Disabled Athlete – An Oxymoron?

Language is, at its most simple, just a series of words or characters. It is the meanings attached by humans to these words or characters that makes language important. One function of language is communication, but in communicating humans also, more often than not, convey the underlying meaning behind the words or characters used. It is also claimed that language plays a key role in politics, domination and control. The meanings attached to the words or characters used are socially constructed within the social or cultural group within which an individual grows up and develops. Therefore, there can be major differences in the perceived meanings of words such as disability, disabled and even what constitutes sport, dependent upon the social and cultural group within which an individual learns their proscribed meanings. However, as some social groups and cultures within a given society are more powerful or have more influence than others one set of meanings for these words may gain dominance, even over those meanings proscribed by the group they refer to. Language, therefore, is made powerful by the meanings ascribed to particular words and phrases and the understanding of those meanings by various groups within society. The non-disabled form, by far, the largest group within society and also the most powerful, by sheer force of numbers if nothing else. Therefore, non-disabled definitions or meanings for words tend, on the whole, to be the most widely accepted and used.

There has, in recent times, with the advent of the social model of disability, been slow but positive change in some quarters regarding the meaning attached to disability. However, for the majority of non-disabled the perceived meaning is still based within the medical model of disability whereby disability has as its emphasis a disability – specific or categorical approach that reinforces and perpetuates the perspective of disability as found in the person and their individual impairment and, therefore, as a problem of the individual. In addition, little headway, if any, has been made in altering in any way the meaning attached to words such as ‘sport’ and ‘athlete’. The connection between the human body, physicality and sport is a complex one. However, Barton (1993) claims sport is a social construction of dominant groups within society and is, therefore, a creation of and for the non-disabled, which gives priority to certain types of human movement. According to Middleton (1999) sport is a highly prized activity within society, in which success is well rewarded and applauded. She claims that ‘a high value is placed on physical perfection measured in terms of speed, strength, endurance, grace, style and the ability to fight’(Middleton, 1999; p.65). These highly prized attributes of any top class athlete mean that when words such as disabled and athlete or disability and sport are placed next to each other the generally accepted understandings of each word mean that there is an immediate and fundamental contradiction. In an ideal world both words should be simply descriptive nouns to describe a condition and an activity respectively. However, in reality, both are laden with socially constructed meaning and underlying value judgements, making the terms disabled athlete or disability sport, for many at least, an oxymoron!

Barton, L., 1993, Disability, Empowerment and Physical Education, in Evans, J. (Ed.), 1993,  Equality, Education and Physical Education, The Falmer Press, London, p. 43-54.

Middleton, L., 1999, Disabled Children: Challenging Social Exclusion, Blackwell Science,Oxford.



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