Game, Set, Match

The story of how one evening of badminton turned into the earth-shattering realisation of just how disabled I was.

If you were to ask me to state the most common question presented to me as a disabled person, I would answer with this: “How on Earth do you manage to do [insert activity here] when you’re registered blind?” Prepare my own meals, walk down the street, survive without being cared for every minute of the day. Regardless of what the activity is, the answer is really quite simple; I do it because I have to.

The primary reason for this questioning is because the asker has been faced with a situation that goes against the mould a disabled person should apparently fit into, something especially true for those of us without obvious impairments. The disabled are supposed to be utterly helpless nothings, burdens dependent on others for everything, wasting resources and causing familial pain. What we aren’t supposed to be are people capable of independent function, able to buy our own groceries, play sport or go to work. For far too many, anyone with a disability who isn’t a shut-in  is a lazy fraudster. We’re not allowed friends, or hobbies. We are disabled, therefore we are nobody. This attitude is a bitter pill for anyone to swallow, but for me, coming from a life where I didn’t feel disabled in the slightest, it was a difficult blow to be dealt. For me, it was a blow dealt in one single evening.

Even though it was six-and-a-half years ago now, I still remember it with crystal-clear clarity. It wasn’t after struggling through my last term of school and A2 exams with deteriorating vision, it wasn’t the first time I had to use my handheld magnifier in class, or the day my independent living coordinator from Action For Blind People came to my house to help me apply for Disability Living Allowance. It was in the sports hall at the University of Essex, on the night the taster session for the badminton society took place.

Anything that requires depth perception has always been a bit of a challenge for me. Maybe there is an advantage to being born blind in one eye in that you can’t miss what you’ve never had though, because I adapted. I don’t think I had exceptional trouble learning to catch a ball as a child, although I always struggled with sports like football or netball and you can forget field hockey or rounders, with a much smaller ball to hit.

Badminton was different. With it played indoors I didn’t have to deal with the glare of the sun glancing off the surface of a wet court. Even at speed the shuttlecock moved slower than a tennis ball, being lighter and launched over a much higher net. It did take a while before I could get underneath it for returns (up until then I simply returned with a backhand from about chest-height), but I discovered within the first session that I could accurately plot the trajectory of the shuttlecock and actually return it. Finally, after so many years of misery in PE lessons, I had found a sport my school offered that I was truly good at.

I never played competitively, only when it was offered during PE and occasionally at the school’s lunchtime club. In hindsight, I would do things differently: I would ask to join an actual club and play seriously, making the most of the time I had left. It will come as no surprise to say I leapt at the opportunity to join the badminton club at university, where I would be given the opportunity to seriously dedicate myself to training and represent the uni in tournaments.

Arriving at the taster session with a girl from the flat upstairs, I was excited and eager to show that I had some skill, however minimal. After a short introductory talk about the club and its training times, options for members and announcement of the committee we were given racquets and sorted into groups. With several years of casual experience, I chose the middle group, the group for those with a reasonable ability as opposed to complete beginners – perhaps if I had chosen the novice group, my experience may not have been quite as traumatic, but that’s water under the bridge now.

Our first activity was a simple round-robin volley. There was no competitiveness, no hostility if the shuttlecock touched the ground. We were repeatedly told that this wasn’t a tryout, that anyone could join the club and play for fun. This was something I was good at. I felt confident as I ran forwards when it was my turn, ready to return the shuttlecock.

And then it sailed past my face and landed at my feet.

I still remember how my blood ran cold, how time seemed to stop for a few seconds, how the same thought reverberated around my skull: ‘I can’t see it anymore, I can’t see it anymore’.

Thinking maybe it was just a fluke, I successfully served and ran to the other side of the net, hoping that perhaps it was simply because I was rusty; after all, I hadn’t played in quite some time. But it happened again, and again, and again. We moved on to other games, other activities, but all yielded the same result. By the end of the session, as we returned out racquets and meandered back to our halls, I hadn’t returned a single volley. I felt humiliated.

Locking myself in my room, I cried for hours. I had to take a long look at myself, realising with horror that I could no longer see the shuttlecock until it was too close, let alone try to plot where it was going. For the first time I had run up against a true barrier that my disability had thrown up. An activity I loved had been cruelly stripped away from me. When I got the email about joining from the president of the club, I bitterly deleted it and joined my flatmate at a different club instead (which I also had to leave because I wasn’t allowed to strain myself post-radiotherapy).

In the years since then, I’ve grown to understand myself and my own limitations a lot better, which in turn has allowed me to start testing them again. I’ve travelled fairly extensively. I’m dabbling in games journalism, reporting on a still very visual media. I’ve tried other sports such as figure skating (which I still do) and diving (which I do not). Snowboarding is the most recent and considering it has an excellent path for disabled athletes, it’s a sport I’m sticking with. I’m even interested in competing in boardercross in the future (RIP my bones, probably).

But, every now and again, I think back to one particular lunchtime at school. I was in Year Ten; it was ‘focus fortnight’, a two week period where the school would run workshops and pop-up club sessions around a central theme. The theme that year was ‘Healthy Living and Lifestyles’, with the workshops and clubs offering everything from special cookery classes to tasters for a variety of sports.

One of my favourite members of staff, my Year Nine science teacher Mrs Butcher, was running a lunchtime badminton club. This particular session clashed with a number of one-off and ultimately more popular activities so it was just me, a friend and one other person in the sports hall. I teamed up with Mrs Butcher and we spent the lunch period playing badminton, chatting about science and having a laugh. I felt so happy, so in my element, so free.

I truly love snowboarding, I truly love figure skating. But nothing can recapture how much I loved that one lunchtime in Year Ten, and nothing can sweeten the bitterness of that fateful taster session. But, it’s not all bad, because if you’d asked me then, on that day in 2011, ‘how on Earth do you manage to play badminton when you’re visually impaired’ my answer would’ve been a spat ‘well I CAN’T’ followed by tears. Now, in 2018, my answer would probably be something along the lines of ‘well I can’t play the way I used to, but I’m sure I’ll find a way around it.’

Whilst I have yet to pick up a badminton racquet and give the sport another try, my change of heart is a sign of true personal growth, of acceptance. It’s turning the ‘I do it because I have no other choice’ into ‘I face challenges that I rise to and aim to overcome’. I doubt I’ll ever reach the level of proficiency I was at previously, but I do hope one day to grace a court once more. And maybe, just maybe, I can even bring back a jot of that joy from that lunchtime session, so many moons ago.