From 7-18 September, 4,350 athletes from 176 nations will be descending on Rio to compete in one of the most prestigious and grueling sporting events in the world, acting as ambassadors for their countries, getting to match up with some of the best athletes in their respective disciplines, and testing their abilities to the maximum.
You probably won’t see them do it, because I’m referring to the Paralympic Games, the biggest event in Paralympic sport — but by the time they begin, most of the media will have moved on, since the ‘real story’ is of course the summer games. The Olympics kindly offers the Paralympics its sloppy seconds in the form of the facilities it builds and some of its infrastructure, but let’s be real: The focus is not on disabled athletes, and it never has been. Those athletes will be competing largely for the fellow adaptive sports community and to some extent the global disability community — their work is not seen as a subject of universal interest like that of athletes who compete in the Olympics. Because why would an athletic competition among disabled people be of any interest to ‘regular’ people?
Which is not to detract from Olympic athletes. I’ve met a fair number and they are all very nice, dedicated, focused people who want to excel in their sports, interact with athletes from around the world, and represent their nations to the best of their ability. But the repeated discounting of Paralympic athletes comes with a bitter pill, because when they’re not being ignored, they will be fetishised and objectified in really gross and unpleasant ways. I can guarantee you, friends, that the bulk of coverage we see on the Paralympics will revolve around inspiration porn and plucky cripple stories, instead of taking people involved in adaptive sports seriously. It’s offensive, it’s disablist, and it’s actively harmful to disabled athletes around the world.
Here’s what I suspect we are going to see: Lots of stories about how ‘inspiring’ disabled athletes are. They’re overcoming their difficulties, surmounting obstacles, breaking barriers. We’re going to hear sob stories about their impairments (and graphic, lascivious details) and perhaps we’ll get some montages of families and hometowns in the instance of a lucky few who manage to grab the media’s attention because there’s something ‘special’ about their cases. We will see nondisabled people talking about how emotionally stirring it is to watch these brave, amazing people compete against the odds.
Here is what we are not going to see: Celebration of disabled athletes as athletes who are competing in top physical form in extremely competitive sports. Which is really inspiring. I have huge respect and admiration for athletes because what they do with their bodies is amazing, regardless of disability status. Athletes aren’t more or less inspiring because they are or are not amputees, is what I am saying. We will not see stories about how Paralympians receive almost no sponsorships and have to scrape, borrow, and beg for enough money for equipment, let alone travel and other expenses to go to events — we won’t see stories about amputees being unable to replace poorly fitting legs, for example, or people with cognitive impairments having trouble finding trainers who will work with them.
We will not see stories about the social consequences of disablism — like inaccessibility, a rampant problem for athletes who often have trouble getting around in sports facilities that are designed for nondisabled people. Why would pools, tracks, areas, and other facilities need accessible toilets and showers? It’s not like any disabled people use them — or if they do, there are only a handful, and they’d be in the audience, not the area for athletes. We are not going to hear about athletes forced to drag themselves down the aisles of the aircraft they take to Rio after airlines forget to make sure there’s a steward waiting with a wheelchair at the gate. We will not see stories about athletes arriving only to find their housing inaccessible.
Because these are the stories that make nondisabled people uncomfortable. They distract from narratives that people like to form about disability and the disabled experience. Athletes can’t be inspiring if they are angry activists, or if they are fighting hateful social attitudes on top of trying to compete. The ‘obstacles’ people like to trumpet about, in the minds of nondisabled people, are the impairments people live with, but the real barriers for disabled people are those created by nondisabled people, the institutional structures that make it extremely difficult to be disabled in modern society.
So, look, nondisabled people, I’m begging you: Please change the way you talk about disabled athletes. Try tuning in for the Paralympic Games — what coverage you can find, at any rate — and enjoy adaptive sports for what they are, without objectifying the athletes. If you want to talk about the amazing performances you’re seeing, keep disability out of it, because it’s not relevant. The important part of the story is what these athletes are doing, and how they’re performing.
And when it is relevant, when it becomes relevant because policy, infrastructure problems, and other issues are interfering with full and independent access to society, say something about it. Don’t sit quiet. Identify those problems and speak up about them. When you see disabled athletes complaining about the fact that they can’t shower or use the toilet, join with them and work in solidarity to change that.
And fellow journos and editors, you’re not exempt. Please for the love of all that is furry, prove me wrong when it comes to the kinds of stories I will see. Don’t go for the quick hit cheap clickbait inspiration porn. Report on the amazing and important stories out there for the disability community. Change the narrative. You have the power.
Image: 1960 Summer Paralympics, Paul Townsend, Flickr