BILL O'CHEE IS A CONSULTANT AND FORMER NATIONALS SENATOR.
On Friday, 1600 of the world’s best athletes will enter the Olympic Stadium in Sochi. They’ll be there representing 45 nations in the Paralympic Winter Games. Among them will be some of Australia’s most promising winter athletes and yet you could be forgiven for not knowing it is on.
Unlike the Winter Olympics in Sochi just two weeks ago, there has been scant advance publicity. And instead of the orgy of sports coverage the able bodied athletes enjoyed, their Paralympic colleagues will receive a reduced coverage.
The problem, though, isn’t the broadcasters. The fact is most of us won’t tune in as much. We have disability discomfort.
Why is this? Despite the best efforts of the Australian Paralympic Committee attitudes to the Paralympics, and the Winter Paralympics, remain mixed.
Too often the storyline about Paralympians is “look how wonderfully they’ve overcome their disabilities” rather than recognising that these people are brilliant athletes, full stop. The same happens when we see people with disabilities in the street, or in the workplace. The focus too frequently becomes the disability, not the person.
The truth is that many of us remain uncomfortable around people with disabilities. In the secret places of our hearts, we feel embarrassed that we don’t have to deal with a disability.
We also secretly realise the relish with which many people with disabilities embrace life, shames the average Australian sitting on the couch, watching television.
And never is our shame more evident than when watching our top Paralympians in action.
Then there is the fear of the unknown. It is almost impossible to imagine living with a disability unless you have to confront it in your own life, or in the life of someone close to you. Because people have so little understanding, they feel at a loss for words.
I’ll admit that I suffered from all of these things until, many years ago, I got the chance to train alongside our Paralympic track and field team. Yes, they were extraordinary athletes, and overcame challenges I’d never imagined, but what changed my mindset was the way they treated me as one of them.
The truth is that people with disabilities don’t want our pity, nor even our grudging admiration; they want our acceptance, and to be treated as equals. It is time we Australians got over such attitudes, because people with disabilities got over them a long time ago.
And so to the Paralympics. I look forward to enjoying it as the spectacle of athletic prowess it is. To our athletes, I say that each and every one of you is a champion just to get to Sochi, and that we look forward to celebrating many victories with you.
It just may be, however, that the greatest victory is what you teach us about the way we live our lives.