TIC TALK PodcastsExploring personal experiences of inclusion
TIC TALK 18: Dr David HoweA podcast with Dr David Howe
Dr David Howe
Dr David Howe is a former elite athlete and now Professor in Anthropology of Sport at Loughborough University in the UK. He is a world leading advocate, thinker and academic in disability sport. Be prepared to have your thinking challenged!
Transcript TIC TALK with Dr David Howe
Hey, welcome to today’s Tic Talk. I have David Howe from Loughborough University here who is a senior lecturer of anthropology of sport. Welcome Dave.
Thank you for having me.
Thank you. I’ve also got Ken Black, of course my colleague in Inclusion Club in the room as well. He may chip in from time to time, but it’s a real opportunity to catch up with Dave and get some of his thoughts. He’s very experienced in this area. We’ve been chatting for an hour or so already and one word that came up, cause we had quite an interesting chat about, was inspiration. Which is often been used in the context of disability sport over the years. I get the feeling, Dave, you are not impressed by the word inspiration.
In some respects, I’m not. I think to associate inspiration with individuals who have impairments, directly without analyzing in detail their achievements and so on and so forth and what they do in their daily lives and all these sorts of things, I think society is too willing to put these labels on people. Just because somebody is impaired and is in the sport, it doesn’t necessarily make them an inspirational individual.
I’m not saying that some para Olympians aren’t inspirational, but to assume that everyone that represent their company in a para-Olympic games is an inspiration and very good quality individual, who has a strong moral code and all these sorts of things, is problematic.
Do you think the same thing applies, a realistic kind of description applies locally as well as in the Paralympic kind of level?
Well if you mean within communities, I think there’s a tendency for the mainstream population, the able population to use that term. Because they’re nervous around people with impairments. Often opt for the position of flattery to get away from that uneasiness about there but for the grace of God go I sort of approach. To understanding these issues that are really complex and multi-layered just like they are in every day life. These issues around disability are never void of problems related to class, problems related to class, and ethnicity and gender and sexuality. All those things come to bear on the physicality of individuals who have physical impairments.
The sensory impairments on somebody with an intellectual disability or somebody with a visual impairment might have. All the different social issues that everyone deals with often forgotten when the term disability is used, or when somebody sees an athlete with an impairment.
I think these things are also connected to lower expectations, so the fact that they see someone with a disability doing something like sports, wow isn’t that marvelous. The expectation is it’s incredible they are doing anything at all.
Yes, I think that that is really a key point. And I myself, and a colleague Philamena Silver, have written about the concept and idea of the super cripp. And in one respect the super cripp can be in the physicality of somebody for the Australian audience and so somebody like Louise Sauvage, for the Lima audience it might be Chantal Peticlerc, high performing wheeling in a wheelchair who is really, really elite. That is one way of thinking about super cripp.
The other way of thinking about the super cripp is that somebody that’s just overcome every day hurdles is somehow super for doing that. So somebody like myself with an impairment is seen as super for just engaging in every day life. Which is, in my mind, very really absurd. So there are two sides. The difficulty is separating when it’s appropriate to refer to somebody as sort of an inspirational icon and when it might be patronizing to do so.
Or when it’s associated with the fact that someone may have an impairment, which is kind of devoid also to their achievement either in sport or in life. So you see someone has an impairment, isn’t that wonderful they’re doing things.
Yeah, and you can’t even see the achievement in sport. It might be rubbish, they might not be good in sport. But it certainly becomes great.
And they might not be very good in the job that they’re doing, but because they are employed. They are inspirational, which is huge, is very difficult to deal with as somebody both with an impairment, but also sort of somebody who thinks like a social scientist as I do.
Do you think kind of that unrealistic picture that painted is long-term very detrimental for people with disabilities? It paints a very unrealistic picture about the reality of life. It’s not inspirational, it’s not–
Yes, I mean, it goes counter to everything that you and Ken, the Inclusion Club are trying to achieve. Because, it’s exclusionary. If everybody with an impairment is inspirational, then how can we include them in what goes on the rest of society, because they’re—the other pet peeve term is the word special. There is nothing special about having an impairment. It makes you different. In my case, it gives me a different embodiment.
I’m may be not seen as traditionally aesthetically pleasing because of the nature of my impairment, which for regular audiences is mild paraplegia. Now the term special associated with that is patronizing. It’s difference and it’s the way in which we contextualize these things, so when people talk about special needs in schools, they’re talking really about difference. And one of my agendas as a social scientist and so on, is to get to the point where we begin to celebrate difference. It’s not about ability or disability or impairment, it’s about celebrating difference, whether that be in physicality, whether that be in terms of race or ethnicity, I’m primarily interested in Paralympic sport and what I am using now as a term inclusive physical activity.
Because I think the term, I’m involved with organizations that use the term adapted physical activity, that becomes problematic as well because the use of the term adapted means static and that means that people that are being trained have images of what is going to come through the door in terms of physical activity endeavours and typologies of abilities and how to deal with them and so on. We need to be more open and inclusive and celebrate difference.
Can I ask a question, just on the—to pull together some of those points that you’ve raised and you mentioned the Paralympics briefly, do you feel that the Paralympics are a useful vehicle for understanding in terms of public awareness of the real lives of disabled people?
In terms of the real lives, I think it’s useful in terms of understanding how people with various embodiments engage in high performance sport. But it’s no more helpful in looking at real lives than the Olympic games is. We don’t expect that from the Olympic games, so my stance would be that we can’t expect it from the Paralympics, because the Paralympics is set up in a model that follows what the Olympics do. So in a sense, some of the struggle and disagreement I have with the odd person in international Paralympic circles is not that they’re doing—they’re not doing what they’re supposed to be doing, but the sense that the educational mandate from the IPC might be more along those lines.
The education at the IPC should be about fostering physical activity opportunities to increase—you know if you think about the Paralympic movement, if you think about sport for the mainstream, it’s always a pyramid model. Large grass roots building up to the high performance. In the context of the disability sport movement and in context to the Paralympics, it’s more like an obelisk. It’s a very, very thin base. And so one of the things that the development committee and the educational committee at the IPC needs to work on is spreading the message of physical activity that will ultimately lead to more people engaged in high performance sport.
And that’s a long-term game. It’s not something that happens overnight. You don’t—you know, long gone are the days, we talked about this earlier before the tape was running, long gone are the days where you simply can show up, put on a vest, and compete at the Paralympic games. And that’s a good thing, but it can be discouraging if people are told that that’s the case.
I want to see people engaged in sporting and committees because they love sport. If you don’t love sport, if you don’t—and you like the theatre or music, get yourself involved in a music group. What I don’t want to see is people with impairments sitting at home with nothing to do because everyone’s trying to push them into athletics or into swimming or into fencing that they may not want to engage in.
Do you think—we talked before about role models. Your thoughts around—well, it seems on the face value that role models in regular sport are good and bad. You get good and bad role models. You get people—footballers who misbehave. You get all sorts of high profile sports stars who are really not good role models, and they’re holed up as not good role models. That never happens in disability sport. They’re always good role models.
Well, I think it’s a double-edged sword, and I believe it was Richard Hind who, just before the Sydney Paralympic games, wrote an article about how he felt bound as a journalist and sort of hearing stories where athletes wanted to be treated as every other athlete, but then stories that were written in that way were sort of shunned by the press and editors and so on because there’s a sense that, well, you know, these people are already burdened by their impairment. And we need to get away from that. We need to get away from the idea that just because somebody has an impairment, somehow they make up for it in some sort of moral way and become better people because society dumps on them because of their physical status or their mental status and so on and so forth.
There are as many people I know with impairments that aren’t good people as a percentage as I would know that are able bodied. So it doesn’t guarantee you a good character, and I think that it will be helpful in the future if the press start to report the stories in this manner. If footballers do something wrong, if cricketers or rugby players do something wrong, particularly males, we’re happy to report it, and they’re seen as role models all around the world. But there’s a reticence to report bad behaviour associated with Paralympic athletes.
Now, one of the positive things that could come out of the trial of Oscar Pistorius might be the fact that people are beginning to realize that impairment doesn’t lead always to ideas of good character.
Yeah, I think it’s a very interesting point, isn’t it? It’s kind of a—it touches on aspects of social versus medical model. How people view people with disabilities. I just want to touch on that a little bit about social and social model now. I was talking only this morning, in fact, talking with people around and looking at the literature coming out here. I know in Australia it’s been the sign that we’ve heavily focused around the social model, looking at how we adapt to modify the environment and see how the environment disadvantages various people in different ways. Do you, again, do you think that’s a realistic picture? Is it the environment, always, that disadvantages people? Or is it actually a mixture?
Well, I think I believe it’s a mixture between the social and the biological. I think that, yes, there are all sorts of issues about accessibility and so on and so forth. But I’ve been hugely critical of, what is it, Article 30 in the International Convention for the Rights of People with Disabilities on Sport and Leisure, and one of the reasons I’m critical of that is because there are lots of, what I would call, get out of jail free cards in there, phrases like, wherever possible, where appropriate, and so on and so forth. And I understand as an international convention that around the world, standards of accessible built environments are not the same, and so there may be issues related to financing and so on in substandard Africa, where they can’t afford to make their accommodation accessible, but I’m worried about, in the West, people using those outs.
The fact that by adopting the convention, it places the onus on the individual to highlight that their rights have been impeded, and most people with impairments are not empowered enough to lawyer up and say, this change needs to be made. And so I worry about that in terms of signing up to a policy document. We need to move forward and think about how we police it, and I’m working with some colleagues to try and push these things forward because unless it can be policed, it’s a bit spineless. And certainly the 1948 Convention for Human Rights where the UN was established and so on talks about difference, and yet we’ve had all these conventions over the years for women and girls in the early 90s and so on and so forth just shows that the original convention hasn’t worked. Is it because of the way it’s worded? No. It’s because society is slow to adopt an approach that is more accepting.
I think the physical infrastructure in the UK and in places like Canada is great, the two countries I know the best, but the social attitudes can be problematic, and I want to give you one example of this. In 1988, I had the opportunity to go to the Paralympics in Seoul, Korea. It was very inaccessible. The tower blocks that we stayed in, the Paralympic village, they were 18 stories tall, or 16, I can’t remember, it’s turning into a fisherman’s story, and the athletes in wheelchairs had to be on the lower half of the building. Ambulant athletes were in the upper half of the building.
They created ramps for the athletes to go down so that they didn’t have to use the, around the building, so they didn’t have to use the elevators to go down. As an ambulant athlete, I had to walk up to the 16th floor every day from the dining hall, and so on. But the way in which the Korean people responded to having the Paralympics in their city, all the cabs were given big bungee cords, you know, these big octopuses with hooks and so on, and basically, they just strapped two or three wheelchairs to the back of their car, to the boot of their car so that we could go into the center of town and things like that. When there were stairs, people just lifted the wheelchairs up the stairs. They got rid of the physical barriers in this way. It wasn’t comfortable for people who have real mobility issues, but it was accepted—the attitude of the people was very, very accepting.
And that’s one of the things that we forget in the West, one of the things about the western model of thinking about disability, one of the things about ideas of inclusion is that we spend too much time focusing on what we’re doing in the West as being the gold standard. We don’t think enough about cultural differences and try to engage people around the world in how do you think about these things. We always see non-western populations in being somehow backward in the way they deal with people with impairments, and maybe in some respects they are, but there are certain things I’m sure that culturally we could learn from other societies.
And so one of the things I do in my working life is, you know there’s a PhD student who’ll be starting in the autumn who’ll be looking at attitudes to disability in the gulf states, for example, not the western attitudes that we see in Aspire Sports Center and so on, but the attitudes you see that are on the ground and can we learn anything from those societies? Those highly developed societies that we just assume they’re going to adopt the way we think about things, and I think that shows a sense of arrogance on our part, to automatically assume that we’ve got it figured out.
That kind of leads onto the final question very nicely. Do you think that kind of the Korean example is a little bit of a snapshot of the future as you would wish it?
Well, yes, I think we need to be more accepting. We need to engage more in the voices of people with impairments. I’ve been involved in the executive of IFAPA, the International Federation for Adapted Physical Activity, for seven or eight years now, and being somebody with an impairment in that organization is like being a fart in a spacesuit. Now, you wouldn’t think that. It’s an organization that’s built around the idea that people of difference need to have physical activity, and sports should be adapted accordingly. However, even today, there is a position with on the executive for the liaison with the disability community. It is hugely problematic.
Albrecht talks about the disability business, and there’s a real need—and I’m not saying that there’s no room for people without impairments to be involved with people who have impairments, but what I’m saying is there needs to be a greater voice for people with impairments in the inclusive sports environment, in all sorts of government agencies, whether it be in Australia, whether it be at the UN level, whether it be nationally in the UK. There needs to be more time and energy spent trying to find out what people really need.
And I am but one voice. My needs are different than others, and I will see the world differently than other people with impairments. The president of IFAPA celebrated, at the start of the last IFAPA conference, what a wonderful occasion this was. I was there with a colleague who subsequently, his name’s Martin Mansell, who is now a vice president within IFAPA, and we were talking about how inaccessible the conference was, and this is 25 or 30 years after we had met, when inaccessibility was seen as standard. Now we’re involved in an international organization who doesn’t seem to be taking these things seriously because it’s all about the rhetoric and not about the practice. And I think we need to engage in inclusive practice more often and leave the rhetoric alone.
Ken: I just had a follow-up to the Korea story because I was fortunate to be there with the Great Britain team, but just what, David, what you were saying there. There was also a mercenary kind of motivation in terms of improving the accessibility while the Paralympics were going ahead in the sense that we went to the famous shopping area called ET1, where you could easily buy anything you wanted. You could be measured for a suit, and it would be ready the next day. And the first time we went, you mentioned Martin, I remember going with him into ET1 and a couple of other athletes, and it was completely inaccessible. All the shops had steps leading up to the—so there was a lot of the wheelchair users or other people with mobility impairments could not get into these shops, so it didn’t take the Korean merchants long to realize that they were missing out on making money, and we went back about 48 hours later, and every shop had a ramp.
They had basically gone and built ramps out of wood or whatever materials they had. Every shop had a ramp leading up to it. So there was going to be no difficulty. They had young men positioned off the main drag. There were steps leading down on either side to many, many other shops, and there were teams of young men who would offer to carry people with mobility impairments or wheelchair users down to the other shop in order for them to sort of persuade them to purchase their wares. The problem with going down the stairs was that they wouldn’t lift you back up again unless you made a purchase. But that was—so there was kind of a mercenary motivation to it.
Yes, I mean, I think that changing social attitudes is really, really difficult, and policy is not enough to do that. And you know, we need to get as many people engaged in observing these problems and trying to minimize them because they can be minimized with, certainly in the West, with limited need for resources because the accessibility issues are not as problematic, but changing social attitudes, as we all know, is a really long and slow process.
David Howe, thank you very much.