The Paralympics are supposed to be a celebration of the exceptional physical feats of disabled athletes from across the globe, yet as we approach the Tokyo Paralympics disabled people seem to be bracing themselves. Why? Simply put, the Paralympics are perhaps the only time that some people take an interest in disability, and that means an onslaught of ableism and inspiration porn is coming our way.
If I were so inclined, I could probably put together a Paralymics Bingo sheet containing phrases such as “inspirational superhuman”, “in spite of their condition”, and “overcoming the odds”, and you’d have a full house in the opening ceremony alone. Of course the competitors are incredibly impressive, but no less so than their Olympic counterparts; anyone who can qualify for the most prestigious international sporting competition in the world is going to be quite good at what they do, disabled or otherwise. Yet, during the Paralympics the focus often seems to be on the disability rather than the performance of the athletes, and so any discussion of ableism at the Paralympics must focus on this commentary rather than the exemplary behaviour of it’s competitors.
The way in which the Paralympics are talked about by media personnel inevitably has a knock-on impact on how the public discusses the Paralympic games. In the UK, channel 4 has a history of using ableist slogans such as “meet the superhumans”, and the run-up to the Tokyo games has been no different. The TV advert for the Paralympic games proclaims that to be a Paralympian “there’s got to be something wrong with you”, and the corresponding poster simply says it would be “rude not to stare”. Both of these slogans are takes on the decades-long campaigns of disability activists trying to get people not to view disability as inherently wrong and not to stare at us like freaks, and while I can see what they wanted to achieve with these slogans, to say they missed the mark would be like describing me participating in archery; they don’t just miss the target but somehow manage to shoot themselves.
As for social media, there is a separate grid on the reverse of the Paralympics Bingo sheet with phrases such as “you can do anything if you put your mind to it”, “believe in yourself”, and of course the classic “I don’t see you as disabled, but specially-abled”. To obtain a full house on this side of the Bingo card, simply log onto Twitter for approximately 30 seconds.
Indeed, a recent tweet from the official Paralympics account documenting the “appropriate” language to use when talking about disabled competitors was actually pretty inappropriate; disabled activists have long been advocating for the use of identity-first language rather than person-first language (i.e. Diary of a Disabled Person, rather than Diary of a Person with a Disability), but our efforts have been completely overlooked. Not only was person-first language applied to disabled people in general, but wheelchair users were singled out by the overly-wordy “person who uses a wheelchair”. While it was good to see certain slurs and terminology like “confined” denounced, the fact that not a single disabled person had been spoken to about preferred language was painfully clear. I was just relieved that the infographic at least had Alt Text applied to it.
Journalists: if you want to write about a Paralympic athlete who uses a wheelchair, “wheelchair user” is a lot less wordy and will do just fine.
I’ve already written about why inspiration porn and condescending language is so damaging to disabled people so I won’t go on to repeat myself here, but know that disabled people really are sick of having the same patronising statements thrown at us everywhere we go for a solid two weeks every few years.
Furthermore, it doesn’t help matters that even before they have begun, the Tokyo Paralympics committee have been caught committing a slew of ableist actions. Some competitors were denied access to essential medication meaning they cannot possibly perform at their best. Others’ mental health declined so severely that they could no longer compete. One Paralympian, Becca Meyers, had to drop out of the games altogether when her basic accessibility requirements were denied on the grounds of COVID regulations, as if they weren’t bringing together massive teams of people from across the globe anyway.
Perhaps the most damningly ableist aspect of the Paralympics is that they exist at all. As it stands, disabled athletes are segregated from their able-bodied counterparts, competing several weeks after the main Olympics has closed, with significantly reduced coverage (and sponsorship, no doubt) in the media. The opening ceremony takes place in the middle of the week rather than at peak viewing times. Worse, the Olympic torch is passed to the host of the next set of games at the close of the Olympics, long before the Paralympics opens, making a very clear statement that the two competitions are not viewed as equal. It has been suggested in the past that the two sets of games are merged into one long event, where for the sake of fairness disabled and able-bodied athletes compete separately (it wouldn’t be fair to expect the Olympians to keep up with Paralympians), but still compete alongside each other. While the logistics would take some working out, I support this idea. The segregation of disabled people in education and health care is declining, and it’s high time that this prestigious competition followed suit.
As a disabled person I am excited to see other disabled people succeeding, and for this I look forward to the Paralympics. However, the ableism and inspiration porn that comes with it puts a dampener on the whole experience. More and more I find myself believing that the Paralympics are not for disabled athletes at all, but are instead for able-bodied people who simply want their feelgood fix.