Belfast Telegraph

Friday 25 July 2014

Inspiring people are all around us, if we look for them

Paralympians are a fine example of what can be achieved in the face of great adversity, says Michael Paterson

In time, we will look back to the summer of 2012 and remember the London Olympics, where athletes from many different countries competed against each other to be the best that they could possibly be.

We have seen world records being broken and athletes achieving their personal bests and we can admire them for what they have achieved.

When I speak of athletes, I include those athletes of the Paralympics, where the only difference between them their able-bodied counterparts is some form of physical impairment.

The Paralympics, in my opinion, has the ability to showcase what people with disabilities are capable of.

It is unlike the International Year of Disabled People, which the United Nations declared in 1981 — ironically, the year I lost both my arms and suffered severe injuries to my lower limbs in an IRA rocket attack when I was a policeman.

That particular year faded into obscurity. I remember carrying out a survey in 1982 asking people how many of them knew that 1981 was the International Year of Disabled People; none did.

That year did little for showing how capable disabled people are, whereas the 11 days of the Paralympics, which finish on Sunday, will do more for disabled people than the whole of 1981 did.

In the past, the perception of disabled people was that they were less-able than others.

I recall being treated differently in the period following my injuries. I remember an occasion when my wife and I were visiting her elderly aunt; the aunt asked, “Does Michael take sugar?” Hazel replied, “Ask him, he’s sitting there.”

So often, disabled people have been thought of as not having full mental function, because they had some physical disability. I experienced this when handing over money in the supermarket and the cashier slowed down her speech to help me understand what she was saying.

Perceiving people with disabilities as being incapable may lead to a sense of them having no value in society, but in reality this is far from the case.

Many people with impairments are extremely capable and have been role models for others in the face of adversity. One thinks immediately of Stephen Hawking, one of our greatest minds, who is confined to a wheelchair and has difficulty communicating as others would.

We should also salute Michael McKillop, the local lad who won two gold medals running 800m and 1500m in the London Paralympics.

Personally, I enjoy the story of Oscar Pistorius, the South African runner dubbed ‘the fastest man on no legs’.

Pistorius is a below-knee, double-leg amputee, who runs on specially designed blades which allow him to compete with able-bodied athletes.

I am amused by the challenge there was to him, as he was seen as having an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners. This was overturned in 2008 and he was then allowed to run in able-bodied games.

We should consider what an Olympic athlete with, or without, full physical function has to do to get to that level.

It is all about achievement at different stages to reach that highest possible level with the accolades it brings.

When I was discharged from hospital at first, my leg had been in traction and I was unable to bend it for a number of months.

When I was finally able to walk unaided, without the brace or anybody holding me, it felt freeing; it was an achievement, literally the first step.

I started to run and built up my distance, managing to take part in a 10-mile sponsored walk and then another landmark, running a half-marathon. I felt I had achieved.

That’s why I was so heartened when, watching the Paralympics one evening, I saw a competitor throwing a discus and found out that he had lost both legs in an explosion in Afghanistan while serving in the Army. He had overcome his challenges and was able to compete on the world stage, but I am sure he did not find that easy at the start.

All of us are capable of achieving greater things and the Paralympic athletes whom we see on television are fine examples of what can be accomplished in the face of adversity.

Many people have referred to me as an inspiration and a model for others and I accept that gracefully. I also enjoy the opportunity to see others who can inspire me, too.

Inspiring people are all around us — we just need to notice them. But, over the brief period of the Paralympic Games, we can feed on the positive energy these magnificent athletes generate and use that to help propel each of us forward on our own journeys through life.

Dr Michael C Paterson OBE is a consultant clinical psychologist www.drmichaelpaterson.com

‘When I was finally able to walk unaided it felt freeing’

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