A few weeks ago I ventured out to my local cinema to watch ‘The Theory of Everything’. This was the amazing film about the life of professor Stephen Hawking, the world renowned physicist and cosmologist. As well as his intellect he is perhaps, the most well known sufferer of Motor Neurone Disease. He was originally given a life expectancy of two years, however he defied the odds and has survived many decades longer than predicted, making major discoveries and contributions to the word of science and to the layman’s understanding of it.
Growing up when I did role models with disabilities were thin on the ground, the few there were only had connections to sport. I did my fair share of physical activity as a child I swam and was a keen rider having regular sessions with the Riding for the Disabled Association via my school and private lessons at home. It was only recently when researching an academic project that I discovered horse-back therapy, or hippotherapy, is a clinically recognised therapeutic intervention. The name has Greek roots, ‘hippo’ meaning ‘horse’ and ‘therapy’ meaning to ‘treat medically’. My support worker and I had thought it was a spelling error! This therapy has been shown to promote physical development, speech and confidence in individuals with disabilities.
Looking back, I don’t think I aspired to be successful on horseback in any kind of conventional, competitive sense. For for me it was an odd kind of escapism, these activities assumed an almost hedonistic quality. The hours swimming and riding were like a window on another life. I loved that I didn’t look “disabled” when I did them. Just as today I sometimes lie on my bed in an outfit to get an idea of what I would look like standing up and enjoy the appearance of my washboard stomach, only to have it disappear (somewhat depressingly) when I sit up again.
I saw wheelchair sports as negative. I had been raised to believe the wheelchair had too many connotations of ‘laziness’ and ‘giving up’, for it to become part of a leisure activity or a positive tool to allow me to achieve. Society has certainly come a long way in the last 20 years or so, at least I thought it had until I picked up a newspaper and read the story of 12 year old Joe France who was denied entry to the Hawking film because it wasn’t being shown on any of the screens he could access. Ironically, this incident coincided with Disabled Access Day.
It saddens me greatly that situations like this are still impacting on the lives of individuals, a generation after legal measures aimed to make such experiences a thing of the past. This is also following a period in which Motor Neurone Disease has seen a massive increase in public awareness as a result of the ice bucket challenge. For the uninitiated this was a charitable craze that went positively viral, it involved individuals pouring buckets of ice water over themselves with the aim of raising money for Motor Neurone Disease. Participating individuals filmed this activity posting their endeavours on social networking sites such as Facebook and YouTube.
An article in ‘Society Now’ describes the craze as narcissism dressed up as altruism, and questions the motives of those taking part and the effect of these crazes on societal giving. They point out that when one cause is in vogue others lose out by default, not just in the financial sense but in the social sense as some causes cannot hope to capture the public’s imagination. Dyslexia is one, as is the needs of adults with Cerebral Palsy; we are not cuddly, sweet or life-limited. We struggle on with all the appeal of an elderly dog in a shelter waiting and hoping for someone to notice we are there.
For me the solution is to adopt the US attitude towards disability, to celebrate it and support the individual more. We are not all in the position of Stephen Hawking with supportive parents, wife and close friends; neither do we all have his intellect. Most of us are average people whose ambition is to go through life with a family, work and leisure activities. For this to be achieved the basics need to be in place…. accessible public transport, flexible working hours and a flexible benefits system that does not penalise for trying to gain paid work. Here’s to progress.