During the Second World War, my aunt was in the Waaf: the Women’s Auxillary Air Force. She was working in the West Country port of Plymouth when she was sent up to London on a training course. She and the young women she worked with were put up for the night at a hotel. But when my aunt was fast asleep, through the dark a German plane dropped a bomb that hurtled through the blackness and made a perfect hit with the hostel. Many of the women who had travelled to London ended their lives there that night, but my aunt survived.
She clambered out of the rubble, her head cut, the roar of the explosion deafening her. The rescue workers saw her and told her that she should just go home on the tube (her family luckily lived on the outskirts of the city) and not look back. They had grimmer things to worry about than a bit of blood.
Although her mind drifts a bit these says, she remembers the details of that night, such as the watch that she had taken off and put on her bedside table and would never see again. But it wasn’t just time that was stolen that night. Although my aunt’s scars healed, the thunderous explosion had damaged her hearing. Over the coming months she became deafer and deafer. She was a woman for whom friends’ voices dimmed and faded, the rustling breeze through leaves slipped away to silence. Today you need will power and a sense of humour to get her to understand you (try driving a car in the fast lane of a motorway while simultaneously turning to face your passenger so that she can read your lips).
Now, I know her story, but people who don’t probably just think of her as that deaf woman. And I have seen people in shops and cafés frustrated at her failure to comprehend what they are saying – or even notice that they are saying anything at all. Or jump when she says something not very polite a bit too loud for you to pretend it wasn’t her. Her disability can quickly define her. It can be the beginning and the end of her identity. OK, there are times when I’ve got frustrated too, but I always know that she’s more than just a deaf old lady.
Today the Paralympics start in London, the sequel to the successful Olympics. The athletes gathered in the city have an unprecedented opportunity. Of course, they are here to test themselves and force themselves to greater lengths, speeds and heights. But they also have the power to change how we all see disability (and let’s not pretend, most of us lug around some ill-informed views). Teamed with the power of TV, we will hear their stories, understands how they got here, live some of their ambitions and also some of their disappointments. We will learn their names. They will become more than disabled athletes.
And away from the Olympic stadium, perhaps that will help a 90-year-old woman be more than her disability as she goes about her day. But if you want to ask her if that’s the case, make sure you stand in front of her when speaking and be prepared for the odd misunderstanding. “Me? Dead? What are you on about!” I did warn you.