Within no time I had accepted Armelle’s invitation. There are few sports I don’t enjoy watching and the chance to be a spectator at a tournament of sarbacane – in English ‘blowpiping’ – was irresistible; it was, for me, a first.
The tournament, which would last most of the day was the third part of a three-round selection process to find the champion of Finistère (our department in France). Moreover, whoever won would be invited to compete in the forthcoming regional, all-Brittany championship. All forty or so of the participants were disabled people and had impairments affecting muscle power or control. Most of them were wheelchair users; for the majority their impairment had been lifelong; for some, there were associated learning difficulties.
In many ways, blowpiping is similar to archery or darts. Each competitor shoots missiles at a target. The missiles are tiny darts or needles; the target has five concentric rings and a central bull’s-eye. Darts are projected by blowing them at high speed through a narrow pipe. The pipe is either held by the competitors themselves or is supported using a stand. Each competitor has ten turns, each time blowing three darts. At the end of the day the scores are added up – darts landing in the outer ring score 6 points, in the inner bull’s eye 10, and so on. In this particular event, the participant with the highest total score over the three rounds would be declared local champion.
In France, the event, which requires stability, concentration, muscle coordination and an ability to produce an explosive puff, is played by disabled and non-disabled competitors alike. The key difference is that, for those who are disabled the target is closer.
It is fascinating how the blowpipe, a 2000-year old device, has been so ingeniously adapted for sport. Indigenous South American hunters, who were amongst some of its earliest users, would shoot their darts over long distances and, with the tip of each dart laden with curare, those animals hit would be paralysed. Nowadays, when used as weapons, they are usually called blowguns and the darts can travel up to 100 metres. In many countries such blowguns are seen as so dangerous that their use, sale and possession is illegal. Oddly, in California blowgun use is more tightly controlled than are firearms!
After the day’s competition, and as the final scores were being counted, I was introduced to Gaëlle Lozach, a wheelchair-using spectator. No ordinary member of the public – until recently she had been France’s national sarbacane champion. We spoke about the sport and about her achievements. Then, suddenly our conversation faltered. What she said felt so unjust and hurtful. We were talking about the level of skill she had attained and she told me how, as an “invalid athlete” she would find competing against “valid athletes” difficult. Just in case I had mis-heard, I asked her to repeat her comment and yes, in her sport, and in the French language more generally, disabled athletes, or disabled people generally, are classified as “invalid” and those who are non-disabled, as my French-English, Collins-Robert dictionary puts it, are described as “able-bodied”,“fit”, or “valid”.
I asked Gaëlle how she felt about being classified in this way and it was clear that she felt it was unfair and upsetting and her resigned expression said much more “It is something I have to accept. I am in no position to do anything”.
In the 1980s and 90s, the UK’s disabled people’s movement fought to change, amongst other things, discriminatory language. They argued that the way society uses words is critical and if the words chosen undermined equality and respect their use should be challenged and changed. Amongst the words which caused most offence was the term ‘invalid’ which had historically been used to describe people with any serious impairment. The idea that someone with impairement could be without value or valued less than others was seen as plain wrong. As a result of their campaign the word ‘invalid’ is now rarely used in relation to disability in the UK. Interestingly, in the UK we have never used the word ‘valid’ to mean ‘strong’ or ‘able-bodied’, so no equivalent battle was necessary. That such insulting usage can continue in spoken and written French, a language that in so many ways is so elegant and poetic, is worrying.
Using blowpipes to create a competitive sport for disabled people is ingenious. Coupling this ingenuity with language that can only hurt their athletes is a terrible injustice. Words have meanings according to their usage rather than their origins. To class athletes as ‘valid’ or ‘invalid’ cannot be right. Hopefully the French authorities will see sense and resolve this injustice.
The illustration shows three blowpipe targets at the event of which one is pierced by darts.
For helping me write this blog, I would like to thank Armelle, Jeni, Annie, Rohan and Vivien.