Jan 10, 2012

Do the Paralympics matter?

I have been meaning to answer this question for a while but procrastinated until the timing was right. Well, guess what. The timing is right!

My friend Jess from Vancouver, British Columbia asks:

You probably know that there was talk about whether the Paralympics should be merged with the Olympics... and whether the event has made an impact in disability awareness at all. What do you think?


This question was submitted a few weeks ago and I was actually already planning to cover it in my other blog, Confined Abilities. But since a question has come in about this topic, I will answer it here instead!

With the Olympics and Paralympics coming up later this year in London, there has been talk about whether the two events should be merged. There have been some rather passionate arguments for and against this; those who are arguing for it are often drawing on the idea of equality while those against it are afraid that the Paralympics will be "swallowed up" by the much larger Olympics.

While there are logistical issues related to merging the two events (such as how to accommodate so many athletes in one city at the same time), I will try to analyze the social aspects of such an act.

Equality is a very relative concept. What is seen as equal to one person may not be seen as equal to another. Some can argue that merging the two events would be "equal" in the way that athletes with and without disabilities can get the same amount of exposure at the same time. Some also argue that due to differences in event size, magnitude and interest, it would be more reasonable to keep them separate in order for the Paralympics to have a chance of success (much like how some may argue that affirmative action has made it possible for previously neglected minorities to "catch up" to the majority).

The idea of equality can also range according to location and society. Having spent some time abroad, there are some instances of disability equality in other places that may be seen as grossly unequal here in North America. For example, I watched a news magazine show from China called "Guangdong Today" where they documented a school for children with developmental disabilities. They praised this school, which was created to keep students away from "regular" schools and in an environment where they are on academically equal footing. They saw it as providing them an equal opportunity to be educated. However in North America, that lack of mainstreaming may be seen as segregation instead of equality.

Equality is such a relative concept that it is difficult to say whether simply merging the Paralympics and Olympics would make things equal, or if separating them would be better. The truth is, your answer will depend on how you look at it and also on the disability culture in which you were raised.

Among all these arguments about how the Paralympics should be handled is the question of whether the Paralympics are effective at all. Certainly as an athletic competition, it is a world-class event and the pinnacle of adaptive sports. But like the Olympics, it is supposed to be a chance for the participants to shine in the public eye – images of athletes gracing the front of cereal boxes and giving pep speeches to gym-fulls of students come to mind. With the limited exposure of the Paralympics, can it truly make a difference in the "real world"?

People with disabilities face many issues in society, even in North America (which is often considered a global center for disability rights movements). These issues relate to employment, healthcare, education, standard of living, relationships and so on – in other words, they are things that people with disabilities cannot always obtain simply due to limitations beyond their control. Despite the social and regulatory advancements in the disability field, these continue to be sore spots.

Many people think that the Paralympics seek to contradict two things: the idea that a disability is a weakness and that glory is achieved through strength. Some may think, "If you can't walk, how can you be considered strong?" I think that is missing the point, and that the true objective of the Paralympics is to challenge the idea of "give/take" when it comes to people with disabilities.

What is the "give/take" idea? In the relationship between people with and without disabilities, there is a very powerful notion that those without disabilities "give" to those with disabilities, and those with disabilities are supposed "take" the help that is given. For example, it is common to see someone try to help someone in a wheelchair but when someone in a wheelchair tries to help others, it is often seen as strange.

With this in mind, I feel that the Paralympics give a chance for everyone to see that people with disabilities can "give" as much as they "take." It gives them the chance to produce something visible for people without disabilities and challenge the existing "give/take" notions. In other words, it can turn what was previously a one-way relationship to a mutual one.

So do the Paralympics make a difference in society? While progress has been slow, I believe it does. An example of this came recently when I was interviewed for a job in a very unlikely location – a car shop. Considering that I know next to nothing about cars, it was very surprising. The manager was interested in finding ways to sell cars and car parts on the internet but could not manage the technology. There were a few candidates and all of them had disabilities (recruited through a local job agency that specializes in finding workers like that). I was told that he was inspired to go this route because he saw a wheelchair basketball game at a community center and was impressed by what people with disabilities were capable of, and realized that this could be an untapped gold mine since many of those people had very marketable skills.

Simply hearing that was a welcome surprise and while not everyone who watches a Paralympic sport will think like this (or be in a position to hire people), there is no question that once in a while it can have an effect that can spill over to "real world" solutions.

The Paralympics definitely matter. But it is always easier to build ramps and elevators than it is to change people's perceptions. It may take a while for it to happen and it may not happen within our lifetimes but in the future it would not be surprising to see that things have improved drastically.


  1. I think something really needs to be done about the fact that so many people think the paralympics are the same as the special olympics!

  2. It's interesting that you mention that. I know a 7-year-old girl who has spina bifida who actually had to join Special Olympics events because that was the only place where they had adapted sports equipment suitable for her (since some people with mental disabilities may also have physical disabilities).

    It was obvious that she did NOT have a mental disability, so it really sucks that not only do people confuse the Paralympics and Special Olympics, but sometimes there aren't even the proper resources to separate the two.

    This was in the United States. Thankfully here in Vancouver and the rest of British Columbia, there is a program in place called "Let's Play" (http://www.letsplaybc.ca) that helps children with physical disabilities be involved in sports.