Posts Tagged ‘disability

A week or so before the Paralympic Games started, comedian Laurence Clark wrote a piece (at in support of his current show, Inspired.  In the piece he writes very eloquently that he doesn’t take kindly to being called “inspiring” simply because he happens to be a comedian with cerebral palsy, describing this as “a bizarre form of political correctness.”

“I came to realise that the less fortunate you are perceived to be, the less you have to achieve before you’re labelled “inspiring”. It was a polite way of people telling me they thought I probably wouldn’t amount to much, but had somehow surpassed their low expectations.”

” I don’t get called inspiring for achieving amazing feats, the kind of thing anybody would be in awe of, like swimming the Channel, climbing a mountain or getting away with saying the F-word on Newsnight (I have done one of these things: no prizes for guessing which). Instead, people tell me I am inspiring for doing ordinary, run-of-the-mill things like getting dressed and going to work. I was told I was inspiring when I got married, presumably because people like me aren’t expected to find love. I was told I was inspiring when my sons were born, though my contribution seemed like the easy bit compared to my wife’s.”

When I first read this my first instinct was that it made perfect sense.  After all, what frame of reference do I have on which to base any kind of disagreement? Plus I’m the kind of woolly liberal public sector weed whose worst fear in the world is being thought politically incorrect, insensitive or condescending.  And besides all that baggage, I could see his argument – why should his achievements (or otherwise) be considered any more inspiring than anyone else’s, just because he happens to be disabled?

But then the Games started and something unexpected happened – I started to disagree with Laurence, for a very specific reason.

My daughter was born just short of two years ago, the younger of twins and eight weeks premature.  Two days after she was born we were told that she had experienced a severe bleed in her brain before, during or after her birth and that this was likely to cause her permanent damage.  It’s impossible to predict what permanent effect any bleed might have on a child as their brains still have to evolve and form the necessary connections to perform certain functions and it doesn’t necessarily follow that the most severe bleeds have the most severe consequences.  But we were told that the prognosis was not particularly good.

Happily, Robyn is developing well, far better than that early prognosis.  She’s not walking yet and has limited mobility down her left side, but thanks to support from NHS professionals (another reason why I despise the coalition government which seems hellbent on depriving people of the right to these services as well as stigmatising disabled people) and an undoubted strength of character (also known as “strong-willed” or plain “bolshiness”) she is shuffling around on her bottom, developing her vocabulary and generally taking over the household in (mostly) bloodless coup.

That said, I worry about her.  I know I’m supposed to be an enlightened subscriber to the social model of disability (where the problem is the society that creates barriers for the disabled person rather than the problem being the disability itself), but nobody really sits you down and prepares you emotionally to be the parent of a disabled child.  From the moment we were told Robyn would probably have some form of disability, most likely cerebral palsy, I pictured her in a wheelchair, maybe learning disabled, maybe unable to ever live independently.  I didn’t want to read about the condition or its effects because I was scared of what might be in those books or on those webpages about what lay in store for my daughter.

And you know what?  I felt sorry for her. I know that’s not the right thing but it’s how I felt.

And I still worry and fear for her. It won’t become clear exactly what impairments she will have for another year or so, but even beside that I worry about her being teased or bullied by other kids at school, about her being unable to keep up or join in – in short, that that moment when that part of her brain bled at her birth may have permanently prevented her from having a fulfilling, happy life.  She’s my daughter, and I want the best for her – and with the best politically correct will in the world, being disabled doesn’t necessarily fit in with that.

But I’ve been watching athletes, swimmers, footballers, rowers and other Paralympic competitors, and I’ve paid particular attention to those with cerebral palsy.  And you know what?  They’re fucking good.  And not just in a “hasn’t she done well for a disabled person?” way, they’re just good.  And some are sensational.

Hannah Cockcroft has cerebral palsy as a result of two cardiac arrests at birth which caused brain and nerve damage to her spine, legs and feet with her parents being told that she would never be able to walk, talk or do anything for herself or live past her teenage years. On 31 August she won GB’s first track and field gold medal of the 2012 Paralympic Games in the T34 100 metres race with a Paralympic record time of 18.05 seconds.

Hannah Cockcroft, Olivia Breen, Sophia Warner and others are inspirational to me, and no doubt to parents across the country, because they remind me to look beyond the disability and the struggles that our children will no doubt have, to the chance – no, the likelihood – that they will have lives where they can fulfil their ambitions, whether that’s to be a champion sportsperson, to have a successful career or a great education, to get married and have children or even be a stand up comedian.

I still find myself cringing when I hear a commentator saying that an athlete “suffers from” a particular disability or someone asks “so what’s wrong with him?” about a particular Paralympian, but I think the London 2012 Paralympic Games has done more for the public perception of disability in this country than any number of well-meaning campaigns or training courses ever could – this is especially timely given the current government’s clear agenda to stigmatise disabled people as benefits scroungers or burdens on the economy.

And it’s also done something for me. It’s made me positive for Robyn’s future. I’ve always seen what a fighter, what a character, what a person she is (and what a pain in the arse she can be as well) but now I have far more confidence that other people will see the same things as well.

Inspirational? Oh, go on then.

Sorry, Laurence.


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