Inspiration without condescension

Guest post from Nick who blogs as Marzipanman. You can also follow him on Twitter.

A week or so before the Paralympic Games started, comedian Laurence Clark wrote in The Guardian:

“I came to realise that the less fortunate you are perceived to be, the less you have to achieve before you’re labelled ‘inspiring’. It was a polite way of people telling me they thought I probably wouldn’t amount to much, but had somehow surpassed their low expectations.”

When I first read this I thought it made perfect sense. After all, what frame of reference do I have on which to base any kind of disagreement? I could see his argument – why should his achievements (or otherwise) be considered any more inspiring than anyone else’s, just because he happens to be disabled?

But then the Games started and something unexpected happened – I started to disagree with Laurence, for a very specific reason.

My daughter Robyn

Robyn was born two years ago, the younger of twins and eight weeks premature. Two days after she was born we were told that she had experienced a severe bleed in her brain before, during or after her birth and that this was likely to cause her permanent damage. We were told that the prognosis was not particularly good.

Happily, Robyn is developing well, far better than that early prognosis. She’s not walking yet and has limited mobility down her left side, but thanks to support from NHS professionals and an undoubted strength of character she is shuffling around on her bottom, developing her vocabulary and generally taking over the household!

That said, I worry about her. From the moment we were told Robyn would probably have some form of disability, most likely cerebral palsy, I pictured her in a wheelchair, maybe learning disabled, maybe unable to ever live independently. I didn’t want to read about the condition or its effects because I was scared about what lay in store for my daughter.

And you know what? I felt sorry for her. I know that’s not the right thing – but it’s how I felt. She’s my daughter, and I want the best for her – and with the best politically correct will in the world, being disabled doesn’t necessarily fit in with that.

The Paralympics

During the Paralympics I’ve been watching athletes, swimmers, footballers, rowers and other Paralympic competitors, and I’ve paid particular attention to those with cerebral palsy. And you know what? They’re sensational. And not just in a “hasn’t she done well for a disabled person?” way, they’re just sensational.

Hannah Cockcroft has cerebral palsy as a result of two cardiac arrests at birth. Her parents were told that she would never be able to walk, talk or do anything for herself or live past her teenage years. On 31 August she won GB’s first track and field gold medal of the 2012 Paralympic Games in the T34 100 metres race with a Paralympic record time of 18.05 seconds.

Hannah Cockcroft, Olivia Breen, Sophia Warner and others are inspirational to me, and no doubt to parents across the country, because they remind me to look beyond the disability and the struggles that our children will no doubt have, to the chance – no, the likelihood – that they will have lives where they can fulfil their ambitions, whether that’s to be a champion sportsperson, to have a successful career or a great education, to get married and have children or even be a stand-up comedian.

Changing attitudes

I think the London 2012 Paralympic Games has done more for the public perception of disability in this country than any number of well-meaning campaigns or training courses ever could – this is especially timely given the current government’s clear agenda to stigmatise disabled people as benefits scroungers or burdens on the economy.

And it’s also done something for me. It’s made me positive for Robyn’s future. I’ve always seen what a fighter, what a character, what a person she is (and what a pain in the arse she can be as well) but now I have far more confidence that other people will see the same things as well.

Inspirational? Oh, go on then.

Sorry, Laurence.