opinion

'I'm a woman living with a disability in Australia. The past 2 weeks have meant the world to me.'

I'm 23 years old and live in the Blue mountains. I was born and live with Spina bifida (a birth defect in which a developing baby’s spinal column doesn’t fully form, which then impacts spinal cord function ), and hydrocephalus (a buildup of excess cerebral spinal fluid in the brain’s ventricles which can place pressure on the brain).

Like many disabilities, Spina bifida means different things for different people, with varying levels of severity. I have the most severe type, Myelomeningocele, where my spinal cord escaped through the gap in my vertebrae in-utero and was exposed at birth, damaging and disorganising the nerves of my spinal cord. 

I use a manual wheelchair for mobility, wear ankle-foot orthotics to stand and use Canadian crutches to walk short distances. Some less noticeable aspects of my disabilities include: chronic headaches, poor circulation and weak leg muscles.

As a person with a disability living in Australia, the past fortnight I have felt represented. It is one of the only times I’ve seen people with disabilities represented in a way that doesn’t focus solely on their impairments or mobility aids. I’ve been glued to the TV and never felt so excited about watching sport.

On Monday night, we saw the conclusion of the 2020 Paralympics. Australia had an incredible campaign; 179 athletes went to Tokyo and came home with a total of 80 medals.

This is an amazing result and Prime Minister Scott Morrison recently announced all medallists will receive the cash bonus equal to that of which Australian Olympians receive. This is a huge step towards equality.

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I absolutely love the Australian Paralympic movement and feel incredibly proud to have the people we do in the foreground. 

Each athlete spoke with such eloquence as they acknowledged the 1044 Paralympians who came before them who didn’t have the opportunities and support that we’re seeing now. 

It was so heartening to see all Australian and most international events broadcasted on free to air tv.

Growing up, I have been constantly asked different versions of: "When are you going to the Paralympics?" Not because I am interested in sport, but because I use a wheelchair. 

At a glance this seems harmless. However, saying things like this sets a precedent of unrealistic expectations of people with disabilities that’s incredibly hard to achieve. 

It would be as if we expected every able-bodied child to grow up and compete at the Olympics. 

Furthermore, this expectation is intensely paradoxical in nature given the essence of sport being physically demanding and disability often creating physical movement barriers.

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As Dylan Alcott said after winning gold in the Quad singles tennis gold medal match: “Not every person with a disability can be a Paralympian but they can be a doctor, lawyer, a mum, a dad, a teacher, an educator, politician, whatever it is; they don’t often get the opportunities that we’ve got here to play sport.”

These comments around unrealistic expectations can further perpetuate the notion that those with disabilities aren’t good enough, no matter how successful we are in our lives, if we can’t be a Paralympian sports person.

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Two-time Paralympic gold medallist Madison de Rozario sums it up better than I ever could:

"The only time you see someone with a disability is when they’re winning gold medals in the green and gold, that’s not realistic, that’s not fair. We don’t hold any other Australian to that level, But that’s the only time we see disabilities, in Paralympic sport. It creates this unrealistic standard."

I believe these comments also often stem from an able-bodied perception of the Paralympics. 

When able-bodied people watch the Olympics, they see professional athletes performing at their absolute best. 

However, when watching the Paralympics, they often perceive people with disabilities as getting up and “giving it a go”. 

This couldn’t be further from the truth. The people we’ve seen compete at the Paralympics are elite athletes, the best in their field right now, and should be recognised as such.

People are not Ikea flat packs, only able to be built with a single specific set of instructions. 

People in general are complex individuals, capable of greatness. Greatness looks like different things for different people. 

We have learnt this through the achievement of many able bodied people and it is time to start seeing the achievements of people with disabilities the same way, Paralympian or not.

Feature Image: Supplied.

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