Untangling the Paralympics

With the Paralympic games on in London, disability is on the world stage, and in a positive framing, for once. Instead of the usual disability-as-tragedy narrative, we’re seeing skilled athletes at the top of their game competing against each other in a range of events, from equestrian (my favourite!) to goalball, a sport designed for blind and low-vision athletes. Inevitably, with increased visibility comes increased discussion and awareness, which is in resulting in some positives, and some negatives, but a conversation that is fascinating overall; the disability community itself is a bit split when it comes to reception of the Paralympics, for example.

The origins of the games lie in the Stoke Mandeville Games of 1948, which ran alongside the Olympic Games. Their organiser, Ludwig Guttmann, was a neurologist who worked with disabled veterans. In the wake of the Second World War, large numbers of men were occupying military hospitals and convalescence centres with spinal cord injuries, amputations, head injuries, and other disabilities acquired in battle. Patients injured in bombings and other events were also changing the landscape of disability in Britain.

Guttman started engaging them in sports as a form of therapy to ‘rescue these men, women and children from the scrapheap.’ His argument, that people with disabilities were often mired in long-term care facilities with little social or medical support, still holds true today. Patients were rotting in their beds then and they still are; so he used sports therapy to get them moving, and he developed the games to showcase the diversity within the disability community, and illustrate that people with disabilities weren’t inherently useless or less capable than the nondisabled community.

However, the Stoke Mandeville Games, which became the Paralympic Games in 1960, came with a dark side, as discussed by scholar and disabled athlete Danielle Peers. They had their roots in the freak shows of the 19th and early 20th centuries in which disabled people were used as objects of entertainment. The Paralympics have always been treated as the lesser sibling of the Olympics, from accounts focusing more on how fascinating disability is than the actual athletes themselves to total loss of institutional support at the Olympic venues when the Paralympic athletes start competing.


Today, that continues. During the parade of athletes as the teams entered the stadium on Wednesday, the commentary included a number of bizarre notes about the appearance and presentation of the athletes. The Italians, for example, apparently looked very good ‘despite being in wheelchairs.’ Nondisabled commentators have struggled on how to talk about disabled athletes, often focusing on the disability to the exclusion of the sports and the athletes, much to my disappointment; I don’t want to hear about cerebral palsy, I want to hear about a horsewoman’s seat and how her horse is moving. And when it comes to talking about how many Paralympic athletes are both incredibly fit and immensely attractive, everyone gets quite uncomfortable and starts looking at their shoes nervously because no one wants to think about sex appeal and disability in the same sentence.

Some disabled people argue that the Paralympics are a valuable social tool; they expose the world to disabled athletes, force people to challenge their assumptions about disability, and showcase the very best that disabled athletes have to offer. The Paralympics have also paved the way to some important victories for people with disabilities. Paralympic athlete Tatyana McFadden from the United States, for example, came to the Paralympics from a long legacy of civil rights agitation, pushing for equal treatment of disabled athletes in the US. Her work to improve access to training, sports facilities, and funding benefited her, her sister (who is also competing), and scores of other disabled athletes, setting up a legacy for competitions to come.

Her story has been getting some press, highlighting the continued battle for civil rights in the disability community. And the accomplishments of her and other Paralympic athletes make a fantastic success story to point to, though of course we shouldn’t have to point to a success story when demanding fair and equal treatment.

In Britain, disabled residents have been subjected to a devastating series of benefits cuts, and administrative firm Atos, responsible for assessing people for benefits, is the sponsor of the games. This has created an ideal opportunity to highlight Atos’ abuses, as well as to talk more generally about the need for social support for people with disabilities. Disabled Britons have been protesting cuts vigorously and very publicly since 2009, but the games gave them the boost of visibility they needed to be profiled in the mainstream media, and to make their voices unavoidable in the public landscape.

Other members of the disability community are not so sold on the value of the Paralympics. Steven Sumpter points out that they tell us little about the day-to-day life of living with disability; just as Michael Phelps’ success in the pool doesn’t tell us a whole lot about what it’s like to be a nondisabled man, Oscar Pistorius’ success on the track doesn’t offer much information about what it’s like to be disabled. Both men are athletes first and foremost, and they’ve spent years in training to develop the skills they have. They happen to have the abilities they need to succeed, backed up by institutional support.


You need money, time, facilities, access to coaches and training, and of course natural athletic ability, to succeed in the Paralympics. Or, in Pistorius’ case, to qualify for the Olympic Games with a disability. These things simply aren’t available to everyone, and pretending that they are is ridiculous. In narratives about the Paralympic Games, we tend to hear a great deal about “human potential” and there’s an implication that all disabled people could be Paralympians, even though most nondisabled people recognise that they won’t be competing in the Olympic games. Getting into the Paralympic games is hard, just like getting into the Olympics. It requires dedication. It’s not for everyone.

Robert Jones, writing for The Guardian, says that there is a bit of a circus mentality to the Paralympics. It’s a showcase of exceptional people doing exceptional things, but he questions whether it really advances the position of disabled people in society, and what kinds of benefits it offers to ordinary people with disabilities. Indeed, he argues, it may actually harm people with disabilities by setting exceptionality as the norm to which all disabled people must adhere.

I recently argued that the Paralympics also reinforce dangerous narratives about disability-as-inspiration, which also serve to devalue people with disabilities and undermine our role in society. Many people don’t seem to understand the difference between being inspired by accomplishments that take dedication, drive, and a lot of hard work, and saying that it’s inspiring to see someone doing something simply because that person is disabled. In conversations about the Paralympics, it’s common to see nondisabled people falling into the trap of hyperfocusing on disability, and not talking about the actual accomplishments of the athletes. This in turn plays into larger and darker social attitudes about disability and how people conceptualise life with disability.

I love watching the Paralympics, Winter and Summer, and I’m enjoying these games, but I’m not approaching them with rose-tinted glasses, either. The conversations swirling around the social and political meaning of the Paralympics are fascinating, and I can only hope they expand into larger discussions about disability and continue after the games, rather than coming to an abrupt end after the closing ceremonies.

Photo credits: reway2007, vix_b