Deviant and accomplished – the contradictory life of the disabled sportswoman

Anne-Merete Kissow
Danish Disability Sport Information Centre &
Nasjonal kompetansetjeneste for barn og unge med funksjonsnedsettelser, Norway

Elisabet Apelmo
Sport and the Female Disabled Body
157 pages, hardcover.
Abingdon, Oxon: Routledge 2017 (Interdisciplinary Disability Studies)
ISBN 978-1-4724-5514-7

How do young sporting women with physical impairments handle living with a body which, on one hand, is viewed as deviant – the disabled body – and, on the other, is viewed as accomplished – the sporting body? This very interesting issue is discussed in Elisabet Apelmo’s book ‘Sport and the Female Disabled Body’. The book is a revised version of a doctoral thesis.

The project is situated in four research fields: Sociology of the body, feminist research, the sociology of sports, and disability studies. It draws on theories from phenomenology represented by Maurice Merleau-Ponty and Simone de Beauvoir which provide an appropriate framework for discussing two recurrent topics of the book: The embodied existence of the subject and how gender is inscribed in our bodies.

With her study the author intents to contribute to a growing consciousness of the disabled body as well as the idealized body in social research. The assumption is that by studying the deviant body, the normal body can be made visible.

Methods used for the research are participant observations, interviews and video diaries made by the participants in the study.

The research is conducted in a Swedish context. An historical account of the Swedish disability movement and disability policy is presented, and disability sports as part of the sports movement in Sweden is discussed. The prevailing view of the body in disability sport is found to be the medicalized body, and this view is also found in media.

With a strong focus on disability studies, gender and feminism, the author presents a very solid study within this field of research which puts forward an expedient basis for the discussions later on.

The main part of the book (chapter 3-6) is devoted to an analysis of the empirical material of the study.

In chapter 3, the themes dependence versus independence and how autonomy is linked to normality are discussed.  Further, the women’s struggle for feminine normality is examined. Through quotes from the interviews we get to know some of the interviewees of the study. Field notes and small narratives about the young women allow us to get a small impression of their everyday lives. We meet Hanna who had a completely ordinary childhood like almost everyone else. She was treated like her siblings and should help herself. In her own eyes she was somewhat of a tomboy, always having wounds here and there because of falling, and practicing several sports from her early years. But we also meet Malin and Natalie, who have their mothers as personal assistants, and Ingela, 17 years old, who recently moved away from her parents to attend upper secondary school in a city an hour’s trip from home. These tales remind us that the discussions of dependence, overprotection and independence are ambiguous and complex. When it comes to the feeling of being feminine and attractive and the need of closeness to a partner the quotes from the women give us insight into their own feelings and other people’s reactions and attitudes to the femininity of a woman in a wheelchair.

But it is also a tale of empowered female subjects not taking the position as victims that society might expect them to.

Finally, the theme of exclusion and inclusion in physical education lessons in school is discussed in connection with the women’s feeling of normality. This perspective is further stressed by Maria and Sara, who tell about how great it feels to meet other young people with disabilities in sports.

Chapter 4 considers different kinds of experiences that are linked to the body:  experiences of the operated body and the medical gaze, of the good looking body and the teenager’s dissatisfaction with the body as well as the body as a source of pleasure and joy.

An interesting issue in this context is the disabled bodies in contrast to the perfect and skillful body, which seems to be the ideal. The author discusses how disabled female bodies are regarded as deficient, like the female body in general, and how beautification enhances the normalization of the female body as well as cultural capital, while disability reduces it. In this chapter we find a wealth of quotes from the interviewees that tell tales of repeated hospital treatments, medicalization, loss of control, which could be connected to an ambivalence towards medical care.  But they are also tales of dissatisfaction with the body, bodily pleasure and strength, feelings of beauty and attractiveness. In this respect they represent themselves as young women in general.

In chapter 5 the body is linked to the use of assistive technology which also seems to evoke ambivalence. It may reduce impairment effects by becoming an extension of the body. But it may just as well be a hindrance in the interaction between the person with disability and other people, since others might focus on the aid instead of the person, reducing him or her to the impairment instead of seeing a human being. For the interviewees, however, the active wheelchair is part of their identity and an extension of their body, which represents strength, toughness and activity.

Chapter 6 allows us to look into the young women’s experience of the disability sports movement. Being a young woman in a male context seems to be somewhat of a challenge. And there is a distinct difference between being a ‘real’ sportsperson and doing disability sport. The latter is perceived to be considered second-rate in society and something completely different than real sports. No wonder that the interviewees often feel excluded and challenged by their value in the sports context.

The final discussion in chapter 7 highlights the many examples of what the author calls cultural imperialism in the women’s stories. They are marked out as the Other as they are infantilized, patronized and are ascribed weaknesses and deficiencies. Stigmatization is part of the women’s everyday lives.

But it is also a tale of empowered female subjects not taking the position as victims that society might expect them to.

This book must be welcomed as a very important contribution to the discussion of sport, gender and disability. And to take it further, the study gives inspiration and impetus to an interesting and required discussion of what elite disability sport has to offer women with disability, in terms of finding themselves as valued subjects and females in their own right, being the bodies they are.

There are a lot of great discussions waiting in this area, and the author is hereby encouraged to present this important research to a broader public, e.g. professional practitioners and people in the disability sport field.

Copyright © Anne-Merete Kisow 2018

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