Communication Currents

Smashing Stereotypes? Communicating Disability in Wheelchair Rugby

April 1, 2008
Sports Communication, Theater & Performance

Two men in tank-like wheelchairs race toward each other on a basketball court. One cradles a volley ball with his one of his tree trunk arms. The other, trying to prevent a score, adjusts the angle of his speeding chair and smashes into the side of the oncoming chair, sending the first man and the ball toppling to the floor. The crowd cheers. "Murderball," as it is called in the Oscar-nominated documentary of the same name. Murderball is a fast-paced, rough-and-tumble sport played by quadriplegic men and women. The athletes involved in these sport interactions communicate something surprising about disability. The wheelchair is a symbol of frailty and weakness to ablebodied society, and wheelchair rugby athletes smash that stereotype with their hard-hitting play.  The rules and regulations of this ultra-competitive sport, however, may push players to use their bodies to communicate more disability to get a favorable classification from the physical therapists who classify them. These displays, called "sandbagging," can be thought of as performances. The athletes employ specific verbal and nonverbal displays to communicate a particular identity to an audience. Sandbagging is not only common but often encouraged. And like the aggressive on-court displays, performances of sandbagging radically alter perceptions of what it means to be physically disabled.

When I first started hanging out with these athletes and their friends and family, eventually spending three years traveling to practices, games, and tournaments, I was amazed that some of the players could actually walk without assistance?. I discovered that some players are incomplete quads, meaning that although they suffer cervical-level trauma to their neck they retain some sensation and function in their lower extremities. While they are not allowed to walk during games, this function often translates into higher skill levels and more competitive success for their teams.

The sport, which combines elements of basketball, soccer, and football, originated as an alternative to paraplegic-dominated sports like track and basketball, and is founded on the notion of inclusion. The rules stipulate that no more than four players from a team can be on the court at one time and that these players' classification levels must total no more than eight points, with 3.5 points representing the most function (and the least severe quadriplegia) and 0.5 the least function. While the rules are structured to ensure that players of differing levels of classification—and presumably, players of differing mobility—participate, athletes display more disability for physical therapists to receive a lower classification. This ensures that their team has a greater number of more mobile and stronger players on the court at one time. Larry, an experienced player, told me that "sandbagging is real common."

How can someone fake a physical disability for medical experts like physical therapists? "I think people dub their classification vague . . . they know what the classifiers are looking for . . . they try to get away with as much as they can," explained Bill, a player with over seven years experience. Kylie, a trainer and classifier, elaborated, "I [tell] high level athletes, 'When you go into a classification, do not show them all your muscle function that you have. . . . You don't have to do it . . . the hardest you've ever done it in your entire life.'" Larry doesn't agree with this process, arguing, "If you know that you're cheating, that's something that you deal with yourself. I wouldn't want to go off the court knowing that I beat someone unfairly."

While sandbagging may seem like cheating to Larry and others, these performances of sandbagging can actually be empowering. Disability rights activists claim that, due to aging and the sometimes random nature of physical injury, we are all temporarily ablebodied, calling into question the very notion of normal physical ability. Performances of sandbagging enable players to resist medical diagnoses that often label disabled persons as abnormal. In this sense, players are reclaiming through communication the power to define themselves and their abilities as they want.

Player performances are complicated by the fact that these displays of disability also take place on the rugby court. In addition to the muscle test, ruggers must undergo a year of probation in which classifiers watch them play in games. Because others can file protests about a particular athlete's classification, probationary players often have to be careful about how much skill and mobility they display in games. Since a team's chances of winning are closely connected to an athlete's classification, it is in other players' and coaches' best interests to monitor these on-court displays.

After watching a player hop off the raised court, tip himself over, and do a barrel roll back onto the court, all while still in his wheelchair, I asked a rugger from another team on the sidelines for his thoughts. Alan, an elite player with much experience, described this player as, "a little too mobile," and speculated that, "if he keeps doing that [somersaults in his wheelchair] . . . he'll class out [be deemed ineligible to play]."

Players with suspect classifications know they're being discussed in sideline conversations. As such, they will often move off-court when they want or need to display skills that are not consistent with their classification. I witnessed one such instance at a tournament. A player went into a bathroom and stood up to tuck in his jersey, which was interfering with his wheels. This player then confided to his teammate, also in the bathroom, "I can't be standing up out there," and quickly sat down.

These incidents illustrate the irony of performances of sandbagging. Sandbagging helps players resist medical diagnoses of abnormality in a predominantly ablebodied society. However, other wheelchair rugby coaches and players have to look for abnormal displays of excessive athletic ability by players' to help their own teams be competitive. A successful protest filed by an opposing player or coach could get a wheelchair rugby athlete re-classified or, at the worst, banned from playing because he or she possesses too much physical mobility. So, players and coaches end up imitating the gaze of medical experts and, in a way, are just as critical in their definitions of what constitutes physical ability.

Performances of sandbagging are potentially harmful in other ways as well. Disabled persons not only gain self-confidence from sport recreation, but they gain strength, mobility, and increased social networks with other disabled persons. Sandbagging allows more skilled players to compete at lower classification levels, potentially taking spots from more severely impaired players. If someone is prevented from playing the sport, that person cannot experience these benefits. Further, these more mobile athletes seem to emulate an idealized version of athleticism in their aggressive and hard-hitting play. This idealized athleticism, based on mainstream sport participation, is distinctly able-bodied in nature. So, many wheelchair rugby athletes' performances of resistance simultaneously support the narrow, able-bodied conceptions of normalcy from which disabled persons are often excluded.

Ultimately, though, performances of sandbagging challenge perceptions of disabled persons as frail and communicate an image of disability that is very different from the stereotypes that often exclude them from participating in everyday life.