According to a recent article in The New York Times, disabled swimmer Victoria Arlen has been barred from competing in the Paralympics on the grounds that her disability is not permanent.
In her early teens, Victoria spent three years coming in and out of consciousness. Her legs are now paralyzed. She experiences muscle spasms in her upper body. She lives with severe stomach pain. She has seizures. Victoria was diagnosed with transverse myelitis and then given an additional diagnosis of acute disseminated encephalomyelitis (ADEM).
Now a high-level athlete, Victoria won four medals and set a world record at the Paralympics last summer. This year, however, she will not be competing in the world championships. The International Paralympic Committee’s Peter Van de Vliet sums up the committee’s decision:
“The million-dollar question is, Is this a permanent impairment?” he said. “The rules stipulate that only people with permanent impairments can compete, and the one thing the doctor couldn’t explain was whether this was a permanent impairment.”
All of the many things wrong with this picture fall into three main categories:
1. The committee is narrowly defining disability as a medical condition, with no understanding that it is also a social position. The medical-model view of disability is very outdated, and it goes against the core reason for the existence of the Paralymics. If the point is to allow high-level athletes to compete because they are excluded from competing with able-bodied people, then the social model has to enter the picture. Can Victoria Arlen be competitive against able-bodied swimmers? Can she qualify for the Olympics according to able-bodied standards? No, she can’t. Who is the Paralympics for if not for a high-level disabled athlete like her?
2. The committee is adhering to a strict binary of disabled and non-disabled, when no such binary exists. Everyone has a body in a state of flux. At present, Victoria’s body is disabled. What is happening at present should be the only deciding factor — not what might happen in some mythic future. After all, who is to say that a cure for the condition of some other Paralympic athlete isn’t around the corner, and that Victoria Arlen’s condition will not become worse?
3. The committee is essentially asking Victoria Arlen whether she is “disabled enough,” when no such objective criteria exists. In many ways, the committee’s decision mirrors the controversy about whether Oscar Pistorius was too able-bodied to compete in the Olympics. To my mind, this is a very odd question to ask about any disabled person, but especially about someone with a very clear physical impairment. Oscar Pistorius is an amputee. Victoria Arlen’s legs are paralyzed. I fail to see how the possibility that Victoria’s body might one day be ambulatory generates sufficient ambiguity to override the fact that she currently cannot purposefully move her legs.
The only deciding factor should be whether Victoria Arlen is disabled now, which she clearly is. It’s absurd for disabled people to draw these kinds of lines and act to exclude one another based on outmoded and questionable criteria. When it comes to disability, it’s time for the Paralympics to get into the 21st century
© 2013 by Rachel Cohen-Rottenberg