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. This power struggle, which is predominantly between powerful groups within the non-disabled majority such as the medical profession and policy makers and those with economic and political power and influence and those with the greatest understanding of the impacts of disability and disabling language – people with disabilities themselves, goes on in all aspects of society. However, the sporting arena where the disabled body is perhaps most visible to the world, is a key area in which this struggle to change non-disabled perceptions of disability and in turn their proscribed meanings for the language they use when discussing disability.
Today’s mainstream sports organisations, sports media, sports sponsors and the overall sports industry place an extensive focus on non-disabled athletes and non-disabled sports. Whilst sports opportunities for persons with disabilities continue to emerge in many international communities, athletes with disabilities and disability-specific sports largely remain segregated and invisible from the mainstream sports environment. Ableism is defined as discrimination in favour of the non-disabled and against people with disabilities. Historic and current barriers and prejudices have reinforced the marginalisation of persons with disabilities in sports. In the context of disability sport this prioritisation of able-bodied sport within society devalues sport for athletes with disabilities and potentially undermines much of the hard work done by disability activists to gain acceptance for people with disabilities in all walks of life. Thomas Hehir of the Harvard Graduate School of Education defines ableism as:
the devaluation of disability…that results in societal attitudes that uncritically assert that it is better for a child to walk than roll, speak than sign, read print than read Braille, spell independently than use a spell-check, and hang out with non-disabled kids as opposed to other disabled kids.
(Hehir, 2002; p.2)
Ableism devalues people with disabilities and results in segregation, social isolation and social policies that limit opportunities for full societal participation. Unfortunately, persons with disabilities are also susceptible to internalising stereotypes and negative beliefs. This process is called internalised ableism and is similar to internalised racism and sexism regarding other devalued groups. Internalised ableism in sport is experienced by disabled athletes, coaches and administrators through their acceptance of the status quo and second-class status compared to non-disabled athletes and non-disabled sports. There are signs that things might be starting to change, particularly at the elite end of the sporting spectrum where athletes with disabilities are starting to become far more visible in many societies, but at the lower levels of sport and in many other areas of society the battle continues and probably will continue to do so for many years to come.
Hehir, T., 2002, Eliminating Ableism in Education, in The Harvard Educational Review, Spring 2002, Vol. 72(1); p1-32