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It’s Okay to be Inspired by Our Paralympians

The London 2012 Paralympic Games are almost over. Most races and events have been run and won. Australia has done amazingly well given the relatively small contingent of 161 athletes representing us against some of the bigger teams we are competing with. As a nation, Australia have, at the time of writing, scored a total of 25 gold, 18 silver and 26 bronze, a phenomenal haul, putting us 5th on the medal tally, happily just ahead of the United States of America. The only teams ahead of us are China way out in front, the host nation Great Britain even in gold medals with Russia but ahead on the overall count and Ukraine ahead of us by two.

At just 5:30am in the morning on the 30th of August Australian time, a total of 347,000 Australians woke up to tune into the Opening Ceremony of the London Paralympics, giving the station some of its strongest ratings ever. These relatively high viewing numbers have continued throughout the coverage of the events during the 7-11:00pm timeslot  on the ABC’s digital television station ABC2. The Paralympics have also continued to be shown on ABC1 for the finals sessions, occurring from 4am in the morning AEST.

But aside from the prolific medal-winning performances of our Paralympians in London, the biggest and most important element of the Paralympics is the effects that it is having back here at home on the Australian population.

The Paralympic Games, with such in-depth coverage give the opportunity for transformative effects on the Australian population, in particular the way in which people with a disability are viewed in Australia. All too often those with a disability are viewed by some ‘able-bods’ as having little worth and something to gawk at when we dare venture out into the community to live our lives to the best of our boundless abilities.

There’s been a lot of talk in recent times within the disability community about the word inspiration and particularly about so-called ‘inspiration porn’, that is, images of people with a disability with slogans meant to tug at the heartstrings. A lot of that has been viewed by those who have a disability with disdain.

Equally too and relevant directly to the 2012 Paralympics, words such as ‘inspirational’ and ‘amazing’ have been used to excess in describing the astonishing feats of our elite athletes with a disability. These comments again from some in the disability community have drawn equal condemnation to that which inspiration porn has attracted.

Many want our Paralympians to be seen as no different to our Olympians. They are elite sportspeople getting out of bed early and often to train to the highest level in their chosen sport. They don’t want to be seen as having done something any different to that of athletes without an impairment.

In the case of the Paralympics though, is it fair to view people commenting about the achievements of our Paralympic athletes with the kind of annoyance of that in relation to inspiration porn?

Recently, our Olympians had their shot at glory and in the early days of the Games, didn’t have as much success as was expected. But then we came good in the latter stages of the event to at least gain a respectable finish.

The superlatives flew in the final days of the competition with the strong performances we recorded, particularly in events we weren’t expected to excel in after under-performing in those we were. During the Olympic Games in London the words ‘inspirational’ and ‘extraordinary’ and just about any other superlative in existence were used to describe our Olympic athletes too.

So in this sense, we aren’t treating athletes with a disability any differently to athletes that do not. We might use a different degree of vigour in describing the efforts of our Paralympians, but for all intents and purposes they’re being referred to in exactly the same way as their Olympic counterparts.

We as Australians find our sportsmen and women inspiring. Sport is so entwined in our culture that we elevate those that show immense sporting prowess to a g0d-like status. Now that might be right or wrong, but that’s what happens and that is now happening to a similar extent with the broader commentary that our Paralympic athletes have been subjected to since the London Paralympics began.

That doesn’t mean that the occasional over-enthusiastic labelling of a Paralympian’s effort hasn’t occurred during the coverage of the Paralympic Games. It probably has. But is this automatically a bad thing?

Disability in Australia, as mentioned earlier, is not viewed as favourably and treated as equally as it is in particularly European countries and in the UK as anecdotal evidence has shown over the past week and a bit. So any change in the Australian mindset that results from this more in-depth broadcasting of the most elite of disabled sporting events should be viewed as a positive.

The fact  that our Paralympic athletes are now being referred to as inspirational and amazing signals at least a small shift in the perceptions of disability and it would be great if this continued to pervade the Australian political, social and cultural discourse.

It shouldn’t particularly matter how the minds of Australians are changed when viewing disability, providing that people aren’t condescending pricks when they talk to or about someone with a disability, what should matter is that the change itself is occurring.

So let’s embrace the inspirational, amazing, fantastic exploits of our Paralympic heroes, perhaps then, through maintained or increased exposure, we’ll begin to experience the change in thinking that we want to see.

Change From Within Or Change From the Periphery? The Answer is a Matter of Degrees

Politics is at quite the low ebb at the moment. Most of us get pretty frustrated from time-to-time about the way in which the major political parties are heading. We even get frustrated about certain issues that we wish the political party we most identify with would deal with in a way that we and the public overwhelmingly want. Essentially, we choose one of the two main parties, Liberal and National (Coalition) or the Australian Labor Party. Most of us don’t overwhelmingly agree with the platform of the party we vote for, whether that vote is delivered by first preference or flow of preferences.

This raises the question of the role that we play in the political process. Do we play a role entrenched in one of the political parties as a rank-and-file member? Do we seek committee or organisational representation within a party?

Or do we influence the political debate from the periphery? Is this influence from the outer limits of the political process at the ballot box? Or is it closer to the political discourse in the form of representing sectional interests trying to influence public policy?

Most importantly, what is best and most influential, change from within, or attempting to affect change just a little step away from political machinations?

This is a debate than will again be raised as a result of the public discussion entered into recently, particularly over the last week, but also for some months prior by the always intriguing and never dull Clive Palmer.

In recent times, the outspoken billionaire has both spoken strongly in favour of the Coalition stance on government taxes and then, more recently, strongly against the stance of both sides of politics on the charged issue of asylum seekers. Then there is the small matter today of a donation to Together Queensland to compensate workers sacked by the LNP administration.

Now, Clive Palmer isn’t one to be reliably taken on his word. He promised us he would run for Lilley, Wayne Swan’s seat, then elsewhere in Queensland but has since reneged on both counts, the latter supposedly over asylum seeker treatment by the Liberal and National Party at the federal level.

But let’s think the best of him and take him on his word that this is the legitimate reason he chose not to seek pre-selection for a parliamentary seat in Canberra. It’s not the first time he’s made a foray into the often ugly debate over some of the most vulnerable people on the planet.

But is it best for him to not at least attempt to seek a seat in the parliament where he could have influenced the debate from within? Admittedly his stance over asylum seekers would have probably provided somewhat of a stumbling block, a big hurdle to get over in winning the chance to represent the LNP in the electoral race.

Put that aside for a minute. If there were enough like-minded people that chose to get so heavily involved in the process, and it’s a sure bet there would be a number of people, socially liberal in nature, then change could be influenced from within.

Even if it were just one person, Clive Palmer, or a small number of people, like in the parliamentary debate on refugees and asylum seekers at present, then engaging in the t0-and-fro with an honesty, forthrightness and passion would begin to influence change from with. Yes, the progress might well be slow, but it starts people talking.

But there is a role for those at the ballot box. More importantly in some ways there is a role for those organisations that directly engage in the political goings on.

Because people at the ballot box generally vote for a number of issues that a political party stands on, it often becomes blurred, even completely obstructed as to just how far that endorsement of the policies of any one political party goes.

Voters can attempt to force change by writing letters to their local MP or Ministers, can protest or can show their opinions on any particular issue through polls on topical issues. But these fora are not the best way to get involved in the change process. They are helpful but will likely result in even slower change than people massing from directly within.

Then there is somewhat of a middle ground of influence. That middle ground exists in engaging in special interest groups which often have direct access to politicians, bureaucrats and government and can therefore have a greater impact on the evolution of political debate. In truth, lobbying groups are much closer to having a direct influence on government policy than the middle ground on the scale between everyday voters and actually being in the parliament.

It’s clear that the closer you are to the political process, the more impact you can have on change. Mr Palmer, despite some of his failings, everyone has them, would have been best to continue his fight to pursue change from within. He undoubtedly still will, behind closed doors within the LNP organisation and through the media, but not directly through attempting to get into parliament. His independent voice, if it continues, might help attract more like-minded people into the party organisation and that is a positive.

Change from the boundaries while not the best, will still result in the shifting of minds over time, though the depth of this shift and the time taken to achieve change from this perspective is likely much shallower and will take much longer to foment.

We must realise as voters that our selection at the ballot box will likely be misinterpreted by government as a full endorsement of their policies. It is not and all possible action must be taken to let government know just what we think about everything that our elected representatives do.

To not engage fully is to be a passive participant and an enabler for the occasional, sometimes often, horrific decision which can be made by governments.

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