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The "Normal" Body: implications for disability sport dialogue

Posted: Mon, 13 Mar 2017 12:24

The "Normal" Body: implications for disability sport dialogue

The Paralympics have been a huge success for disability sport. The fact that initiatives such as The 4 All Games are gaining traction is testament to the new profile that disabled athletes enjoy. However, in the words of Sport England: "there is more to be done".

The last Active People Survey revealed that a person with a disability is half as likely to participate in sport as someone without a disability. Society needs to challenge and push the inclusivity dialogue on; to do this, we must first appreciate where it came from.

Our world is one of norms. We are either endeavouring to be normal or enthusiastically avoiding normalcy. Society considers everything in 'normal' or 'average' terms: salaries, body dimensions and what we think or do are all drawn along conceptual lines from 'abnormal' to above average. In sum, there is little (if any) area of modern life that has not been 'normed', averaged or categorised.

Understanding disability requires that we must first comprehend 'the norm', and more explicitly, the 'normal body'. While most disability studies have focused on the disabled individual as the object of investigation - as people of colour have been the object of race studies – little has been dedicated to the construction of normalcy.

As the scholarship on race has begun to contemplate 'whiteness' and how it overlaps with other ethnicities, so we need to consider how normalcy has problematised disability.

In order to do this, we require a quick history lesson. I begin with a remarkable fact: the collection of words related to 'normal' (e.g. 'normality', 'average' and even 'abnormal') entered European languages rather late. In fact, 'normal' as we recognise it, only appears in the English vocabulary around 1840. Beforehand, it meant 'perpendicular' – a carpenter's square was a 'norm'. Norms (as we know them) have not always existed.

Instead of being an inherent desirability they are simply a function of a certain kind of society. The notion of 'disabling' individuals arose during the period of industrialisation. Indeed, recent research on ancient Greece and pre-industrial Europe reveals that disability was regarded very differently from our modern perceptions.

If we revise our assumptions of the concept's comprehensiveness, we arrive at the preceding concept: the 'ideal'. The ideal – and thus the idealised body – arises from traditions of the nude Venus and THE goddess Aphrodite, and is hence divine.

This divinity is not meant to be achieved by humanity. In a culture that idealises the body, by definition, the population are all destined to be below the ideal.

L'homme moyen was the work of French statistician Adolphe Quetelet (1796-1847) – one of the early exponents of extending the ideal to the 'norm' or the 'average' concept. Quetelet's work drew upon the astronomical 'law of error' and applied them to human features such as morality and the body. His l'homme moyen (literally, 'the average man') was the average of all human moral and physical attributes, and as Quetelet writes: "would represent at once all the greatness, beauty and goodness of that being". Quetelet's utopian norm was later picked up by Marx, Freud and, importantly for our story, Sir Francis Galton.

Galton was the cousin of influential biologist Charles Darwin. He was also a prominent statistician and eugenicist. Statistics is entwined with eugenics: a core aspect of both is that a population can be normed.

The next step is for then governance to norm the 'non-normed', or the 'non-standard'. Both statistics and eugenics contemplate the norm, and therefore the 'normal body'. Ultimately, they have helped create the concept of a disabled body.

Among Galton's colleague was Alexander Graham Bell – he of telephone fame. Bell delivered a famous eugenicist speech: Memoir upon the Formation of a Deaf Variety of the Human Race, that warned society of the risks associated with deaf-mutes marrying other deaf-mutes - thus producing a deaf-mute race. With this in mind, one begins to see how a 'normal' society came to behold the 'differently-abled' of the time.

Statistics have defined the human race, and created a global vision of the 'able body'. Subsequently, 'disability' has been soaked with ideological meaning. While we tend to associate eugenics with the far-right, it is important to note that this was not a fringe movement, but one adopted by swathes of Westernised society. Its association with seminal (and hugely influential) scholars and thinkers is hard to shake.

The very term 'normal' is a configuration born of a particular historical movement, and one we need to consign to the past. A task for modern society – and disability sport specifically – is to develop a consciousness of disability that reverses the supremacy of the 'normal' body or sportsperson. Only then can our sporting society become truly inclusive.

Brendan King is Impact and Evaluation Manager at Greenhouse Sports

Tags: Sport, Paralympics, sport england

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