Paralympics, Disability and Perspective

By Hsin-Yi Lo | 26 Oct 12

“The practice of sport is a human right. Every individual must have the possibility of practising sport, without discrimination of any kind and in the Olympic spirit, which requires mutual understanding with a spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play”

Any form of discrimination with regard to a country or a person on grounds of race, religion, politics, gender or otherwise is incompatible with belonging to the Olympic Movement”

Fundamental Principles of Olympism

Dr Ludwig “Poppa” Guttman dreamed that one day there would be an international sporting event for people living with a disability. He set up the Stoke Mandeville Games which coincided with the 1948 London Olympics. Dr Guttman’s dream came true when games for people with a disability gained a bigger international medium at the first Paralympics Summer Games (also known as the 9th Annual International Stoke Mandeville Games) was held in Rome in 1960, attended by 400 athletes from 23 different countries.

The Paralympics have continued to grow over time. The 2012 London Paralympic Games had the largest participation yet, with 4,200 athletes from 166 countries taking part. Despite this, the Paralympics still do not have recognition equal to the Olympic Games. 

Media coverage of the Paralympics is small compared to the Olympics. Take the 2012 London Games for example. During the lead up to the Opening Ceremony, the Australian media constantly promoted the Games, while advertisements and promotions on television showed how superior our athletes were and how many medals they could bring home. The media was successful in helping to create excitement and anticipation. However, the lead up to the Paralympics did not have the same hype.

Adding to this, well accomplished Paralympians such as 13 time gold medallist swimmer Matthew Cowdrey, ten time medallist Christopher Scott OAM, and Jessica Gallagher, the first female Australian athlete to win a gold medal at the Winter Paralympics, are profiled less widely, for example, than Olympic swimmer James Magnussen. This is not to criticise Magnussen, but given the achievements of the mentioned Paralympians, they too should be celebrated widely because they, like other Olympic athletes, are inspiring.

There have also been ongoing shortfalls concerning sponsorship of the Paralympics and Paralympians. Sponsorship is significantly less than the Olympics and thus one can argue that Paralympians are not supported enough – some Paralympians have never been sponsored. This year, Australian athletics runner Evan O’Hanlon, Australia’s fastest Paralympics athlete, staged a silent protest with fellow athletes. They taped over the logos of major sporting companies (who had media coverage during the Games) on their sports attire because Paralympians purchase and wear their products but the companies do not sponsor the Paralympians themselves. O’Hanlon wanted to show that Paralympians, like all other athletes, are elite as well and they do not deserve any less. O’Hanlon commented “by covering it up, we’re proving that we do have worth” and “it’s what any Paralympian deserves.”

Chris Styring, the general manager of Sweeny Research, argued that sponsors would seek opportunities where they would have maximum media exposure. He commented ”it comes down to coverage, so brands and companies will always look for the biggest bang for buck”. Major companies are less likely to provide sponsorship at an event where there is less media coverage.  This writer believes that companies should not measure Paralympics Games whether it could generate profit or not. However, they should use the opportunity to create a more positive image for themselves by supporting marginalised people in our community. This support will show that Paralympians are equal and valued members of our society. In a bigger picture, this will encourage other companies to be more inclusive and supportive to people living with a disability.

Current attitudes towards the Paralympics and Paralympians reflect a bigger issue in our society: many of us have a deep-rooted discrimination and lack of empathy towards people living with a disability. In Australia, many people who live with a disability are still marginalised and unable to fully integrate and participate in society. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, in 2009 there were 2.2 million Australians, aged 15-64, recorded to be living with a disability. They continue to face challenges, such as in education, employment and dealing with the wider society’s ingrained intolerance towards those who does not have a “normal” body (or mind).

Examples of different types of discrimination

In 2005, John Power, the National Policy Officer for Blind Citizens Australia, drafted a policy proposal called Blind Citizens Australia – Teaching Teachers Braille. The proposal outlined the prejudice in the Australian educational system against visually impaired children.

According to the PricewaterhouseCoopers report Disability Expectations: Investing in a better life, a stronger Australia, released in November 2011, Australia is ranked below the OECD (Organisation for Economic Co-Operation and Development) average when it comes to employing people with a disability. The OECD average is 22 per cent. The report showed that 45 per cent of people with a disability live close to the poverty line in Australia.

An article published in the Sydney Morning Herald, Barring Disabled Migrants makes Australia the Loser, suggested that the Australian Government systematically discriminates against people living with a disability who attempt to migrate to Australia. A Senate Inquiry was launched to examine how the migration process rejects migrants who have a disability. The writer, Alecia Simmonds from the University of Sydney, argued that “under the Migration Act, people with impairments have their disability taken into consideration in meeting the health criteria as a condition of entry. The Disability Discrimination Act is suspended for the purposes of the Migration Act. As a result, disabled people are automatically excluded from consideration.”

Associate Professor Patrick McArdle from the Australian Catholic University brings an interesting and thought-provoking perspective on how religion has influenced the way Western society regards disability. He contends that in Western society “humans, in their perfection and wholeness, are superior” because humans believe they are unique and greater than all living things on this planet. The belief that “God created man in his own image” (Genesis 1:27) has influenced how many of us view fellow humans; that we should be “whole, glorified, and without defects of mind and body … This over time has led to the commonly held view that people are best described in terms of their self-reliance, intelligence, and independence” says McArdle.

We often talk about creating an inclusive society, but some of us forget that people with a disability are members of society too. Paralympians should be praised for their accomplishments and their strength. They defy all odds and endure prejudice in the wider society because they have the courage to follow their dreams and not give up on themselves. We should judge someone according to their character and integrity, not whether they are able-bodied or not. Paralympians show the pinnacle of human strength and spirit; rather than excluding them, we should look up to them as we look up to Olympians –as role models.

Hsin-Yi is currently working as the Project Officer for the National Ethnic and Multicultural Broadcasters’ Council and also serves as the Communications Officer for Deakin Golden Key. She holds a Bachelor of Arts (Media/Communications) majoring in Media/Communications and International Relations, and a Bachelor of Arts (Honours) from Deakin University.