Understanding Disability


by Steve Varden

Flyability is committed to making our sport easier and more accessible to those who may happen to be disabled. Before we look specifically at the flying opportunities for disabled pilots we need to understand what disability means and how it affects us all.

What is disability?
At first sight this may appear to be quite a simple question to answer but is it? If you can spare the time before reading on, take a moment to ask yourself this question and to ponder over your answer.

I'm sure that many of you came up with a variety of answers and explanations. Perhaps your first thoughts were that disability is something that secures you prime parking places in towns or access to a national network of personal public conveniences. Alas these necessities cannot really be thought of as concessions or privileges.

Unfortunately disability is still somewhat of a taboo subject in our society, rather like sex was five or ten years ago. Many people find the whole subject difficult to discuss openly and so prefer to leave it well alone. What I shall endeavour to do through this fact sheet is to help you become more AWARE of disability and the issues that surround it.

I see disability as something that is quite normal and natural. It happens all over the world, in every culture and society. Moreover I see that it affects everyone so far as to say that everyone is disabled in some way. Now I'm sure that there are some of you that may testify boldly that you are
not disabled at all; this kind of reaction is also quite normal. Look at it this way, most of us would agree that we all have different natural abilities and skills, so why should it not follow that we all have differing disabilities? By becoming more aware of our own disabilities as well as those of others, perhaps we can gain a greater insight into life in general.

Lets look at disability in a little more detail and ask: What makes someone disabled? Again this is not such a simple question to answer, although the obvious one is: A complete canopy deflation at 60ft or less! (I wont even try to make a joke about seamless tubing - although I'd really like to!)

So what does make someone disabled? Well in my view there are three main categories of disabling factors. The first and most obvious category is:

Physical & mental
Under this heading we can place such things as: blindness, deafness, amputees, paralysis, etc.
Diseases and viruses such as muscular dystrophy, aids, etc. Learning difficulties and mental illnesses. I trust that you are able to distinguish between the latter two very different types of mental disability.

OK so weve got the obvious ones out of the way. Some of you may think this just about rounds disability up nicely enough to file it away somewhere with a label on it. Unfortunately it isnt that simple and contrary to popular belief the physical and mental disabling factors are not always the
ones that have the most profound effect upon your life. More than often these factors can be overcome or worked around.

Lets list a few more physical and mental disabilities that can affect us all from time to time:
Common illnesses and injuries such as flu or a twisted ankle. Fears, phobias and manias.
Old age, this comes to most of us and can be physical and mental at the same time.
Not speaking a native language in a foreign country.
Having a hangover after a heavy night on the town.
Being pregnant or the dreaded PMT!

If you are able to become more aware of your disabilities and limitations, accept and be happy with them, you will then be in a better position to concentrate on your abilities. In short you will know and understand yourself better. As a consequence you should then be more able to appreciate the abilities and disabilities of others.

Our second category of disabling factors is:
Environmental & Ergonomic
(ergonomics is the science of arranging or designing things for efficient use by people).

In this category we find things such as: curbs, heavy doors, steps and stairs. The natural landscape can often be disabling by way of steep hills, rocky areas or marshland. A ridge may look superbly flyable but youre not going to be able to fly from it if you cant get to it, especially if it's
raining or blowing a gale.

Bad architecture and design can have profound influences on our lives. The tennement blocks of the sixties and seventies made life much worse for many people by causing social problems and spawning crime. If youre much over 6'6" tall you may find that youre prone to banging your head rather a lot. Is this your fault for being tall or is it the direct consequence of the design and characteristics of your immediate environment? Thre are many more environmental factors to consider such as traffic congestion, under-funded and inadequate public transport, etc. Factors such as these also make life harder for us all.

On the ergonomic side, how many of us have been taken in by the likes of those Classy gadgets that are advertised by endless promotional videos in sad stores. At first sight these peeling, slicing, twisting and twirling, freezer to microwave cat food makers look like state of the art ergonomic designs. You hand over your crispy ten pound note, they insist on giving you a penny change and you think youve got a bargain that is going to revolutionise your life. It is only when you get home that you realise that the gadget is impossible to use and an utter waste of your time, energy and money. If this sounds familiar then may I suggest that you donate your similar aforementioned items to the K-Tel museum of tacky plastic useless things. I dont think that you should make food from dead cats anyway.

It is true that some aids can make life easier for disabled people but it is easy to become overwhelmed by them or even worse restricted by them. Do we really need GPS on our base-bars?

Why is paragliding so much more popular than hang gliding these days? Could it perhaps partly be for environmental and ergonomic reasons? One of the reasons that caravans and motor-caravans are so desirable is that you can take your own personal environment with you wherever you go. If youve ever spent much time in hotel rooms away from home I think that you may be able to appreciate this.

The more AWARE you become of your environment then the better prepared you are to make the best use of it. Even the direction of the pile of a carpet can be drastically disabling to me personally (and Im not referring to friction burns - painful as they are!).

Our final category is headed:
Social & Political
This is a very important category and perhaps the one that has the most profound influence upon our lives. It is also the one that we could most easily change, if we try.

Ignorance and lack of AWARENESS of disability really do make life harder for those in our society that are labelled as the disabled. How do you feel when you tell a Joe Public that you are a hang glider or paraglider pilot? As you know this can stimulate such replies as: you must be mad, got a
death-wish or something? or how do you know where youll land and what happens if your engine cuts out? OK so these types of reply can be amusing once or twice but what if you are a professional pilot and you make a living from flying. Imagine going around with a label round your neck saying: Im a hang glider pilot! Would people take you seriously? To people labelled as disabled such as myself ignorance, pre and misconceptions can be extremely tiresome, very frustrating and terribly disabling.

Lets list a few more disabling factors in this category:

racism and prejudice
poverty or financial standing
sexual preference
religious beliefs
some government policies
lack of education, knowledge or experience.


Dont you just marvel at people who avidly watch BBC weather forecasts without having a clue what isobars and low pressures mean let alone fronts or even the wind arrows. Maybe somebody should tell ITV what they mean.

Being female! Im sure that some of you would have liked me to list this as a physical disabling factor but Im not going to. However it is a fact that the female sex do experience prejudice and are thus disabled by the attitudes and misconceptions of our society.
The lesson we should learn from this is not to make assumptions and judgements about people without thinking things through a little. If you are short of knowledge or information, seek it out. Dont be afraid to ask questions, ask for help or talk to people.

Disability affects us all, like it or not. Please try to be AWARE AND OPEN-MINDED about everything. Im sure that you will gain much personally by adopting this approach.

In other fact sheets well be looking at some of the issues that surround the training of pilots, some of whom may just happen to be termed as disabled. If you have any questions, queries or fears about Flyability please write to me via the BHPA offices and I shall do my best to answer or
deal with them.

Steve Varden

Read Steve's other guide - TRAINING PILOTS WITH DISABILITIES.