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 whether adding another “first” is necessary, whether it is wise to risk lives to prove one’s ability for a specific kind of task in an effort to make general claims about disabilities, and whether such attempts are truly politically potent?  I am sure they are personally gratifying and neither Erik nor Mark should have been prevented from climbing just because they had to make minor adjustments to their climbing strategies, but I wonder what their accomplishments really do for individuals who are either not interested in climbing mountains or unable to for whatever reason?  Does Erik’s success on Everest change the minds of employers who hesitate or outright refuse to hire blind people?  If yes, then I guess I should end this post right here, but I don’t think this is the case.

I think that both Erik Weihenmayer and Mark Inglis have demonstrated that the term “disability” is somewhat of a misnomer.  Erik did require a guide who would talk him through such obstacles as crevasses and other difficulties on the mountain.  With the right support, however, Erik’s blindness was no longer a disability.  Sudarshan Gautam expects to immerse himself in just such a supportive environment on his climb (by being appropriately roped into a team of climbers).

The emergent message I read into Weihenmayer’s and Inglis’ accomplishments is that disabilities only exist in the presence of a lack of proper support.  Personal reasons aside, however, is there still political worth in risking lives on Everest?  Does what Sudarshan Gautam proposes or what Weihenmayer and Inglis accomplished really help non-disabled people understand individuals with disabilities?  Or do we just redraw the boundaries and continue to embrace the status quo by acknowledging that some people without eyesight, legs, or arms can climb a mountain, and thus are really not disabled, or not “too disabled,” while others (with other disabilities) cannot because they are “too disabled”?  Does climbing a mountain prove anything worth proving (putting personal self-actualisation aside, of course)?  And since many “normal” individuals are not able to climb Everest because it requires a certain skill set and physical as well as psychological fitness that not everyone cares to cultivate, how does a successful ascent of a specific kind of individual with a specific kind of impairment (an individual who is in possession of those specific kinds of skills and fitness levels required for climbing) translate into a political statement about the abilities of all disabled individuals?  I don’t deny that each such attempt is inspiring, but I question whether it is politically useful.  On a personal level, it makes sense (at least to those who caught the climbing bug at some point in their lives), but summiting Everest without arms doesn’t seem to translate into more accessible public spaces.  In fact, it may even trigger the absurd thought that since some disabled people can climb mountains, then those who can’t get their wheelchairs through the door should maybe try to climb out of them in an effort to fit in and if they don’t, then maybe they’re just lazy.  I certainly don’t deny the inspiring achievements of Weihenmayer and Inglis and I am in no position to dismiss the dreams of Gautam, but I wonder if the various communities of people with disabilities really benefit in any way from other people climbing mountains?  I guess my worry can be summed up as follows: if Sudarshan Gautam’s climb gets funded by sponsors interested in spreading a certain message about disabilities, is the sponsorship money spent wisely?

Here is the article and the related web page that inspired this post.

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