Wednesday, August 22, 2012

Media, Microaggressions and the Paralympics

Last week my niece picked me up from work, and as we were driving back to my sister’s for the night, we got on the topic of the Olympics verses the Paralympics. My niece was shocked to discover that although the Olympics gets two full week of coverage. The Paralympics gets only a few hours a day at most.

“Why?” She asked me, sounding baffled. I shook my head. “I heard that they are afraid of losing sponsors.” Of course, I have no idea if that is true. However, I cannot think of one good reason for it, or the fact that Michael Phelps is a worldwide celebrity while Trischa Zorn is virtually unknown. It just is. My acceptance of this issue troubled me. So did my niece’s next question: “They can’t do that can they, isn’t that discrimination?”

I didn’t answer her right away. For weeks I’d been having this same conversation, and of course everyone is baffled. “Why?” they ask. “That’s stupid.” They say. But nobody had come right out and called it discrimination. defines discrimination as: treatment or consideration of, or making a distinction in favor of or against, a person or thing based on the group, class, or category to which that person or thing belongs rather than on individual merit.

I’ve been discriminated against in the past. When I was eleven years old, I went to fifth grade camp with my school. It was a tradition; everyone went. I remember it being for a week, but it may have been just a weekend. Anyway, one morning while having breakfast with my friends, a teacher came up to me and said I looked tired. I told her I was fine and she felt my forehead and said I didn’t look well and that I had to go home. I started to cry. I told her I felt fine. But it didn’t matter. Suddenly, I was being driven home by someone in charge. I cried the whole way. I told the man I wasn’t sick. He said he knew this, but that camp was too hard for me; that I was struggling too much. I told him I wasn’t but he didn’t listen. When I got home I called my Mom and told her what happened. I can’t remember if it was the next day or later that afternoon, but that same guy came to take me back to camp. As it turns out, the morning I was sent home was the day my class was scheduled to participate on the ropes course.

In the end, my Dad and Stepmom came to the camp with me. They took me to the ropes while the other kids were at lunch. They went through every part of the course with me, while the people that sent me home watched. Later, with my whole class watching, I climbed the rock wall and rang the bell at the top while all my friends cheered for me.

That was discrimination. I knew it as a child. But I have experienced discrimination at other times as well. Sometimes the discrimination was obvious to me, like the time I was told at the county fair that I couldn’t ride the rides because of my “condition.” Other times, like when I was left at the bus stop in downtown Grand Rapids three days in a row, because “the bus was too full for the wheelchair,” the discrimination was not obvious to me at the time.

As a person with a disability, I am used to certain things. I am used to not being able to go into certain buildings. I am used to having to sit in certain places, and not being able to use the bathroom. I am used to hearing, “Our building is old so we’re not accessible.” None of these things sound any alarm bells in my head, because they are so common; because they are subtle. No one comes out and says “You can’t do/enter/use XYZ because you’re disabled.” Ultimately, I want to believe that no one would ever consciously discriminate against someone and then cover it up with some lie to make it seem like it is out of their control. Yes, I suppose that is a bit na├»ve.

These experiences are probably why I didn’t immediately think that not televising the Paralympics was discrimination. I know there are many times when athletes with disabilities (at all levels of competition) are told that they cannot compete because they are disabled. That, obviously, is discrimination. Not televising the Paralympics isn’t fair and it doesn’t seem right; but it wasn’t infringing on the rights of the athletes to compete was it?

Certainly, no one is saying, “we aren’t televising this because these athletes are disabled!” I don’t necessarily believe that is the reason either, not technically anyway. But even if media claims to have good reasons for not televising the Paralympics that does not mean it is not discrimination. There is another form of discrimination, one that is more subtle and unfortunately, more accepted in our society. It is called Microaggression.

To be fair, Microaggression is something I just learned about on Monday when this video about it was posted on facebook; but I did find it quite interesting. According to the video, Microaggression is the everyday slights, insults, indignities and putdowns that people who are marginalized experience in their day to day interactions with people. Microaggressions sometimes appear to be a compliment, and are outside the awareness of the perpetrator because they are part of an unconscious world view of inclusion and exclusion. This construct is still somewhat controversial but it immediately resonated with me.  

Picture this:
  •  A person with a disability is at the mall. As a mother and child approach this person, the mother grabs the child by the arm, pulling them away from the person with the disability.
  •  A person with a disability is approached by a stranger who smiles at them, pats them on the shoulder and says: “It’s so nice to see you out”.
  •  A person with a disability is being stared at. When they say hello to the person staring, that person looks down and walks away.
  •  A person with a disability is at a family outing with her sister when a distant relative comes up to them and asks the sister if the person with a disability needs any help, instead of asking the person with the disability.

These are all examples of Microaggression that happen to me at least once a week. They, like the issue of televising the Paralympics, are not as obvious as saying “You can’t come in here because you use a wheelchair!” but, they still imply that people with disabilities are separate from those without disabilities; that we are excluded. The video talks about ways the individuals can combat micro aggressions, but I am wondering how far that can go when we live in a society that has conditioned so many of us to just accept these instances as facts of life. How can we begin to change when our media will only celebrate the accomplishments of seemingly able-bodied people while the accomplishments of people with disabilities are usually categorized as nothing more than inspirational stories; stories of how they overcame, or succeeded in spite of their disabilities? My is hope that, in the next few years, the United States will televise the Paralympics and allow those athletes to be recognized for what they are: great athletes who work hard and are representing their country with pride.

I've taken a few days to write this post. In those few days I have had a number of conversations that have made me think a little more about this topic. In that time, my opinion has not changed, but it has adjusted slightly. As a result this post has been written three times. I would love to keep the conversation going! Please comment below and share your opinion. Just remember to be respectful of everyone.


  1. At the start of your entry, I was just about to post that Channel 4 has all day Paralympics coverage (similar to that on the BBC for the Olympics) but then realised you're in the US and that doesn't apply :)

    You might still be able to access their coverage online though? -

  2. It's a little disheartening when, even in the 21st century, we still have to be segregated from certain things. I use the term segregated carefully because people often take one look at a person with a disability without actually speaking to them, and classify them, like we can each be put in a neat little category and forgotten about ( X can do this but you can't because of YZ) its frustrating when we all are so different but yet the label is so defining. Like if I don't look, act, think a certain way i cant possibly be handicapped because that's just unheard of. It's rather exhausting.