India’s sportspeople with ‘different abilities’ did even better than the ‘normal athletes’, bringing home Olympic gold. Will events like the Paralympics change our views about the ‘physically challenged’?
The prevailing view of disability in the past was where the individual was seen as ill and the condition was an individual ‘problem’. 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 challenged individuals, and impacted the way people with disabilities viewed their own roles in society.
Nowadays, there has been a push to promote a social rather than medical perspective on disability. The social view shows us that the ‘disabled’ are more restricted by the barriers put on them by society.
This change in thinking has led to people having the right to access and participate in all levels of society, including sport.
Media coverage of Paralympic Games has helped change societal perspectives. There was some criticism of the coverage of the earlier games as being patronising, but “pitying” language is becoming less common in media coverage today.
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 where the Paralympics become an important vehicle for changing societal perceptions as 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.
As potential “heroes”, Paralympic athletes are not only role models for other aspiring athletes, especially for those with a disability, but 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 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 sportsperson of the year awards.
This feat shows that 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.
Abdellatif Baka of Algeria won the T13 1,500m in a new Paralympic, Olympic and world record time.
The Paralympics have not only changed attitudes in the sporting arena.
Another important role that Paralympic athletes can undertake is to use their profile for political activism. In doing so they can enhance societal change through continuing to highlight the ongoing inequalities faced by people with disabilities. The Paralympic Games showcase athletes at the pinnacle of sport, yet they are a reminder that sport at the highest level should be accessible to all people.