Last weekend, Formula 4 racer Billy Monger had a crash that has resulted in his lower legs being amputated. David Birrell, a veteran who lost his legs in Afghanistan and now races, wrote a public post on Monger's Facebook fan page, offering him hope for a future racing career without needing special adaptations to the car. A lot of (abled) people pointed out that Alex Zanardi had continued his racing career after a disabling accident.
Now seems a good time to talk about disability in racing. There are racers with amputated limbs (google Alex Zanardi, David Birrell, Gemma Trotter) and paralysis (google Nathalie McGloin) as a result of past injuries. There are also people in the community with less visible disabilities. For example, I know people who are wicked with a race car, but are functionally illiterate due to disorders like dyslexia. There are some who, through their learning disabilities, are only capable of very basic maths (usually speed and other applied things to do with race cars), and suffer from the lack of financial and mathematical literacy. There are people (myself included) with mental illness that gets in the way of normal work function.
And yet we still see ableism rearing its ugly head. It's subtle ableism. It's not like anyone will make fun of a physically disabled person, or intentionally trip up a blind person. The ableism is mostly 'just words' that betray implicit biases.
The ableism is apparent when commentators point out that Zanardi has a disability whenever he gets in or out the car, and several times during his stint. It's apparent when, over a twenty-four hour race, Zanardi's disability gets more mentions than his driving. People are – consciously or unconsciously – showing 'Alex Zanardi the disabled racer' rather than 'Alex Zanardi the great racer who happens to have a disability'.
I've not asked Zanardi about this, but it's quite likely that he has several overlapping identities – for example: man, racer, Italian – that have nothing to do with his disability, although that would likely be on the list of identities he holds. 'Sufferer/enjoyer of bipolar affective disorder' is only one part of my identity. People with disabilities tend to see themselves as people primarily, and the disability is a secondary identity.
The abled world sees the disability first and the humanity second. 'Disabled person,' rather than 'person with a disability.' 'Paraplegic racer, Alex Zanardi,' rather than 'Alex Zanardi, racer and hand cyclist.' 'Amputee Gemma Trotter,' rather than 'racer Gemma Trotter.' I'm guilty of calling Alexander the Great, 'Alexander the Wildly Bipolar' (he was; nobody wakes up one morning and invades every country from Macedonia to India without a few manic episodes along the way to keep up the momentum), but do you see how conceptualising people as primarily disabled is dehumanising?
See also: 'girl racer, Simona De Silvestro,' 'quick for a girl,' 'black racer, Lewis Hamilton,' 'Bruno Senna, nephew of the late, great Ayrton Senna,' and the list goes on. Identifying people solely or primarily by their marginalised identities, othering experiences, or things that come from the random results of genetics or circumstance rather than by their accomplishments is dehumanising.
Fetishisation is also dehumanising. People have found our Woman of the Week interview with Trotter by searching 'big boobs amputee' (when the photo brief that accompanies every interview request is 'no “sexy” pics'). Being a fan of Gemma Trotter because she's a lovely person and strong woman and a great role model for life after amputation is a good thing; jerking off to pics of random amputees without getting their consent or caring about their back-stories is fetishisation. This rant could be had about most marginalised groups (see erotica that compares non-white skin colours to food – eg. chocolate, caramel; see the stereotype that non-white people are hyper-sexual; see calling women sluts and bitches as a default term for femme-identified vagina owners).
A fairly common form of discrimination against people with disabilities is using them as inspiration porn. I don't know if you've noticed, but throughout this article, I have only really mentioned the most productive minority of people with disabilities. This is the sort of shoddy journalism that contributes to this stereotype. While I don't know many by name, there are legions of people in the fanbase and blogosphere who anonymously struggle with disabilities. But we turn to Zanardi and McGloin and Birrell and Trotter as examples when discussing disabilities in racing.
While having role models is important to people shortly after their diagnoses (or, if they have a disabling incident while very young, important for kids), this kind of storytelling is quite biased. It sets up an unconscious expectation that all people with disabilities need to become over-achievers to be important enough to have their stories heard and valued; they need to push themselves and strive to be 'as good as an abled person.' In reality, becoming an over-achiever is a personal choice, and nothing to do with a disability or lack thereof.
The opposite trap is also a potential hazard – that is, erasing the experiences of people with disabilities. When a racer with a disability brings it up, the interviewer is obviously uncomfortable, and skips on to a safer topic. (I have also seen this kind of erasure and minimisation happen to women and people of colour in motorsport while talking about issues that affect them, but point aside.)
What,then, can the press do when writing about racers with disabilities without offending someone? I acknowledge that the middle ground is narrow and poorly defined (to abled people). Ideally, remember that people with disabilities are primarily people. Write about people with disabilities as respectfully as you would write about abled people.
Please don't qualify their names with 'disabled' in your lead paragraph, even if the rest of the article is about their disability. We can google it if we need to figure out why Zanardi cycles with his hands rather than his feet. If for whatever reason you feel compelled to discuss their disabling incidents, do so in the same way you would discuss the past crashes of able-bodied racers. It's a thing that happened; we the press and public should be respectful in how we write/talk about people's medical histories, but not shy away from the topic if they bring it up.
McGloin has spoken in the past about starting an organisation for racers with disabilities (Nathalie, if mentioning you by name pings a google alert you have on yourself, get in touch, we'd love to collaborate on an international organisation), but there has been no news about that since. There is a British organisation – BMSAD, the British Motorsport Association for the Disabled (http://www.bmsad.co.uk/) – who work to help people with a wide range of disabilities get competition licenses through the MSA. If another such organisation exists – an international one, or one for a country other than the UK – they're not easily googlable.
As Birrell said to Monger, there is hope for people with disabilities to have the quality of life they want. There are facilities and car adaptations available, if necessary. Humans are fantastically adaptable creatures, and can acclimate to almost any set of circumstances. Seriously, research has shown that one year on from the initial interview, the 'won the lottery' test group had effectively the same level of life satisfaction as the 'lost one or more limbs' test group.
The response to the crowdfunding page set up to fund Monger's rehabilitation and prosthetics has been overwhelmingly positive. There is a kart race planned for early May to raise money for his ongoing treatment, and he could continue his career very successfully. However, it's quite telling of the attitude towards disabilities that there have been women and gay racers in Formula 1, but nobody with a disability that is either easily noticeable (eg. an amputated limb) or invisible but publicly discussed during their racing career (eg. dyslexia and mental illness). We wish Billy Monger a speedy recovery from his injuries, and a supportive community through his rehabilitation. Maybe he'll be the first racer with a disability to get a superlicense and race in F1.