Think pieces

These posts are chosen to get you thinking. Feel free to send us your ideas or suggestions about issues you’d like covered, and disabled writers and thinkers, you admire.

What is genuine achievement?

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By Sally Champion

Australian writer, comedian and disability advocate Stella Young said, “I want to live in a world where we don't have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own name in the morning.”

She was clever and funny. 

I initially became interested in her after watching the Ted Talk featured here..

Sadly Stella Young died in early December last year.

In her Ted Talk she chats about the common phenomena of disabled people becoming “inspirational porn” for others.  And says she wants to live in a world where we value genuine achievement for disabled people.

Her Ted Talk made me think about what genuine achievement means and something that happened to me when I was younger which is a good example of what it certainly isn’t.  

When I was eleven I developed a passion for gymnastics. Our school had a gym where I used to go and practice every lunch hour for my iron badge (the first badge in a series).  I loved watching the kids who were really good at gymnastics and the beauty of their movements.

But, for me, after months of daily practice, mastery of the iron badge choreography didn’t seem forthcoming.  I still couldn’t reach the wooden horse by jumping on the spring board positioned in front of it, the floor exercises presented the same obstacles they always had and I had so many falls walking on the raised beam that I wondered if gymnastics might take my life before it awarded me any of its prizes.

The worst part was the no man’s land my frustration propelled me into. However hard I tried, no improvement was evident.  I wanted out of that place, but I didn’t seem able to adjust my goal.  I started asking the teachers who supervised gymnastics if I was ready to sit my iron badge.  They watched my deeply flawed routine and sadly told me more practice was required.

In the end they too were defeated by my lack of progress and arranged for my examination. At that point, in tactical agreement, we all plunged ourselves into a fictional reality. I was about to be indulged and I was fully aware of it.

All badge recipients participated in a special ceremony at our school assembly. Our names were called out and we walked onto the stage to shake hands with the principal and get our badge.

When I went up to get mine the principal addressed the assembly and talked at length about my courage, resilience and determination not to let my physical disability hold me back. It was ghastly. I grabbed my badge and scuttled off the stage, relieved the other kids hadn’t seen the quality of my examination performance.

Getting the badge didn’t bring me the joy I expected it to. Bored by my lack of progress I’d ended up colluding with my own low expectations and the low expectations of others.  And it didn’t feel good.

I’m aware lots of rights-based issues come into my story - my right as a child with a physical disability to enjoy sport, etc., but, like Stella in her Ted Talk, here I’m thinking about the essence of genuine achievement and what that is for me.

I think to experience the powerful increase of self-esteem that goes with achievement the essence of it needs to feel real.  And it needs to be real in the real world.

Over the course of a lifetime I’ve tried and failed in all sorts of ways. But through that process I have worked out what my strengths are and by using them, experienced feelings of genuine achievement.  

That’s not rocket science. I’m sure everybody goes through that process. I am just grateful I had access to the variety of experiences which allowed me to work out what I was good at.