Sep 082012

No, really, I mean it. If I am forced to swallow one more dose of Paralympics hype syrup, I will throw up. With the Olympics, the shock and awe blast of nationalist triumphalist machismo was at least familiar – this is just the capitalist-spectacle-as-usual. But with the Paralympics we have seen the addition into this cocktail of a supremely powerful and toxic ingredient, the opportunity for liberals to feel good about themselves for supporting the underdog and ‘progress in the fight against prejudice’. It is this thick coating of syrup which has confused even radical disability rights advocates, and is making it almost impossible for critics to speak out, except about the blatantly obvious outrage of Atos as sponsors. But the truth is that, despite all the hopeful talk about how the Paralympics are going to revolutionise people’s ideas about disability, the ideas and values at the core of the Paralympics are the precise opposite of the values of disability liberation. (I write this as a disabled person, one who has undergone one of Atos’ medical assessments and been found wanting, and who is suffering financially as a consequence.)

But wait a minute, I hear you say, isn’t that a bit extreme, surely all the visibility and celebration of disabled people’s bodies is a good thing, at least it’s a step in the right direction? Sorry, I’m afraid not. It’s not just that the current epiphany of non-disabled people is shallow (how many of those enthusiastic millions will be attending the protests against Atos?). What is actually going on with the Paralympics is an intensification of the values that drive the oppression of disabled people. And there is actually no contradiction at all between Atos as administrators of assessments that rob disabled people of their benefits and Atos as sponsors of the Paralympics.

First, lets clear away some obvious dead wood. There is nothing useful to disabled people in being seen as inspirational for their heroic overcoming of their impairment rather than as pathetic disgusting objects of charity. As some have already pointed out, since the vast majority of disabled people will never become Paralympians, all this does is to set up again the traditional distinction between the deserving and undeserving poor. Equally obviously, this is the quintessential liberal narrative of the heroic individual, filled with (in the words of Tory Prime Minister David Cameron) ‘steely determination to succeed’. It has nothing whatsoever to do with a collective struggle for disabled people’s rights or the values of disability liberation. I don’t remember a wave of national euphoria about collective achievements of the disability rights movement.

Only slightly less obvious is that the deluge of what has now been dubbed ‘inspiration pornography’ is not about us: it’s composed largely of non-disabled people’s self-congratulation that they have overcome their bad feelings about disabled people and relief that they are no longer being asked to feel sorry for these poor creatures. The inspirational narrative makes them feel much better. The medical model again But the heart of the issue is this: this change of narrative is just the flip-side of the same coin, the medical model of disability, the rejection of which, in favour of a social model, has been the theoretical foundation of disability liberation for the last 30 years. While the medical model says that disability is caused by impairment, the social model insists that people are dis-abled by society that refuses to accommodate their needs (for a decent income, accessible transport, buildings etc). Medical model thinking is always focused on our individual impairments, and how we can overcome them.

In the past, the non-disabled people’s predominant feeling about this was despair and pity, expressed by wanting to help through charity; all that’s changed is that now they’re excited that it seems that impairments can be overcome after all. Can they not do better than go from one end to the other of this stupid construct? I am neither a hero nor a victim, just an ordinary person, as we all are. At the heart of the medical model is a value judgement that seems to be such a matter of common sense that it does not need examining; low functionality – bad, high functionality – good, and this is what is being celebrated at the Paralympics, (and, of course, in competitive sport in general). Here we are seeing the flip side of the medical model, a triumphalist ‘we can fix it with technology’ narrative that, in the age of high technology and biomedicine, has superseded the old designation of disabled people as ‘incurables’. Technocracy

The point is that the Paralympics don’t just reflect the familiar capitalist values of competitive sport, they also represent something just as deep and significant, the values of technology. The concept of functionality/performance/efficiency is one of the concepts that come from machines and engineering that have been the ruling concept of capitalist technocracy for the last 400 years. In economic theory, it is efficiency that leads to success in the marketplace. The medical model of disability springs directly from technocratic thinking. In capitalist technocracy, what matters is not ‘arbitrary’ or theoretical ideas (like religions or humanist principles) lacking a firm evidence base, but utility, ie. what works, what can be palpably felt and cashed out. ‘Facts! Give me facts, not fancies,’ declares Dickens’ Mr Gradgrind (Hard Times).

Thus Atos’ medical assessments are not about what illness/impairment you have, rather they are (supposedly) scientific assessments of the functionality of your body, what tasks it can and cannot do. It is perfectly logical within this technocratic way of thinking that people with terminal cancer can nonetheless be fit to work. This ruthlessly scientific way of thinking is, naturally, being implemented in the government’s planned Personal Independence Payments, replacing the Disability Living Allowance system that ‘arbitrarily’ accepts people with certain conditions as eligible for benefit payments.

In a world in which functionality rules, Atos as sponsors of the Paralympics makes perfect sense. And all the ‘radical’ talk of integrating the Olympics with the Paralympics, since the performance of Paralympians is approaching that of Olympians, is just another manifestation of technocratic thinking: in a world ruled by a linear scale of performance such ‘arbitrary’ distinctions are a form of discrimination, aren’t they? It is always the ironing out of ‘arbitrary’ anomalous barriers that is defined within liberal technocracy as progress. ‘Superhumans’?


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  11 Responses to “Dave King: Down with the Paralympics! Down with Channel-4-liberalism!”

  1. I had to laugh when I heard Lord Coe (I think) comment :

    “Without ATOS partnership we wouldn’t have had the paralympic games”

    I’d have loved to have been sat there to add onto the end of it :

    “And with ATOS, come Rio in 2016, we’re not going to have any paralympians” ..

    Would have been naughty I know, but I couldn’t have resisted!!

  2. I agree with the article except the rejection of “integration” of the Paralympics and Olympics. It would not be radical or liberal but it would be logical. As it would clearly force the organisers of the Olympics and their national governments to recognise the social model of disability and do something about it.

    Discrimination by sex or weight already exists in most Olympic events and possible in the Paralympics.

    Of course there are very regrettable aspects of the Olympics and the Paralympics. The nationalism and the effective state of war being waged against the people by the “sponsors” in the form of advertising and marketing during the celebrations. After all didn’t the original Olympics require a truce?

    And it would be radical to have a rule which said – no truce? then you cannot compete!

  3. I can’t really agree with this article. It seems to me that either all competitive sport is bad or if it is not then nothing is wrong with the paralympics. I enjoy watching some sports, loved the Beijing Olympics and Paralympics and have enjoyed London 2012 even more. I’ve cheered like mad, I’ve shouted at the telly and I’ve cried. I’ve loved seeing disabled athletes lauded and applauded as much as non-disabled ones. And it’s been great that though none of our paralympians did the equivalent of a black power salute on the podium they did all hide their ATOS tags and since the Games have finished some have been openly supporting the fightback against the cuts to disability benefits or have spoken out about transport difficulties and other access issues. Their current status and visibility gives them clout which will be of benefit to campaigns like DPAC.

    Yes there’s been a load of crap about disabled athletes being ‘inspirational’ and some rather nauseating patronising from people like Jon Snow, who I hoped would have known better. But personally I’ve just put that aside, used the mute button on the remote when needed, and enjoyed the sport. I think many of us have done that, both disabled and non-disabled, and perhaps it comes down to do you like watching sport (or some of it) or don’t you? Not everyone does of course.

    I’m also not sure about your suggested link between capitalism with competitive sport – the former Soviet Bloc have long taken competitive sport and Olympic performance very seriously and the investment they’ve put into their athletes continues to show.

    And I don’t understand your negativity about technology, which has been a boon to disabled people in so many ways. Some wouldn’t be alive without it and it’s enabled Stephen Hawking to keep working just as it enables me to keep campaigning, when I can’t get out to demos I can tweet, email, blog and raise awareness online.

  4. And so the legacy begins…

    I saw this posted today on another forum:

    “Those with genuine disabilities will not have their benefits slashed. Those that will have to justify their largesse will be the feckless, the fat, the drug-addled, the pissheads and the lazy, who have been taking the piss (and our taxes) for years.”

    Well Cameron, that’s your ‘legacy’, happy now?

  5. I couldn’t bring myself to watch any of the paralypics-thanks for articulating my reasons.

  6. Great article, thanks. A slice of reality at last.

  7. It’s started: notice in my local disability center run by the council showing gold medal this can be you, look at the way you can win, not your disability it’s your ability.

    To get into my Gym I have to go up steps on my back side no disability access.

    Signs says ability not disability.

    We will be having this for six months now

  8. Brilliant piece of analysis, very thought-provoking. I’m sure that it also makes it more likely that there will be no meaningful ‘legacy’ from the games. The whole spectacle was a kind of hyperreal celebration of triumphalism; easy to detach it from the reality of most people’s lives.

  9. THANK YOU DAVE!! At last, someone with my train of thought.

    The suggestion that Paralympians are somehow ‘heroes’ is offensive, as is the suggestion that disabled veterans (like me) are also ‘heroes’ – we are nothing of the sort.

    Whilst I salute the efforts of Team GB in the Paralympics, nevertheless, they are all by definition ELITE athletes with all the benefits of sponsors etc, etc. They are totally unrelated to the desperate struggle that sees chronically sick & disabled people attacked by the UK gvt, with disability hate crime now increased by 75% and 1100 deaths, between Jan – Aug 2011 of victims removed from Incap Benefit and forced into the WRAG – and these are DWP’s own figures. Lord alone knows how many deaths there will have been up till now but I’m guessing in excess of 3000.

    For a much better assessment of the realities of our lives I suggest you watch Francesca Martinez in action, in a Newsnight interview, where Maria Miller was out of her depth still chanting the bogus DWP clap trap about not judging people by their disability, etc, etc. The REASON why the DWP can’t or won’t stop Atos is because the DWP are NOT in charge of these welfare reforms. They are simply fronting them as Unum CEO now actively boasts that Unum are “guiding UK welfare reforms” and so they are.

    This is the predicted move to the US style of welfare, as predicted in my research long ago, and the UK people will be encouraged to buy income protection insurance as welfare can no longer be guaranteed.

    Francesca Marinez:

  10. Does anyone know if any of the GB paralympians have attended an Atos Healthscare medical assessment and what the outcome was? From my own experience I would guess they would have been found fit to work and had their benefits stopped but maybe Atos as a Games sponsor would look at them in a different manner.It would be interesting to find out if Atos actually treat all people in the same inhuman way.

  11. An excellent article, the Paralympics have been siezed on by this disgusting goverment and used as propaganda against the 99.99% of disabled people who cannot compete as athletes.
    I’m not ‘inspirational’, I’m not a ‘superhuman’, i’m a crippled 53 year old with severe rhuematoid arthritis since my early 20’s, but now the popular meme is ‘they can do it, why can’t you’?

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