Up today, a Global Surf News feature on ‘challenged athletes’ competing in Duke’s Oceanfest, a surfing event held in Hawaii. Oceanfest celebrates Duke Kahanamoku, a Hawaiian surfing legend, and the event is used to raise funds to support scholarships for Hawaiian athletes. This year’s event featured an exhibition by disabled athletes participating in AccesSurf, an organisation that, in their own words: ’empowers people with disabilities by providing adaptive surfing instruction and therapeutic educational programs on water recreation and enriches lives by assisting families to access the beach and ocean in a barrier free environment.’
This sounds like my kind of organisation, and featuring disabled athletes at a big surfing event seems like an excellent idea. In addition to raising awareness about the fact that, yes, people with disabilities can surf and enjoy the beach and deserve to do so, the event could also be used to highlight accessibility issues. Competitors and members of the audience alike are at a surfing event because they love surfing, and it seems like a great idea to connect on the common ground of love for the ocean to get people thinking about accessibility and the integration of people with disabilities into society in general, not just the surfing community.
Of course, the takeaway from this feature article is somewhat different. There is nary a mention of accessibility issues, for example. The words ‘challenged athletes’ get used over and over again, perhaps because the schedule has the event noted as ‘AccesSurf Challenged Athlete Surfing.’ When all you have to go off is the event programme, and the event programme uses ‘challenged,’ a disability euphemism I for one have always loathed, you’re probably going to repeat that euphemism, because you don’t know any better.
The article stresses that the disabled athletes were ‘inspiring’ and ‘shining.’ That’s not really the takeaway I personally would want people to be left with. It makes it seem as though the athletes were participating for the sole purpose of inspiring nondisabled people and giving them enjoyment, when, actually, they were participating because they love surfing, and they want to highlight the work AccesSurf does in Hawaii. Articles like this always irk me because the focus is solely on what the event being covered does for nondisabled people; it allows people to pat themselves on the back and feel better, but it doesn’t, forgive me, challenge the readers in any way.
One disabled athlete was interviewed for the piece, and he talked about adaptive surfing for muscular dystrophy, and how happy he was to get an opportunity to participate in the event. Props for not making all the competitors nameless and faceless, truly, but the rest of the article gets a resounding raspberry from me. ‘It’s not what you do, it’s the style and spirit with which you do it that shines brightest’ is the lead sentence in the article, and that tells me a lot about how the person writing it thinks about people with disabilities.
This article could have been informative. It could have talked about adaptive aquatic sports to give people an idea of the range of available accommodations that can be used to get people into the water, and to familiarise readers with some of the terminology so they could potentially seek out programs like AccesSurf in their own communities. Surfers interested in participating in adaptive aquatic sports might have taken away useful material from this article. And the piece could have highlighted the work AccesSurf does around beach and ocean accessibility, again giving readers something to take away from the article and apply to their own lives.
Instead, it went for the ‘people with disabilities as entertainment’ narrative, and completely missed the potential for a teachable moment. It certainly didn’t do anything to change the way readers might think about disability; disability is a source of ‘inspiration,’ says the article, and that doesn’t really ask readers to delve a little more deeply into their attitudes and beliefs about disability.