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Pistorius: What’s in a Name or Label?

August 15, 2012

What does Oscar Pistorius have to do to be called able-bodied?

If you were not one of the more than 26 million people watching the Olympics (NBC’s weekly viewership average, according to a Washington Post article last week), Pistorius was born without either fibula and before he was a year old, both of his legs were amputated below the knee. He is known as the “Blade Runner” and the “fastest man on no legs”. He ran in the Olympic 400m and the 4 x 400m relay with his South African teammates. He will also compete in the upcoming Paralympics in London.

The NBC announcers covering his events kept contrasting Pistorius with the other “able-bodied” runners. What isn’t able-bodied about Oscar Pistorius?! He is fast enough and strong enough to compete in the most prestigious,  competitive, and historically significant international sporting event on the planet. True, he has carbon fiber lower limbs to walk on, but the training and conditioning he has endured and the balance alone he maintains certainly qualify him to be called able. His dedication through adversity should shame me to tears for my neglect, every time my Wii Fit tells me I am obese and unbalanced as I step on it with the two healthy legs I was blessed with at birth.

I don’t mean to criticize the announcers, because as one who teaches communication, I am having trouble finding appropriate words: partial-bodied vs. full-bodied? Sounds like we are discussing beer. Challenged vs. less challenged? What Olympic athlete isn’t fully challenged? (Let’s leave Usain Bolt out of this discussion.)

Am I being picky about word-choice? You bet I am. Maybe I am hypersensitive these days about names and labels.

The university where I teach is embroiled in turmoil over a recent renaming.  Consolidation with another university in the same city necessitates a new moniker.  An unpopular name has caused students, staff, faculty, alumni, donors, politicians, journalists, broadcasters, and other community members to unite and rise up against the state’s Board of Regents–the body ultimately responsible for making the offending choice.

In an attempt to ease my own feelings over the matter, and to be gracious, I turned to William Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliette and posted on facebook: “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Not that I am qualified to argue with the Bard, but, what may be true about roses isn’t necessarily true about runners or universities and the people who have to wear the names or labels.

We were taught as children that sticks and stones may break our bones, but names can never hurt us. I wish I could find the academic research studies to quote, but if my memory is accurate, broken bones heal more swiftly and completely than the psychological scars inflicted upon people by careless or mean-spirited words.

When I teach my students about word choice, my first rule is accuracy. Call it what it is. If you mean you are looking forward to something, say you are eager, not anxious. Don’t say the professor gave you a grade if you earned it. If you got drunk and got behind the wheel of a car you didn’t have an accident, it was a crash or wreck. NASCAR certainly knows the difference between the two. You’d never hear Darrell say, “Oh no! look at that accident on turn two.”

I don’t know how Oscar Pistorius feels about not being labeled able-bodied or being called handicapped or disabled (literally NOT able–not able to do what?!). I do know that there are a lot of people in and around Augusta, Georgia that are not happy about wearing a name that they feel does not accurately describe them.

The words we choose, the labels we apply, the names we bestow are important. They influence what we think and feel and who we become.  I can understand the intense emotion behind having to be called something you know you are not. Those clothes just don’t fit comfortably, and many times they can make us look bad.

I think Oscar Pistorius can change the way we think and talk about physical abilities. According to his official website, his sports motto is, “You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have.”

What’s in a name? As it turns out, a lot of vigorous and vested interest. Who knows how or if the university name controversy will be resolved. Let’s just not say it really doesn’t matter. 

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One Comment
  1. Gaye permalink

    A well-articulated blog, thanks…what hits people hardest in these situations is the lack of respect for their opinions and wishes, they feel they have not been heard. I am hoping for the best possible solution, but it involves empathy and acknowledgement and humility on behalf of those who have power and perceived authority…

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