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Redefining disability

This week, I saw a 94-year-old who arrived in a wheelchair, pushed by her son. She had fallen and injured her wrist. Before discharge, I asked her about home support, and she told me that she was quite independent and didn’t need any help.

She only kept the wheelchair for outings, and told me with a twinkle that it was a very good way to get revenge on her son for all the years she’d pushed him around in a pram. If he didn’t push fast enough, she’d make lots of noise just like he had once done.

She could still walk quickly when she needed, and would overtake the other residents of her care home in the rush to get to the dining table. She’d just been watching television coverage of the Paralympics, and thought there should be a version for older people. She may just have invented the ‘Geri-lympics’.

If the London 2012 Olympics demonstrated human courage and determination, with individuals overcoming great obstacles to achieve enormous goals, then the Paralympic athletes outperformed the majority when they demonstrated their incredible courage and determination to succeed.

The power to triumph over adversity is most definitely not measured by a limb count. Many of us fall into the mistaken assumption that those unfortunate enough to need wheelchair mobility are passive and dependent.

Murder ball (wheelchair rugby) and seated basketball rapidly dispel that myth: the protagonists’ fearless aggression remains, and their personalities shine through.

I once attended a motorcycle racing event and despaired at the number of ex-bikers in the paddock in wheelchairs, drooling over bikes, still desperate for their adrenalin fix.

I wondered then if they hadn’t learnt their lesson from their high-speed accidents. Now I realise that losing the power in your legs doesn’t change the fundamentals of who you are. The problems of disability are often the result of able-bodied people’s prejudices, and the limitations created for the disabled are largely created by our approach to their environment. Those who lose a limb or their voice will invariably find that they are treated differently by friends and neighbours, and that is their real disability.

The Paralympics were a welcome opportunity to retune our attitudes. To maintain the momentum, perhaps those just starting medical school should spend a day in a wheelchair, and watching Paralympic sport could be mandatory training for all undergraduates.

That is, of course, until the 100-metre relay for over-80s with walking aids becomes a recognised sport.

Meanwhile, I’m off to develop a complex classification system to enable me to compare the performances of my junior staff, so that they can compete on an equal footing in the ‘treating an ungrateful drunk safely’ heats.

In-depth: Olympic and Paralympic Games 2012

See how doctors are contributing to the Games - as athletes, as torchbearers and, of course, as doctors

Read our In-depth on the Games