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Colin Hambrook on definitions - am I disabled or do I have a disability? / 15 December 2010

Caroline Cardus' Dirty Words for Disabled People takes the word 'special' and respells it Sp*c**l

Dirty Words for Disabled People by Caroline Cardus

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Definitions can either divide us or unite us in our search for identity and validation. But it's not easy. How long is the piece of string we use to tackle ideas around the discrimination we face. I am referring here to the Social Model of Disability which challenges the idea that we 'have disabilities.'

As people with impairments - we are disabled by the barriers that prevent us from taking a full and equal part in society. We live with disability in our day-to-day struggle to combat discrimination - but it is a mark of the barriers society presents - not something we actively possess.

Since the successful Our View meeting at Channel 4 on 8 November I have been thinking about the conundrums Accentuate faces in steering the 15 projects and making a cultural shift in perceptions. Getting my head around the problem we face in finding points of commonality between two very different agendas - Sport and Arts - has been at the heart of it.

We talked through issues that arose from the Channel 4 documentary Inside Incredible Athletes. The documentary made a general concession to the medical model idea of 'having a disability' - albeit using inside stories of the athletes themselves and their quest for excellence. The sports agenda is changing - as more inclusion happens in specific competitions - but it is still rooted in framing and categorising by limitation. So the body itself becomes the marker by which individuals seek to push their boundaries and achieve 'personal best.' Possessing and utilising the deficit model (ie identification through loss) is a key qualification for entering any specific competition.

But the most interesting thing about the discussions that took place on 8 November, was thinking about what values would underpin the games if the Paralympics were to suddenly be reinvented now. You have to remember that the ideas which formed Paralympics were fermented in the aftermath of World War II. Their founder was a German Jewish neurologist Ludwig Guttmann - who was forced to flee to Britain in 1939. Guttmann's initial pioneering work was with veterans with spinal cord injuries.

Stoke Mandeville was dedicated to rehabilitation. So with ideas of therapeutic intervention and motivation as the basis for the games - the whole notion of the Paralympics being a 'Parallel' sports programme was innovatory in 1960 when the first games were held alongside the Olympics in Rome. During those decades the priority was focussed on physical impairment; it was about raising levels of self-esteem; and creating positive role models when disability meant a total lack of self-determination. But if you think about it, the 'Para' in the Paralympics was a nod towards an idea of inclusion and access.

We still fight those battles now - but there has been some shift in understanding. There would now be much more meaningful talk about inclusion and access at the heart of any endeavour to establish new programmes of sports activity. Individuals would be categorised by their level of competitive excellence, rather than specific impairment. There would be a far bigger challenge to the notion of segregating competitors by the level to which you are deemed to possess an impairment. 'Deemed' being the operative word - as judgements by their nature can never get away from degrees of subjectivity.

I think the Arts can help inspire Disability Sport to reflect on any baggage it carries. Sure the Arts are about achieving personal best in some sense. But the drive to make quality art is not about achieving a cure to attain the perfect body - which is at the root of the hangover that media representation portrays when covering Disability Sport.

Why does someone with an impairment have to be labelled 'incredible' in order to take part in a sports competition? Isn't it about the fact that everyone is unique in some ways - and that difference is inspiring? Which brings me to Jon Adams 'Look About.' In his initial question on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/vsa123#!/topic.php?uid=188111380901&topic=20830 Jon has approached the Social Model from another approach. He asks 'Where do you see the biggest 'faults' involving Deaf and disabled artists in the Arts landscape?' The Social Model emphasises the 'fault' that lies with society rather than with the individual - but can we be so blase?

From a personal perspective - living with M.E. means I am disabled by the stresses of living in a competitive society. I can easily forget my own name, such is the impact that being placed in a competitive situation has. With M.E. comes a cortisol imbalance that places the body in a perpetual state of fight or flight. And one of the key barriers is the impact this has on the function of memory.

The irony of thinking about Disability Sport is that competition is an access issue for me because of the levels stress it induces. An adjunct to the notion of being disabled by society, would be that I am disabled by competitive values in society. But it is up to me - not society to manage the impact of stress on my impairment. I am lucky to work in disability arts where individuals will often accommodate stress as a factor in my accessing working relationships. But the variables are so great wouldn't there be something faintly ridiculous about me expecting society to try to qualify what would be a recommended level of access? At the end of the day whether I 'have a disability' or I am disabled, I just have to get on with it as best I can.