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Brittain re-building lives through disability sport


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Brittain re-building lives through disability sport

  1. 1. Re-building Lives Through Disability Sport<br />Dr Ian Brittain (Coventry University, UK)<br />The aim of this paper is to highlight the role of disability sport in non-violent conflict transformation through its ability to change perceptions and, therefore, break down perceptual and structural barriers to the inclusion of people with disabilities within mainstream society. It will begin by using an adaptation of Peace Studies scholar Johan Galtung’s triangle of violence to show the various ways, throughout history, that people with disabilities have been victims of various kinds of violence (direct, cultural and structural) throughout the world. <br />Galtung’s Triangle of Violence<br />Direct Violence<br />Extermination/ Abortion/ Euthanasia<br />Ridicule<br />Visible<br />Violence<br />Invisible/ Less<br />Visible Violence<br />Cultural ViolenceStructural Violence<br />- Fear- Unequal access to opportunities/ - Hatred services (Education, Health,<br />- Dismissiveness Employment)<br />- Negative Perceptions regarding abilities- Inaccessible built environment<br />- Pity- Poverty<br />- Institutionalisation/ Hiding <br /> away by families<br />Figure 1. Disability and the triangle of violence (adapted from Johan Galtung, 1990)<br />The paper will now briefly touch upon the medical, social and bio-social models of disability and how they relate to the various forms of violence outlined. <br />Medical Model Discourse and Disability.<br />According to O’Donnell (1997) those who do have command over the knowledge within a particular discourse, the experts, have the power or authority to establish that discourse, which can then be extremely difficult to challenge without the help of an alternative set of experts. In modern day western societies the power of the medical profession, gained through its ability to both define and name illnesses and body parts as well as the power to heal injuries and cure illnesses, has put them in a very strong position to create and perpetuate discourses with respect to many areas of life related to the body and mind including disability. The medical profession work from a biological perspective and this has lead to disability being conceived of as merely a biological product. Therefore, the general view is that the problems that face people with disabilities are the result of their physical and/ or mental impairments and are independent of the wider socio-cultural, physical, and political environments. Consequently, it appears to people with disabilities that the cause of many of their problems lie within them and their impairments. In addition this powerful and apparently ‘legitimised’ discourse is then taken up and used by other organisations and institutions within society to inform policy or to exert power over those with disabilities, that is, a particular understanding of disability has been normalised within society. Therefore, those with the most legitimate claim to determine and define the discourse in the area of disability (people who actually have disabilities) are strongly encouraged to accept a discourse that is not in their best interests. But because the rest of society has also internalised such a discourse and, as such, accepts disability as pathological (that is, based in biology), it has become almost impossible for them to put forward an alternative discourse that will be listened to. <br />The Social Model of Disability<br />According to Morris (1991) in recent years, many of those involved in the disability movement have argued against the perceptions of disability embedded in the medical model, which health and social services professionals (and the general public) tend to apply to people with disabilities. Disability activists have, therefore, developed a social model of disability, arguing that it is environmental barriers and social attitudes that disable. According to Devine (1997, p.4) social construction theory ‘seeks to explain the process by which knowledge is created and assumed as reality.’ Morris (1991) states that this perspective takes the view that if people’s attitudes were to change, and there was public policy that legislated that environmental barriers should be removed, then many of the problems associated with disability would disappear. This view is exemplified in the comments of Drake (1996, cited in Imrie, 1997):<br />“disablement lies in the construction of society, not in the physical condition of the individual. However, this argument is usually rejected precisely because to accept it involves recognising the extent to which we are not merely unfortunate but are directly oppressed by a hostile social environment”.<br />(Drake, 1996, cited in Imrie, 1997; p.263)<br />The Bio-Social Model of Disability.<br />However, writers such as Imrie (1997) and Birkenbach (1990) have argued that perspectives such as the medical and social models are both inherently weak because they deny the inter-actional character of disablement. They do, however, acknowledge the difficulties of trying to locate disablement in a relationship between a medical and a functional problem and the social responses to it, as they claim the concept of disability requires. This attempt to include impairment within the overall understanding of disability and its impact within a society is known as the bio-social model. Birkenbach (1990) argues that the social model must recognise that there is a physical state that prevents people with disabilities being afforded equal opportunities and treatment in that their very physical differences mean that society has to react to them and their various needs in a different way to the way it reacts to the same needs of the rest of society. In response to this Priestley (1998) cites the Northern Officer Group Report of 1996 which states:<br />“The social model does not deny the existence of impairments and physiological differences….., rather, it addresses them without attaching value judgements such as ‘normality’ and shifts emphasis towards those aspects of our world that can be changed.”<br />(Northern Officer Group (1996) cited in Priestley, 1998; p.85)<br />In addition to this Shakespeare and Watson (1997) feel that this issue of the failure of the social model to acknowledge the role of impairments in producing disability is one that only arises within the area of disability research. They feel that the real issue is the need for a clear and united stance, because ‘the differences within the movement on the issue of the social model are as nothing compared to the hostility and ignorance with which the social model is greeted in the wider world’ (Shakespeare and Watson, 1997; p. 299). <br />I will now attempt to relate the different kinds of ‘violence’ outlined in my adapted Galtung’s Triangle of Violence to particularly the medical model of disability by using brief examples from a variety of countries and situations. Violence is defined by the World Health Organisation thus:<br />" the intentional use of physical force or power, threatened or actual, against oneself, another person, or against a group or community, that either results in or has a high likelihood of resulting in injury, death, psychological harm, maldevelopment, or deprivation." <br />(World Health Organisation website, 2010)<br />In the next section I will relate how these models of disability and particularly the medical model of disability relate to the various kinds of violence outlined in the adaptation of Galtung’s triangle of violence.<br />Direct Violence<br />Extermination of people with disabilities has occurred throughout history from ancient times for a variety of reasons including some religious beliefs that held that people with disabilities were evil, to modern genetic engineers who put a modern spin on the need to exterminate anything that might interfere with ideal or ‘normal’ development of the human body, for example Nazi Germany. <br />With regard to Ridicule earlier societies, particularly in the medieval period where many of the court jesters were individuals with different appearances or mental functions (e.g. dwarfs, hunchbacks), were prone to ridicule and taunt those who were disabled in some way. (So called ‘Freak Shows’ would be a more modern day example of this) Even today individuals with disabilities frequently have to endure rude, ignorant and offensive comments. Our language is full of expressions that have a tendency to poke fun at those with disabilities (for example cripple, retard). <br />Although the more extreme forms of visible direct violence such as extermination may not be anywhere near as prevalent today (although this is not say that it does not still happen in more isolated areas or individual cases) other forms of visible violence such as abortion and even euthanasia still occur, often legally within society even though both practices come under heavy criticism from a number of different sources.<br />Structural Violence<br />In addition to the usually reported issues of poverty and an inaccessible built environment there are a number of other issues that come under the heading of structural violence. Up to the early 1900’s, it was very common to institutionalise any individual who somehow deviated significantly from the norm. Although this was viewed as the humane thing to do, many acknowledge that institutions were created to protect the non-disabled from those with disabilities. <br />The hiding away by families of family members who are disabled can occur as a result of a variety of cultural and/ or religious reasons. Cambodia is a Buddhist nation. The central precept of Buddhism revolves around ‘Karma’ whereby actions in this life dictate the level of existence in the next. At a conceptual level, this often means that disability is seen as a punishment for bad actions committed in previous lives. Persons with a disability, especially in rural areas are, therefore, often hidden by their families who are afraid for their reputations in the wider community - specifically the very Asian idea of ‘losing face’. In Kenya, in the 1980’s, 50% of Kenyans with disabilities had no children, compared to the average Kenyan family of six or more children (Crawford, 2005; p.13). Crawford attributes this fact to myths surrounding passing on ‘bad blood’ combined with perceptions that people with disabilities are ‘asexual, unable to care for children, or are medically incapable’ (Crawford, 2005; p.13). This concept of ‘bad blood’, similar to the idea of karma described above for Cambodia, plays a key part in impacting the way many people with disabilities are treated in Kenya compared to the non-disabled. However, non-disabled family members of people with disabilities may also be deemed to be tainted by the same curse, meaning whole families may be treated differently or even shunned.<br />Unequal access to services can result from many different situations and not just in relation to what those in the non-disabled section of society receive. For many years disabled war veterans in Israel have benefited from a system of benefits that means that they receive far better care and financial benefits than Israeli individuals injured as a result of birth defects or traumatic injuries or illness later in life. Indeed Dr Yaniv Poria, author of a study on the disabled in Israel stated that ‘it is common among disabled people in Israel to say that it is better to become disabled during your army service than as a result of birth or an accident’ (Brinn, 2004). Gal and Bar (2005) claim that disabled war veterans are more highly regarded within Israeli society than other disabled due to the fact that they received their disabilities in fighting in the name of Israel. Gal and Bar differentiate between the ‘needed’ and the ‘needy’ disabled individuals with the ‘needed’ disabled individuals having much higher status and far better care and remuneration than the ‘needy’ individuals, due to the sacrifices they made ‘in the name of an array of social values’(Gal & Bar, 2005; p.592).<br />Cultural Violence<br />Emotional responses to disability such as fear, hatred, dismissiveness or pity can have major impacts upon the way people within non-disabled society interact with people with disabilities. Even the reaction of close friends to a sudden acquired disability can cause problems in a previously close friendship as Danny (in Brittain, 2002; p.138) pointed out following the loss of his right arm at the shoulder during a car accident:<br />“a lot of them found it very difficult, obviously, to come to terms with it. More so than me. And they found it hard to be around me, friends that I’d had for years.” (Danny)<br />The fact that many of Danny's long term friends found it hard to be around him following his accident appears to be in line with Hogan's (1999) contention that an acquired disability signifies a massive change in social status in the eyes of those around them. It is likely that a general lack of understanding of disability and the issues surrounding it were to blame for the difficulty of Danny’s friends in accepting his disability, for as Chris (in Brittain, 2002; p.138) so concisely put it:<br />“They have very little knowledge of people with a disability and instead the attitude is basically if I leave it alone and don’t touch them and don’t get involved then it’s not my problem kind of thing.”<br />(Chris)<br />The reaction of Danny’s friends to his acquired impairment clearly demonstrates the effect that a lack of understanding and a fear of the difference of anyone who does not conform to societal norms of able-bodiedness can have. Danny is still fully ambulatory with all his visual and intellectual faculties intact. He simply has one arm less than the majority of people. <br />It might be assumed that negative perceptions with regard to disability are only relevant to non-disabled individuals when dealing with or discussing people with disabilities. However, the power and reach of the perceptions of disability embedded in the medical model discourse are such that they can inform people with disabilities’ discourses regarding people with different or more severe impairments in much the same way as they do for the non-disabled community. The following quote from Ina (in Brittain, 2002; p.147) comes from a discussion regarding the type and severity of disability and people’s perceptions:<br />I think it gives a bad impression when you see these people that, like the one’s doing boccia. I think that’s just such an embarrassment and you know when we went out there and came back then people were saying oh we’re not on the same plane as the boccia’s people like that that give the rest of us a bad name and impression and they seem to class us all together and they only see the really bad ones generally.<br />(Ina)<br />It appears then that Ina is displaying a discriminatory or disablist viewpoint of a group of people more severely disabled than herself. Arguably there is a tendency within society to label all people with disabilities as ‘disabled’ and attribute the same ‘meaning’ (usually that of the person with greatest level of impairment) to people with all types of impairment. This then could be why Ina fears being associated with this group. However, in reality the quote from Ina clearly demonstrates a lack of understanding of what it means to have cerebral palsy and also a discriminatory attitude towards their right to be taking part in their chosen sporting activity and being part of the same team as Ina and the others she refers to. This kind of occurrence has also been reported by Hunt (1966 cited in Sherrill, 1986a; p. 23-24) who stated that ‘people with less stigmatized disabilities are often quite prejudiced against individuals who are more stigmatized.’ This then plays a part in reinforcing and recreating negative perceptions of disability and their continued use within society.<br />Most of the forms of violence arise out of the application of the medical model of disability. The social model of disability can help us understand the manner in which disability sport can help change perceptions within non-disabled society regarding people with disabilities and, thus, negate or at least lessen some of the ‘violence’ directed consciously or sub-consciously against people with disabilities. The impact of disability sport in this process appears to be two-fold. Firstly participation in disability sport impacts upon the self-confidence and self-image of people with disabilities helping them to overcome the negative perceptions of people with disabilities that they themselves may have often been socialised into believing. Secondly, increasing media coverage, particularly of the Paralympic Games, has played a major role in highlighting just how wrong many of the negative perceptions of people with disabilities held by a large number of people within non-disabled society are. <br />Sport and Disability.<br />Devine (1997) claims that society has a prescribed set of standards by which we are all measured and when someone's biological make-up or function fails to meet these standards they are 'assumed to be inferior and are subject to a decrease in inclusion in society' (Devine, 1997; p. 4). This is equally true for many aspects of life, but in the realm of sport, where one of the key aims is to distinguish between different levels of biological make-up and function through tests of physical strength, speed and endurance, this is especially true. In many ways sport is designed to highlight and revere extremes of bodily physical perfection and, under these circumstances, it is possible to see why, for some people, the idea of elite sport for people with disabilities, and in some cases any sport at all, is an anathema. Mastro et al (1988; p. 81) claim that part of the reason for this is that 'there is no culturally recognised need for competition and sports beyond therapeutic programs', which in itself has its roots in the schism between the socially constructed discourse of what sport is and the perceptions of disability embedded in the medical model discourse. By this I am referring to the view of sport as a means of highlighting bodily perfection and the perceptions embedded in the medical model discourse that views disability as a major form of biological imperfection. The outcome of such a situation for potential athletes with a disability is that their dreams and aspirations can be met with scorn or derision, which can then have a huge impact upon their self-confidence and self-image.<br />Self-Confidence and Self-Image.<br />When constantly confronted with negative perceptions about their abilities to carry out tasks that most people take for granted, and also bombarded with images of 'physical perfection' that most of the general public could not live up to, it is little wonder that many people with disabilities suffer from low self-esteem (Hargreaves, 2000). Seymour (1989) sums this up when she states:<br />“the body in which I live is visible to others, it is the object of social attention. I learn about my body from the impressions I see my body make on other people. These interactions with others provide critical visual data for my self-knowledge.”<br />(Seymour, 1989 cited in Hargreaves, 2000; p. 185)<br />This perceived fear of failure and low sense of self-worth can act as a strong deterrent for many people (and especially women) with disabilities, to becoming involved in sport. This is especially true when you consider the fact that placing themselves in a sporting context is very likely to exacerbate the visibility of the very physical differences that lead to these feelings and perceptions in the first place. However, if these psychological barriers can be overcome Berger (2008) claims that the benefits gained by participation in sport include improved physical conditioning and a sense of bodily mastery, along with a heightened sense of self-esteem and personal empowerment that spills over into other social pursuits. (Berger, 2008; 650). These comments appear to concur with the findings of Sporner et al (2009) who investigated the psychosocial impact of participation in the 2006 National Veterans Wheelchair Games and Winter Sports Clinic for 132 veterans with disabilities. Key findings included that 84% felt that participation in these events led them to a greater acceptance of their own disabilities and 77.1% felt it led to a greater participation by themselves in society.<br />The Impact of the Paralympic Games<br />The Paralympic Games is effectively the ‘shop window’ for disability sport and previous research has shown that it can have a major impact upon perceptions regarding people with disabilities for both non-disabled society and for other people with disabilities, some of whom may be inspired to try and take up sport (cf Brittain, 2009). Increasing media coverage, particularly of the Paralympic Games, has played a major role in highlighting just how wrong many of the negative perceptions of people with disabilities held by a large number of people within non-disabled society are. According to Hardin & Hardin (2004 in Berger, 2008; 650) disabled athletes themselves say they find media representations of other disabled athletes inspiring, believing that the latter model an affirmative experience of disability for people with disabilities as well as the general public. Dummer (1998) claims that media coverage of disability sport means that:<br />Athletes may be more likely to achieve at higher levels and to persist in sports when they receive media recognition for their accomplishments. Athletes, sports organizations, and event hosts find it easier to acquire sponsors when there is adequate media coverage. Media coverage also facilitates public awareness and acceptance of disability and disability sport. Finally, as more and more people with disabilities learn about sport opportunities, the number of participants increases<br />(Dummer, 1998; p.56)<br />For the Sydney 2000 summer Paralympic Games the BBC produced around 10-12 hours of coverage in the UK. For the London 2012 summer Paralympic Games Chennel 4, who won the right to be the host broadcaster in a competitive tender with the BBC, have contracted to broadcast 130 hours of coverage. This is a more than ten-fold increase in just twelve years. A recent Department of Culture, Media and Sport report entitled ‘London 2012: a legacy for disabled people’ stated:<br />A successful Paralympic Games will raise awareness, help to challenge stereotypes, and improve understanding, while at the same time raising the profile of disability sport...The 2012 Games must be seen as a beacon of accessibility and inclusion for participants and visitors alike. In the 2009 annual opinion tracker survey, 77 per cent of disabled people under 65 believed this to be a very important benefit of the Games.<br />(DCMS, 2010; p.12)<br />Conclusion<br />In conclusion the impact that disability sport can have upon the self-confidence and self image of people with disabilities and upon the perceptions of those within non-disabled society regarding people with disabilities appear to indicate a potentially strong role in non-violent conflict transformation. These conflicts highlighted in the adaptation of Galtung’s Triangle of Violence and rooted in the medical model of disability can have a hugely negative impact upon the lives of people with disabilities. There is a growing body of evidence of the potential for disability sport to transform these conflicts into positive experiences for both disabled and non-disabled individuals alike. This is perhaps particularly true of post-conflict zones where non-disabled sport is already being heavily championed as a key element of both peace and development. Hopefully, it won’t be much longer before the potential for disability sport in this process will be fully recognised and utilised.<br />Bibliography<br />Berger, R.J., 2008, Disability and the Dedicated Wheelchair Athlete: Beyond the “Supercrip” Critique, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Vol. 37 (6); p. 647 – 678.<br />Birkenbach, J.,1990, Physical Disability and Social Policy. University of Toronto Press, Toronto.<br />Brinn, D., 2004, Israeli athletes strike gold at World Paralympic Games, ( accessed 13-04-10.<br />Brittain, I., 2009, The Paralympic Games Explained, Rouledge, UK<br />Brittain, I., 2002, Elite Athletes with Disabilities: Problems and Possibilities. Unpublished Ph.D. thesis. 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