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Down’s Syndrome World Table Tennis Championships

J Kaufman
August 2019

We all have our petty prejudices. Even me. It’s probably something to do with our tribal origins. Left unattended, our prejudices can all too easily morph into irrational hatreds and bigotry. Under extreme conditions one might even kill in the name of defending one’s dearly held prejudice. It happens all the time all over our sorry little world. It is often forgotten that, along with communists, socialists, trade unionists, homosexuals and transgender people, Roma and Jews, people with varying physical and intellectual disabilities were ruthlessly and systematically murdered by twentieth century fascist regimes.

But the good news is that under more benign conditions, many of us have learnt to rise above our irrational prejudices and have started to act more rationally, even, if you will forgive my youthful enthusiasm, more lovingly. By this I mean, not just tolerating difference but positively celebrating it. When it comes to ‘disability’, we have travelled a long way. Still a million miles to go but society generally might be said to have started a journey whereby both physical and intellectual disabilities are merely seen as part of a human continuum of ability.

The premise is that we are all, to some degree, on a spectrum of ability, whereby a person may excel in one activity and be hopelessly inept at another. I know that feeling well. Ask me to organise a ping pong tournament for two hundred people and I’ll make a half decent job of it. Ask me to carry out the simplest of DIY tasks and I will fail miserably time and time again. Introduce a mechanical or electrical component to the task and my level of ineptitude becomes legendary. It’s a similar story in my physical endeavours. I can still comfortably play a reasonable level of ping for five hours or more with barely a break. Ask me to swim a lap of even a medium size pool and you’ll find me gasping for breath.

If we accept the premise that we are all on a physical and intellectual spectrum with different aptitudes for different tasks, then the conclusion is obvious. Exclude nobody on the basis of so-called disability. On the contrary, be pro-active and include everybody. You may just be surprised, even shocked at what the so-called disabled person will achieve be it in the realm of sport, of employment or any scientific or artistic endeavour. The astonishing life of Stephen Hawking is a technicolour testament to this blindingly obvious fact. The stunning achievements of the para Olympians is still further reminder that all humans, if given a reasonably level playing field, can be successful in a whole range of human activity.

Given the veracity of the above, it was no surprise that at the recently held Down’s Syndrome World Table Tennis Championships, held in Portugal on the island of Madeira, produced some sparkling table tennis. You can read about their exploits on the Table Tennis England website. You might be amazed at the level of proficiency, but you really shouldn’t be. One of the British competitors was from Brighton Table Tennis Club and as well as being a damn fine table tennis player capable of whipping 99.9 % of the world’s population, he is a fully trained table tennis coach. For this person, the sky is the limit, a person who refuses to be pigeonholed by preconceived notions of what he can and cannot do.

All this leads me to ponder about the very word, ‘disabled’. I suspect that if ever there was a word that needed to be jettisoned it is this one. Of course, I can readily see its advantages. To be categorised as disabled can bring with it extra resources and extra empathy. And that is certainly good. But with it also comes a certain stigma and a massive degree of pre-conception. It shoves people into a box and limits, intentionally or otherwise, what people are capable of. To me, the very semantics of the word has a negative connotation.

So, if we were ditch the word ‘disabled’, what should we replace it with? Maybe ‘multi-ability’ is a less pejorative term. It’s a term that better reflects the universal continuum of human ability. It’s a term that is fully inclusive as opposed to the false dichotomy between the ‘abled’ and the ‘disabled’. But in the end, language, important as it is, is only a reflection of society’s limiting attitudes and prejudices. I’ve been coaching table tennis for well over thirty years and I’ve yet to come across a student that has not improved their game with time. As Matthew Syed was at pains to point out in his ground breaking ‘Bounce’, there really is no such thing as talent, merely those that have the opportunity and encouragement to purposefully improve and those that don’t. If we stop putting people in artificial boxes, then the sky truly is the limit. The recent World Down’s Syndrome Table Tennis Championships was a poignant reminder of this indisputable truth.

This article was originally published in 2019 on the Sporting Polemics blog.

Posted on Jun 08, 2020