Redefining Able/Disabled Bodies

Just a quick post to express some thoughts on a particular Olympic body: that of South Africa’s Oscar Pistorius.

According to an NBC report earlier this evening, Pistorius was born misformed legs and, at eleven months, underwent a double amputation that left his legs ending just above the knee. His parents chose not to emphasize his apparent disability and sent him to schools where he was allowed to participate in rugby, wrestling, and eventually competitive sprinting. Pistorius now holds 18 Paralympic and a silver medal for the 4 x 400 relay from the 2011 (able-bodied) World Championships in Daegu.

Pistorius made an attempt at qualifying for Beijing in 2008, but the International Association of Athletics Federations (IAAF) discouraged South African coaches from including the athlete on the team. They claimed Pistorius’s prosthetics, which consist of a springy steel, posed a danger to himself and competitors on the track. In the end, Pistorius’s time simply was not fast enough for him to qualify. (One must wonder what the IAAF and South African officials might have done if he had run fast enough to qualify…)

London is a somewhat happier story. This evening, with a personal best of 45.44, Pistorius became the first amputee to compete in the Olympic games as he ran the 400 m sprint. Pistorius, alas, did not advance through his the semi-final, but his run this evening remains a triumph.

It’s tempting to end this post with the resounding “Hurrah!” that Pistorius deserves for his talent and persistance. But I have a query instead: What does Pistorius’s career mean for our definitions of “able-bodied” and “disabled?” The NBC report was very clear tonight: Pistorius’s true uniqueness lay in his ability to compete against able-bodied runners as a man with a disabled body. And yet, if Pistorius’s training, times, stride, coaching, and focus on the track matchs his opponents, what precisely is it that makes him so different? Are the steel prosthetics so distinctive? Why is there such a line between running in metal-spiked shoes (a necessity for the world’s fastest men and women) and running with metal bars on ones feet? The latter are not bionic. They are, as an expert pointed out this evening, as “dumb” as sneakers.

So, again, what is it that makes Pistorius “disabled”? What is it that makes anyone who can run or jump or cook or clean or write or type or play their favorite games “disabled” simply because they weren’t born with certain parts of their body?

Can Pistorius set the standard of “normalcy” for everyone labeled “disabled?” I think not. Diversity requires an understanding of different men and women’s needs. But Pistorius’s story should – does – blur the line between “able” and “disabled” bodies. His talent invites  us to reconsider our boxes, reconsider our bodies. Because I cannot run 400 m in 45.44 seconds on my completely biological legs. And Pistorius can on his blades of steel.

For more detailed information on Pistorius’s life and career, see http://www.oscarpistorius.com and http://www.nbcolympics.com (search ‘Oscar Pistorius’).

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