Disability, Sport, and Ableism Conference

For anyone interested, there will be a series of talks on the topic of disability and sport in various locations on the University of Alberta campus on Tuesday (February 14) and Wednesday (February 15) as part of the Disability, Sport, and Ableism Conference.  Here is a quick run-down of talk titles, locations, and times:

1. From Pistorius to Para-Olympism: Contentious Paralympic Issues

(Panelists listed below)

Feb 14, 12:30 to 2 pm, PE E-120

 

2. What Can One Do With Ableism?

Lecture: Dr. Gregor Wolbring

Feb 15, 3 to 4:30 pm, ETLC ELO18 Followed by social at Leva Cafe

 

3. Albeism, Obsolescence & Body Technology

Seminar with Dr. Gregor Wolbring

Feb 15, 11am, Tory 14-28 (rsvp peers@ualberta.ca)

 

Featured Panelists & Speakers:

David Greig MHK, ChPC is a National Talent Development Coach for Para-Athletics, Athletics Canada.

Dr. P. David Howe is a former Paralympian, a coach, a journalist and a sport anthropologist who studies social theories of embodiment.

Jean Laroche, ChPC is the Lead Coach for Para- Athletics at the Sherbrooke (QC) High Performance Centre.

Danielle Peers, M.A. (U of A) is a former Paralympian, a coach, a Ph.D student and a Trudeau Scholar who studies disability, sport & human rights.

Dr. Gregor Wolbring (U of C) is an Assistant Professor in Community Rehabilitation and Disability Studies, who studies ethics and governance of science and technology with a focus on issues faced by disabled people.

If It Ain’t Broke, Don’t fix It, But What if It’s Enhanced?

Gary Karp, who sustained a spinal injury in 1973, which prevents him from using his legs states that although his spine is technically broken, he is not.  Although he confesses that he would want to walk again, he clarifies that he would not want to do so at any cost.  He writes (click here for the entire blog post):

Well, it’s not about whether I want to walk. Of course I want to walk. That is, if I could walk the way I did before my injury. Easily, without fatigue, secure in my balance, painlessly. That’s a pretty tall order (especially given that I’m six foot two!).

The problem with paralysis, Gary argues, is that it is viewed as a thing to be fixed and thus people with injuries like Gary’s are viewed as damaged or broken.  He writes:

If the prevailing view of paralysis—or having a disability of any kind—is that the most important thing is to try and fix people (because, of course, what else could broken people want?), then how will I be viewed as the whole person I am—in the context of my paralysis? If I’m damaged goods, then I’m a person whose life can only be improved—much less be a meaningful and satisfying life—if someone repairs my brokenness.

His view on technological advancements like the exoskeleton is this:

What, then, of the exoskeleton? I don’t see it as something that will fix me, that will fill in something horribly missing in my life. After 38 years I’m so thoroughly adapted that not being able to walk is normal. For me.

The exoskeleton, however, is just a hint of what is possible.  What lies beyond is far from mere fixing; the possibilities point to enhancement.  If Gary and others like him decided to “upgrade” their legs with some future technology inspired by the exoskeleton, would those with “regular” legs be in need of fixing?  In a world of enhanced humans, would all people be born damaged or broken?

Oscar Pistorius is a contemporary example of what may one day be possible.  Oscar is a double amputee and a world class sprinter.  His legs, which were made by the same company the CEO of Ekso Bionics worked for at the time, have been the cause of the IAAF’s ruling making him ineligible for competitions conducted under its guidelines.  This decision was eventually reversed, but the reasons for reversal were not that the use of artificial legs is not an issue, but rather that they do not give him any advantage over other competitors.

Of course, there must be some restrictions set on competitions.  For instance, using a bicycle or a motorized vehicle to win the 100m dash certainly does not seem to be in the spirit of that particular sporting event and so the use of mechanized legs can surely lead to questions.  However, the issue of advantage in sport due to technological advancements does not begin with Oscar Pistorius.  Shouldn’t better running shoes fall into this same category?  What about better diets and certain dietary supplements?  What about the advancement in training efficiency?  Are these not technological improvements?  I doubt that Coroebus of Elis, who won the stadion race in 776 B.C.E., would be a match for Usain Bolt, who won several races at the 2008 Olympic Games.  Does fairness dictate that athletes should have equal access to advantage conferring technologies?  So, in the case of the IAAF’s objections to Pistorius,  was the underlying issue of fairness related to the fact that his legs were not equally accessible to other athletes?  What about Usain Bolt’s physiology?  Is it on par with mine?  If I trained as he does, ate as he does, slept the same amount of time he does, etc., would I also be able to run 100m in 9.72 seconds?  I doubt it!  Does Bolt have an unfair advantage over me?  Insofar as he is better predisposed than I for such great sprinting performance, I guess he does have an unfair advantage.  Do I need fixing?  Am I broken?  Well, no.  I’m not a sprinter, so I don’t need fixing, right??  What about Coroebus of Elis?  Was he broken?  Well, no.  He won the first ever recorded Olympic race!

I am certainly not making claims about the IAAF’s decision, nor about the reversal of the IAAF’s decision by the Court of Arbitration for Sport.  I also am not questioning the logic behind the rules and boundaries in sporting events.  What I question, however, is whether any competitors can truly be said to be advantage-less?  And I think the answer is no!  If that is the case, however, then it would seem that the point of contention about Pistorius’ alleged “edge” over his co-competitors might actually stem from a deeper apprehension about what our society considers to be abnormal.  Could it be that both Gary (who cannot walk) and Oscar (who can outrun much of his “normal” competition) are somehow viewed in terms of being in need of “fixing” because they are abnormal?  If this is the case, then it’s not merely an ableist fear because Oscar Pistorius, to my mind, is more than able to win races against “normal” sprinters.  Perhaps people are suspicious of difference?  I just hope they never figure out that taller people take bigger steps when they sprint.

Is Mount Everest the Proper Political Podium for Individuals with Disabilities?

Sudarshan Gautam, a 25-year old Nepalese man living in Calgary, lost his arms in an accident 15 years ago.  The experience of being both pitied and laughed at by his family and school friends, as well as the general negative attitude of others toward his disability prompted him to prove that losing his arms did not make him disabled.  To this end, he learned to drive a non-modified motorbike and a car with manual transmission.  He also declared that he would summit Mount Everest in 2012.

Mount Everest, being the highest point on earth, gets its share of “firsts.”  Following the famous first successful ascent by Edmund Hillary and Tenzig Norgay, there had been a constant number of both legitimate and eyebrow raising “firsts.”  On the one end of the spectrum, there was the first ascent without oxygen (1978) by Reinhold Messner as well as the first winter ascent by Leszek Cichy and Krzysztof Wielicki in 1980.  On the other end of the spectrum, there was a dangerous helicopter landing in 2005, an insane ski descent, a sleep-over on the summit, etc.  Although the mountain has been commercialised for many years now (with “tourist” climbing companies charging as much as $70,000 per person to lead clients to the roof of the world), the mountain continues to be both a dangerous place and a place of infinite “firsts” with individuals always willing to risk their lives (and the lives of other people on the mountain since rescue efforts at such extreme altitudes are very dangerous endeavours) to be the youngest, the oldest, the fastest, etc. to reach the summit.

Climbing Everest is definitely a personal accomplishment and it has certainly been quite a political endeavour ever since people had set their minds on climbing it.  I am not surprised that Sudarshan Gautam is hoping to promote his noble cause (of advertising abilities of individuals with disabilities) by attempting to climb the highest mountain in the world.  There have been other individuals with disabilities who have successfully navigated the treacherous ridges of Everest.  Erik Weihenmayer was the first blind person to summit Everest and Mark Inglis was the first to do so without legs.

The questions, however, that seem to bother me are Continue reading

Limelight Film Festival: Edmonton

The Limelight Film Showcase, Day 2, is TOMORROW, i.e., Tuesday 18th October, 2011, at the University of Alberta campus in Edmonton.  All events are in Myer Horowitz Theatre in the SUB Building, and the festival runs from noon until around 10pm and includes not only short and feature films, but also live dance and movement performances.  Check out the schedule via the festival page here.  All events are free and open to the public.

FIXED: a Kickstarter plea

Aimee Mullins' Legs

Some of Aimee Mullins' legs

Oakland-based filmmaker Regan Brashear is launching her film FIXED: The Science / Fiction of Human Enhancement and is running a Kickstarter campaign to help with funding for the film’s clean-up.  You can start with donations of $1 and up–details about the campaign and film here.  The campaign runs until 9.03am EDT, August 31, so donate NOW.  A brief excerpt from the site:

What’s the film about?  What does “disabled” mean when a man with no legs can run faster than many Olympic sprinters? With prenatal screening able to predict hundreds of probable conditions, who should determine what kind of people get to be born? If you could augment your body’s abilities in any way imaginable, what would you do and why? From pre-implantation genetic diagnosis to neural implants and bionic limbs, researchers around the world are hard at work developing a myriad of technologies to fix or enhance the human body, but what does it mean to design “better humans” and do we want to? FIXED follows three remarkable people: Continue reading

Vancouver 2010 Olympic and Paralympic Games podcast

The Talks
As Canada prepares to host the world’s best, Vancouver 2010, The Globe and Mail, and the University of British Columbia in collaboration with universities across Canada, are partnering on a unique project inviting the public to flex their intellect via podcasts by some of the country’s best minds on topics related to the 2010 Winter Games.

My podcast is live

Gregor Wolbring

Who will be the future Olympic and Paralympic athlete? The impact of advances in science and technology and bodily assistive devices on Sport.

http://www.theglobeandmail.com/intellectual-muscle/the-talks/article1312702/

The transcript of the podcast is situated here

http://www.bioethicsanddisability.org/vancouverpodcast.html

Aimee Mullins on Gizmodo on Racing on Carbon Fibre Legs

Aimee Mullins Beach Shot

Aimee Mullins running on a beach

American athlete Aimee Mullins has been a guest editor over at Gizmodo recently, and her “Racing on Carbon Fibre Legs” is worth a read on Cheetah legs, Pistorius, an ableism. Amongst the things of interest are:

As of yet, the best prosthetic available is not as efficient and not as capable as what Mother Nature gives us — or, what she was supposed to give me and South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius. The revolutionary design of the woven carbon-fibre Cheetah Leg, nicknamed for its design inspiration, has been in existence for nearly 15 years — and after my initial triumphs with them in the mid 1990s, it has been the leg of choice for nearly all elite amputee sprinters. But in one instant, after Pistorius entered a summer 2007 track meet in Rome and placed second in a field of runners possessing flesh and bone legs, he and I were deemed too abled.

And then, in conclusion: Continue reading