Thirty years ago, I attended the 5th International Cerebral Palsy Games in Denmark. Great experience, great times, made lasting friendships. But the one thing that stood out on the flight home was a woman who came up to me and asked me, in all sincerity, “Will Jerry Lewis being meeting you at the airport?”
After fighting off the urge to strangle her right on the plane, I told her that no, Mr. Lewis would not being meeting me or any of us at the airport or anywhere else for that matter. My disdain for Mr. Lewis aside, it showed the absolute ignorance of a woman who was well-spoken and educated towards the disabled in America.
Thirty years ago, 30 years on, not much has changed. Americans still don’t recognize disabled people as being the same as able-bodied or they are marginalized and made the enemy by some political group. Oh, that’s right, the Americans with Disabilities Act was passed in 1991, but it has no teeth and very few cases have ever been documented of a violation of the act. Even though there have been millions. Senator Rand Paul (Idiot-Kentucky) even says the ADA is unconstitutional.
On August 29th, 4,200 athletes will take part in the Paralympics, making it the second biggest sporting event in the world. The problem is, here in the USA, you wouldn’t know it, because NBC is providing next to no coverage of the event. Instead, from August 29th-September 9th, you will see two political conventions, two NFL football games, assorted reruns of shows that no one cares about, a few reality shows that even fewer care about and “Rock Center.”
Political Conventions aside (I mean, outside of a few hours, why bother?), the rest of NBC’s programming is well, to put it mildly, crap. Plus the way they handled the recently completed London Olympics and their wonderful use of tape delay long after the results were know via the Internet or those with international broadcast channels on their cable or satellite was so derided and mocked by just about everyone and their mothers that I stopped watching the Games after the basketball final and skipped the closing ceremonies for the long-past-its-prime-soon-to-be-long-gone “Weeds” and the much better than expected “Episodes”.
There was an article on the US News and World Report on this, written by an Associated Press writer, where NBC says the television rights fall under the pervue of the USOC. According to the article, “NBC insists its coverage represents a major increase on previous years, up from the single 90-minute program it offered from the Beijing Paralympics. It also points out that the U.S. Olympic Committee, and not the network itself, controls broadcast rights to the Paralympics.” Which is just their way of saying “Hey don’t look at us, blame the USOC. Well, I can blame the US Olympic Committee for a lot of things, but not this.
Channel 4 in Great Britain is offering 150 hours. Australia, Canada, China, Germany are all offering more than the three hours on the channel that used to be known as Versus and the Outdoor Life Channel, and a 90-minute program a week after the Games are over with. I recall in Sydney in 2000, the Australian Broadcasting Company expanded its coverage of the Sydney Games after the Aussies started winning medals. Here in the USA, we had CBS do a broadcast in December.
All that aside, this is about perception and reality. And yes, my Tea Flea friends, politics does play a role in it. Perception is reality to a lot of people and if you repeat a lie often enough, most will believe it. The disabled are just window dressing, a “freak show” as one English columnist referred to us at the Track and Field World Championships in 1998 in Birmingham, three hours west of London.
There are no people with disabilities on reality TV shows like “The Bachelor” or “The Bachelorette”. I know of at least two people who have auditioned for “Survivor,” with physical impairments and been turned down. I have never seen a person in a wheelchair audition on camera for “American Idol” (since I don’t watch any of these shows, but know people who do, I am hardly an expert).
Here is the other elphant in the room and perhaps the biggest. (Outside of Jerry Lewis) Special Olympics. People in America associate any disabled sporting event with the Special Olympics. Considering that they have the magical name of the Kennedy Family behind them and their “feel good inclusiveness” of everyone participating and “winning”, it is much more heartwarming than trying to explain how a quad can play table tennis or swim or how goalball is played. Or the cringe-inducing collisions that occur during a wheelchair rugby match and the heart-pounding action of a 1500 meter wheelchair race and seeing the T-44 100-meters at a sold-out venue. Or trying to interview a non-verbal ambulatory CP athlete like Joanne Guardiola, who just won Gold in the 400 meters in Holland. In 1980. I can still see her in my minds eye.
Yet next week, 4200 athletes from all over the world will take their turn in London. Hardly anyone here will take notice. Which is a shame and a pity at the same time. I continue to compete at a high level and will do so until I decide not to. For me, it’s not about winning anymore, it’s about friendships and teachable moments along the way. As Teddy Kennedy said in 1980, “For the cause is just, the work continues, and the dream shall never die.”