The Simon Heng Column

Last week’s Academy Awards ceremony was unusual as it recognised a collection of films that deal with serious themes in considered ways.

Those themes are the ones that often concern readers of Community Care: sexuality, ethnicity, political and religious belief. And I’m sure that we will appreciate the way they have been handled. But hidden among the nominees for best documentary was a film almost entirely populated by disabled people that’s just as thought-provoking and sensational as any of the headline movies.

Murderball is a film about quadriplegic (tetraplegic) rugby – a Paralympic sport for wheelchair users, played on a basketball court, which focuses on the intense rivalry between the US and Canadian teams. It’s a full contact sport, played with little or no regard for personal safety, in specialised wheelchairs that seem to have the dents built into them. The players are  highly competitive, aggressive characters who have often acquired their impairments doing other dangerous sports.

The exceptional thing about this documentary – which has no commentary – is the unflinching way in which it shows the everyday life of active, physically disabled people: the matter-of-fact approach to everything from sex to parenting, and from having fun to travelling.

Murderball gives an insight into the profound change of attitude that comes with acquiring a disability and how that matches up, or fails to link, with their previous “normal” life.

These men are so competitive, so macho, and, in some cases, so unpleasant that I wondered if they were the best “ambassadors” for disabled people – but then I realised that wasn’t the point. They are sporting heroes. Their disabilities are just another set of things that they won’t compromise about. If anyone cares to judge them, it will be on the same criteria as everyone else. As one of their (able-bodied) best friends says during the film: “He was an asshole before his accident, and he’s the same asshole now.”

Isn’t that how it should be?


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