical education highlights that disabled children that are educated in mainstream schools often are not involved in school sport, whether in physical education or high school sport, because of the following:

- lack of appropriate infrastructure and difficulties with facility and equipment provision (50 percent);

- lack of staff expertise (21 percent);

- resources (10 percent);

- difficulties with the severity of the disabilities (15 percent);

- lack of official policy legislation to address and to raise broader awareness of integration issues (2 percent);

- physical barriers to access; class management inadequacies, programme content, and class sizes.

The report further states:

“In mainstream schools, many PE [physical education] curricula are designed for and favour, the physically able. The traditional emphasis on competition leading to winning as an essential component of the PE experience can result in embarrassment, demotivation and development of negative self-concept. Competition and tradition are powerful inhibitors of change in PE with the Games discourse, an anti-inclusive item.”

Given these findings, which arguably are relevant for Canada as well, more interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research that includes a disability studies lens is needed to address the many obstacles and challenges to increasing the participation of people with disabilities in Sport.

Disability, Sport and Perception
From a disability studies lens, as other academic fields covering sport, the aspect of perception is an interesting one. The immense value of sport, whether it is for recreational or competitive purposes, is a history of needs and lived experiences. For many, sport is seen as a tool to improve the rehabilitation outcome of a person with disability. It is often linked to a medical model of disability, which perceives difference as deficit, and advocates for the ‘restoration’ of a previous ‘normal’ condition.

Sir Ludwig Guttmann, neurosurgeon, medical innovator and `father` of Paralympics saw sport as a means to quickly rehabilitate the spinal cord injuries of  veterans of World War II. Sport provides a vital therapeutic value for the rehabilitation of people with disabilities in physical, psychological and social areas of life. The perceptions associated with a ‘less-able-than’ approach, which is often part of the medical model of disability narrative plays itself out also on the levels of high performance Sport. The International Paralympics Committee classification code and international standard from 2007 states:

“5.2  To be Eligible to Compete, an Athlete must have an impairment that leads to a permanent and verifiable Activity Limitation.

5.3 The impairment should limit the Athlete’s ability to compete equitably in elite sport with Athletes without impairment.

5.4 If an Athlete has an Activity Limitation resulting from an impairment that is not permanent and/or does not limit the Athlete’s ability to compete equitably in elite sport with Athletes without impairment, the Athlete should be considered ineligible to compete.”

Internationally renowned athletes with disabilities, such as Vanier and Trudeau Scholar Danielle Peers – who wrote a piece in this series called ‘Stand Up’ for Exclusion?: Queer Pride, ableism and inequality – has questioned these perceptions. Peers has also critiqued other disabling discourses in an important article in the journal, Disability & Society, entitled, “(Dis)empowering Paralympic histories: absent athletes and disabling discourses.”

Indeed although wording such as that used by the International Paralympics Committee might be understandable, the existing narrative raises other questions. For example, the “therapeutic” body devices developed to mimic species-typical body structures and expected body functioning might allow the wearer to outperform the species-typical body in various functions.

Doping, the hidden use of performance enhancement products with the purpose of obtaining an unfair competitive advantage, has a long history in sport despite being rejected broadly. The open use of performance enhancement in general and within sport is much more contentiously debated.  Recently issues pertaining to athletes with disabilities and therapeutic enhancement have come to the forefront. The South African Paralympics athlete Oscar Pistorius, who runs on carbon fiber Flex-foot cheetah leg prostheses, was the first whose therapeutic devices (the cheetah legs) –  devices that mimic the functioning of the normative body – were labeled as techno doping devices.

It will be of interest to see whether athletes that use enhancement enabling therapeutic devices will be allowed in the future to compete against athletes of normative body structure or whether the techno doping stance will prevail. Oscar Pistorius is only one of a string of Paralympians that wanted or still dream of performing in the Olympics. Indeed, the IPC wordings and perception of people with disabilities in general, and around sport and people with disabilities in particular, might explain why athletes with so-called disabilities often desire to be part of the Olympics and ‘not just’ part of the Paralympics.

If the techno doping sentiment stands toward the so-called bionic legs, the challenge well might shift to identifying how the cheetah legs are different from, for example, a pole or a ski. As to the relationship between technology and sport in regards to the so-called nondisabled, most if not all winter sports are created through the appearance of a mechanical product (examples, clap-skates, bobsleighs and skis or snowboards), which the athlete is learning to master and perform on. One could classify these devices as external tools to be used by the athlete. They would all be classified as techno doping devices, meaning that one cannot use them to compete against someone who does not have them. It is apparent that sport depends on these instruments to enable the performance of athletes, while those without these technologies would not be able to compete on the same level as the techno-acquired. Does this mean people with legs like Pistorius could have their own event in the Olympic or other level of competitive sport events, alongside the body normative athletes?

Disabled people playing Sport use many mechanical devices (i.e. wheelchairs, sleds, sit skis and artificial appendages). Could these devices lead to new Olympic disciplines? Given that purpose, meaning and availability of sport constantly changes will athletes with disabilities that can outperform the athletes with normative bodies see it in the future as useful to compete in events of athletes with normative bodies or would they rather have their own events? If that is the case would such events be part of the Paralympics or a separate structure removed from Paralympics and Olympics? If the so-called nondisabled athlete is being outperformed by the so-called athlete with disabilities, will the nondisabled athlete feel compelled to wear certain therapeutic enhancements in order to ‘keep up’ with their disabled athletic counterpart?

A recent report on Human Enhancement written for the European Parliament states that, “we are witnessing at the moment a transition from a performance-oriented society, in which the fulfillment of predefined tasks is rewarded, to a performance-enhancing society, in which tasks in work life, and even private life, are ever harder to calculate and foresee, and therefore the most pressing task for individuals is the competitive improvement of bodily preconditions and requirements for successful performance.” What does this shift mean for Sport and the use and regulation of therapeutic enhancements on all performance levels from recreation to high performance and all venues from schools to the Olympics and Paralympics?

The future of Sport will among other things depend on how the questions posed within this blog are answered within disability studies and other academic fields and especially outside of academia by athletes and non-athletes.

Jeremy Tynedal is a Kinesiology student with a minor in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies at the University of Calgary. His research is partly supported by a SSHRC grant, “Beyond Pistorius, social dynamics-future expectations and the development of therapeutic enhancements for people with disabilities" (PI: G. Wolbring). 

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Equity Matters

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Ableism and disability