Paralympic athletes are changing society’s attitude towards disability


The prevailing view of disability in times past was a medical one, which regarded the individual as ill and their condition as a problem with the individual. Perceptions of disability were also based on fear of difference and a perceived need to be “normal”.

These negative views influenced the way people interacted with individuals with disabilities and affected the way people with disabilities viewed their own roles in society, including their involvement in sport.

In more recent times, there has been a push to promote a social rather than a medical perspective on disability. The social view shows us that people with disabilities are less restricted by their own impairments than by the barriers society places in front of them.

This change in thinking has led to people having the right to participate in all levels of society, including sport.

But as more individuals with disabilities have taken part in sport, and been showcased in events such as the Paralympics, has this changed perceptions of disability?

Media coverage of the Paralympic Games has helped change societal perspectives. There was some criticism of the coverage of earlier Games as being patronising, but “pitying” language is becoming less common in media coverage today.

Unfortunately, a notable exception is the recent statement by Brazilian journalist Joaquim Vieira, who called the games a “grotesque spectacle” and “a circus act … to fill the agenda of political correctness” This comment shows that some people still lag behind in encouraging a change in societal attitudes towards disability.

The portrayal of positive life stories is one way of changing negative views, as was the case with British wheelchair tennis player Lucy Shuker. This is when the Paralympics becomes an important vehicle for changing societal perceptions because there are many positive stories on show.

As Paralympians receive more medals, they are viewed by many people, including policymakers, as heroes who have overcome adversity.

Paralympic athletes are not only role models for other aspiring athletes, especially for those with a disability, they are also admired by society as a whole for their achievements.

Some notable role models include those who have won medals as well as gaining other mainstream awards.

One example is the Australian University of the Sunshine Coast’s student and swimmer Blake Cochrane, who has a world record and two gold medals from the London Paralympics and a recent silver medal at Rio. He is the first person to win back-to-back university sports-person of the year awards.

This feat shows para-athletes are now increasingly being judged alongside other sporting peers with or without a disability. Another swimmer, Ellie Simmonds from Britain, received an OBE for her many achievements in Paralympic sport.

There are also those who have had success in both the Paralympic arena and the mainstream Olympic arena. Two examples are South Africa’s Natalie du Toit and Australian Melissa Tapper. Tapper competed in Rio and is the first Australian to have competed in both Games.

Potentially even more influential are people such as Abdellatif Baka of Algeria, who won the T13 1 500m in a new Paralympic and Olympic world record time.

The Paralympics have not only changed attitudes in the sporting arena. Another example of a role model changing perceptions is Australian comedian, writer and broadcaster Adam Hills, who also has a disability.

He has achieved mainstream success as a presenter of the British show The Last Leg, which stemmed from being involved in a panel show for the 2012 London Paralympics.

Another important role Paralympic athletes can undertake is to use their profiles for political activism. In doing so they can enhance societal change by continuing to highlight the ongoing inequalities faced by people with disabilities.

The Paralympic Games showcases athletes at the pinnacle of sport, yet is it a reminder that sport at the highest level should be accessible to all people. –

Marion Gray is a professor and Michele Verdonk is a senior lecturer in the occupational therapy unit at the University of the Sunshine Coast in Australia

The Conversation

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