There’s a current trend in social media that gets me riled up. It’s where someone posts up a photo of a disabled person or an amputee performing a physical task along with the tagline “what was your excuse again?” It’s particularly popular among gym goers and trainers of the sort who also like to post inspirational quotes. Now there’s nothing wrong with positivity and encouraging a good attitude towards training and life in general has to be a good thing. There’s far too much negativity in the world, but I’d argue that there’s also far too much brainless optimism too, but perhaps that is for another article.
I have a problem with the images of amputee athletes being used as tools for inspiring people to train for a number of reasons. Firstly, by and large, the word athlete is key. There are no pictures of slightly overweight amputees lifting weights with an inspirational slogan below it. The people being used as role models are elite level Paralympians or sportspeople. They have worked hard to be recognised as athletes, not just against the regular obstacles that all elite athletes face, but also against the adversity caused by their amputation. These people are the elite. You and I have no hope of ever being like them. The people who these photos are supposed to inspire, the people who are making excuses to be on the couch tonight, have as much chance of reaching their level as they have of becoming the first man on Mars using a craft built out of the contents of their shed. They may be shy of a limb or two, but they have a genetic makeup and a relentless drive that only a few can hope to have. You are not like them, and to suggest in any way that anyone possessed of all their limbs can be is demeaning to them and just plain stupid. You are their genetic and psychological inferior. I’m sorry if that doesn’t make you feel good about yourself, but it’s true.
Secondly, and by comparison, there are no photos of any sprinters or long jumpers who will grace the regular Olympiad this summer being posted by trainers for inspirational purposes. No one has ever posted a photo of Usain Bolt as a reason to train. Everyone recognises how stupid that would be, like posting a picture of a cheetah and asking why you’re not out running, but Paralympians are not given the same credit.
Lastly, I have a problem with the notion of inspiration via media in general. If you are overweight and require a reason to get off the couch, I doubt seeing an elite level athlete at work is going to be particularly inspirational. If the fact that you are very likely to die of a disease related to your lack of diet and exercise is not inspiration enough, then no picture you see today is going to do it for you. How many people do you think Nike are going to inspire today through them seeing “Just Do It” written on the side of a bus? We are so used to this stuff that it rolls off us. Life, inspiration, motivation, desire; all of these are complex emotions that simply do not transfer into a quote, a photo, or a video with slow music playing over pained faces. That stuff might sell overpriced trainers, but it won’t get a lazy girl off the couch.
The reason I’m writing this now is because I just finished up some online work with a wheelchair bound athlete, the first time I have ever worked with someone who had a disability. I have to be completely honest and say that despite considering myself an open-minded and tolerant guy, many of my notions of disability were challenged and ultimately knocked down completely. My client was an Irishman living in another country and was a wheelchair basketball player. He got in touch with me through this website and he began training with me via email. It was an interesting challenge to undertake for me. Ordinarily, online training is a challenge, and training around an injury is always challenging too, so combining a catastrophic injury with the online method was doubly difficult. I began with some research by dropping into a wheelchair basketball game and asking some questions there. Basketball, we’re always told, is a non-contact sport. I can assure you that wheelchair basketball is not. I had heard that this was a tough game to play, but the intensity level really took me by surprise. I also took a tour of the gym in the facility and spoke with some of the trainers there regarding how they manage injury and disability, and the challenges they face. It really is remarkable what people manage to do in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. In many cases, one of the trainers told me, people have a simple choice to make- exercise or illness. Either they keep moving or they risk losing mobility and independence. Now there is a real lesson that people could do with learning.
Move, or wither and die.
I finished up working with my client last month. He’s moving job and will have a facility and specialist trainers to work with in his new location. I always thank everyone for working with me when we finish up, but I wrote a bit of a longer note to this guy. In spite of having a sister with Cerebral Palsy, and despite considering myself open minded and tolerant, working with him made me realise how many preconceptions regarding people who are disabled I carry with me. The worst of these was that it actually took me a while to get over the wheelchair factor and get into just training him like any other sportsman. My expectations were much, much lower than they should have been. A mistake I’ll never make again.