There’s a photograph doing the rounds of Junior S’au. For those of you who don’t know, he’s a rugby league player with the Salford Red Devils. The photograph shows him shaking hands with a young disabled fan. It’s meant to show rugby league players in a more favourable light, especially those from Salford following the unsavoury incidents in the crowd at the end of their match with Huddersfield Giants last week. The point being that the media just love to jump on the bandwagon of any negative rugby league story so here’s something which proves that actually rugby league players are a lovely bunch of lads and don’t get half of the credit they deserve.
All of which may be true. The anti-league media do love to highlight the negatives while routinely ignoring the game the rest of the time, and so there is a need for more positive publicity around the sport. Yet as with anything that is well intentioned and is related to disability I have a fucking problem with this particular example. Here’s my problem. It’s a flagrant misuse of disability which I personally find vile and offensive. Of course, I would. Here we go a-fucking-gain. But then you think about it. If that fan meeting S’au is not disabled it significantly lessens the impact of that photograph. It no longer says ‘ah, look how nice our players are’. It just says ‘here’s a picture of Junior S’au meeting a fan’. So in hoiking this photograph around the rugby league community what we are actually doing is using disability to romanticise the players. A kind of inspiration porn in reverse. We’re not saying that the child is marvellous for getting out of bed and living life with such an awful curse as we do with conventional inspoporn, we’re saying S’au is marvellous for choosing to be seen with the child in public. But meeting a disabled fan does not make S’au a hero or a role model. It is not an act of kindness or selflessness. It is run of the mill community spirit. Two equals saying ‘how do you do?’ at the end of a game in which one has paid good money to support the other. A common courtesy. Politeness and nothing more. S’au does not have to go any more out of his way to meet this fan than he would any other. Yes, there may be extreme circumstances with this fan in particular. Her plight may be particularly disastrous and so who am I to deny what is obviously a pleasure for any rugby league-loving child. But there's no context in the photograph and in many ways it doesn't matter anyway, the point stands.
But that view doesn’t tally with the agenda, which is that rugby league players are not louts but gold-hearted champions of the less fortunate. I made this point on social media and was invited to ‘get over myself’ by one person. Which is the great problem with trying to explain disability issues to people who are not disabled and don’t quite have the intellect to debate them properly. The default setting of most people is to believe that disabled people are less fortunate than they are, which fosters a culture of pity over one of respect. Which is why a photograph of S’au shaking hands with a disabled fan is seen as an appropriate way to demonstrate his all-around awesomeness. Look at him giving up his valuable 12 seconds to be the highlight of some poor disabled person’s entire life. That assumes far too much about that young fan’s life and in any case, whatever the circumstances, I would hate to think that someone giving me a small amount of the time of day could be used in this way. I remember when Wigan Athletic got to the League Cup Final about a decade ago, and their then chairman Dave Whelan was rubbing the heads of all the disabled fans in the front row behind the goal during the celebrations. I recall remarking that if Dave Whelan, or any of the players for that matter, had come over to me at the end of a semi-final win like that and put his hands on me I would have punched him square in the nose. It’s not acceptable. Please keep your sense of superiority to yourselves.
I hate to use the word patronising as it is a fairly meaningless catch-all term given to what amounts to a lack of respect for disabled people and a lack of acceptance of them as equals. Yet I have not been able to help but notice over the years how often I have been talked down to by people who have, frankly, very little going for them. Fat people, smelly people, thick people, Tories, all kinds of people who need to have a good look at themselves have been guilty of it. Their sense of superiority is laughable and makes me pity them as much as they do me. And yet still the overriding feeling in society is that people like me deserve pity. The only reason I deserve pity is that my life is made more difficult by the ignorance of others who persist with this appalling attitude. And it isn’t just strangers or casual acquaintances. I’ve had it from people closer to me. For them it is not a lack of respect or acceptance. For them sweeping away these sorts of issues is their way of down-playing disability because they don’t want to see it as an issue and they don’t want you to see it that way either. But that is full-on, ostrich, head-in-the-sand stuff. Disability is an issue, and it is more of an issue today because the general public see fit to approve of the S’au photograph as some sort of example of outstanding benevolent gallantry.
Of course, since everyone else on the planet is in favour of this kind of thing there is peril in pointing out its flaws. Disabled people have to get used to being labelled the bad guy when they make any social comment about their treatment in society. The classic chip on the shoulder. Some choose not to be labelled so and so sit and suffer in their dignified silence. Others, like the clown writing this, are happy to wear the bad-guy tag if it means that one day we will get to a place where disability is not used to glorify the ordinary in a way that only serves to re-inforce the idea that we are somehow less than we really are.