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Replay: Living with Dwarfism – sport and “disability”

31 Aug, 2012

With the Paralympics starting this week I was reminded of a film interview I did a few years ago with Nichola Dean and Stefan Garde. Both have achondroplasia, or dwarfism, and are also keen sportspeople and members of the Dwarf Athletics Association.

The DAA was actually co-founded by Nichola’s father, Arthur, after seeing the positive effect of sport for people with dwarfism during a visit to the first World Dwarf Games in Chicago in 1993. For Nichola and Stefan, their supposed “disability” has not prevented them from learning to ski, taking up the shot put, cycling and driving, or doing anything else that someone “able-bodied” could do.

In fact, as Nichola says in the film, she doesn’t feel at all disadvantaged by being a dwarf, except by the way that other people view her, often expecting her to be “like the people they see on the TV”. By this she means the clowning and comical performances by dwarfs that have become the TV stereotype and which she feels contribute heavily to some people perceiving those with dwarfism as being funny and silly, something to laugh at. However, perhaps that narrative is changing. With the Paralympics, the sporting achievements of people like swimmer Ellie Simmonds are the focus and maybe the public perception of people with achondroplasia and other “disabilities” can move on.

I keep putting “disabled” and “able-bodied” in quotation marks because the terms just feel utterly inadequate to describe the physical abilities of Nichola and Stefan, the Paralympians and many other people who may have a medical condition or limb loss but who are also active and athletic. “Disabled” has the effect of lumping all kinds of very different people into one category. Aimee Mullins, a former Paralympian who also features in our current Superhuman exhibition, discusses this issue in the interview below.

She says we should see the person, not the category. However, the category can have its uses. For example, when you are a minority that must fight for recognition and rights, you need an umbrella category to organise under. Also, do we need a word to describe the type of person who would qualify for the Paralympics?

I’ve failed to find a decent alternative though. I’ve heard the term “differently-abled” but this doesn’t seem to have caught on, perhaps because it’s rather clunky and awkward. Mullins suggests “super-abled” for the Paralympians and Channel 4’s Paralympics ad went with “Superhuman”. But how might this make people who are disabled but don’t want, or aren’t able, to be more active feel (this writer raises some interesting points on that subject)?

So, what’s in a word, and is there a better term we could use?

Martha Henson, Multimedia Producer, Wellcome Trust

Watch more of the Trust’s films on our YouTube channel.

The Wellcome Trust has made over 100 videos about science, medicine and their crossover with culture. In our Replay series, our Multimedia Producers highlight some films you may have missed over the years.

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