By Nicole Fiscella and Kathleen Bogart
Many individuals world wide have been cozying up on the sofa to look at elite athletes compete, first within the 2022 Winter Olympics, and now within the Paralympics. Whereas it’s thrilling to look at these athletes dominate of their sport, we must also query whether or not the Paralympics is a spot the place solely “acceptable disabled individuals” are celebrated. That’s, do the Paralympics mirror a hierarchy of incapacity wherein solely these with the least stigmatized disabilities can take part? In an interview with journalist Erin Ekins, two-time Paralympic gold medalist Stephanie Wheeler alludes to this:
After I was an athlete competing on the Paralympics, it wasn’t sophisticated to me in any respect. I purchased into being one of the best of one of the best, so I educated with the mindset of making an attempt to be as minimally disabled as I probably might to align myself with non-disabled athletes.
When solely “acceptable disabled individuals” are featured in elite sports activities, it sends a message to the general public that just some disabilities are value celebrating. When Paralympic athletes don’t signify the true variety of incapacity, people with disabilities might battle to narrate to somebody like them.
Biased illustration of disabled athletes occurs not solely at elite ranges, but in addition in native communities. A latest video has gone viral of freshman basketball participant Jonathan J.’s coach saying he makes it a degree to place Jonathan, who has Down syndrome, in on the finish of every sport. At this level, Jonathan is just not given entry to the court docket throughout sport play, however as a substitute, common play ceases and all consideration is on him. Not like when his teammates have the ball, there are not any guidelines. Jonathan is cheered on and inspired to shoot again and again and over till he sinks the ball. Whereas some may even see this as a constructive second, treating Jonathan in another way could also be a disservice to him and others who might observe him.
An analogous instance of ableist illustration occurred again in 2006 when a narrative went viral of a younger man named Jason who wished nothing greater than to be on his highschool basketball staff. Jason, who identifies as autistic, served because the gear supervisor for the staff. Within the final sport of the 12 months, the coach allowed him to swimsuit up and play. He “shocked the gang” by capturing six three-pointers and one two-pointer throughout the final 4 minutes of the sport. Social media posts like this, about college students with disabilities coming in through the closing minutes of a sport to be part of the staff, ship a sign not solely to the athlete concerned, but in addition to these round him, that his means isn’t considered as “worthy” of a full sport.
Conditions resembling these could also be well-intentioned and at first look look innocent. Nonetheless, when athletes with disabilities are portrayed as inspirational, stunning, or tragic, it could actually perpetuate ableism. These one-time alternatives or patronizing occasions can develop into spectacles that objectify the disabled particular person for the advantage of a feel-good second for non-disabled people.
These two tales of boys with disabilities are examples of inspirational narratives. Inside this narrative, disabled people are both a) inspirational for finishing routine actions of day by day dwelling, or b) inspirational for “overcoming” their incapacity. For many individuals with disabilities, “overcoming” their incapacity is just not fascinating and even doable. When “overcoming” is the dominant narrative, it could actually create biased expectations for individuals who don’t overcome their incapacity.
A fast search utilizing the time period “disabled athletes” yields articles with phrases that embody “inspiring” and “athletes who overcame incapacity.” Athletes with disabilities have spoken out about their experiences with the inspirational narrative.
U.S. Paralympian Jessica Lengthy spoke about her distaste for being perceived as inspirational in an interview with Ben Shpigel:
It’s not a phrase we like to listen to. I’m simply doing what I do. I’ve been a bilateral amputee since delivery, and I don’t know the rest. I’m not simply going to remain in my home and conceal.
Advocating for Change
Larger promotion of unified sports activities wherein the athletes play the period of the sport, not simply the previous few minutes, may also help cut back ableism. Disabled athletes ought to be seen on the identical taking part in discipline as able-bodied friends. Quite a few organizations have developed over the past a number of years in an effort to teach and assist the inclusion of people with disabilities in sports activities. Such organizations aren’t solely focused towards athletes, however coaches as nicely. For instance, the Aspen Institute’s Challenge Play works to teach coaches on the right inclusion of younger athletes with disabilities in sports activities. One well-liked group, Unified Sports activities, unites Particular Olympics athletes and companions (people with out mental disabilities) as teammates for coaching and competitors. Different organizations embody Bounce Out the Stigma, Little League Challenger Division, Rise Adaptive Sports activities, and Zero Challenge. Many of those organizations’ occasions happen locally to advertise consciousness and inclusion of disabled athletes’ engagement in sports activities.
Paralympic gold medallist and incapacity campaigner Liz Johnson mentioned relating to media protection of the Paralympics:
These tales are interpreted in a manner which makes Paralympians out to be heroes who’ve ‘overwhelmed the chances’ or ‘defied perception.’ That is damaging for each Paralympic athletes and the broader disabled group.
The Paralympics might be a world catalyst for change highlighting what disabled athletes are able to by way of onerous work and dedication—so long as they are not depicted as “overcoming” their disabilities. It is time for the Paralympics to extend the range of disabilities represented. The world wants extra position fashions.
Nicole Fiscella, M.S., MPM, is a doctoral candidate in Kinesiology at Oregon State College and a scholar in Dr. Bogart’s Psychology of Incapacity class.