Do the Paralympics enforce harmful narratives?

Do the Paralympics enforce harmful narratives?
Behind the glory — The Paralympics is often celebrated for encouraging inclusivity and increasing disability awareness – but there’s also a growing concern that the games help to cultivate dangerous tropes about disabled people.

It had been eighteen months since my autism diagnosis when Jessica-Jane Applegate, an autistic swimmer, won silver and bronze in the Rio Paralympics. I was filled with a sense of joy that I still can’t quite put into words. Hearing ‘autism’ alongside something so positive, rather than merely in terms of disorders or limitations, was something I had experienced very little of since my diagnosis.  

My joy, however, was short-lived. The feeling of pride began to wane, and dissolve into something else: the knowledge that I would never be able to ‘overcome’ my disability in a way that would earn me the right to be celebrated like this.

As a disabled person, it feels as though you are placed into one of two camps: you’re either a ‘superhero’ who is ‘overcoming’ your disability and achieving great things, or you’re a ‘scrounger’ whose failure to overcome your disability makes you a lazy drain on society. Watching the Paralympics through the non-disabled media lens can turn what should be positive representation into a reminder of where you, as a non-exceptional disabled person, fit into this narrative.        

“I feel immense guilt for not being able to engage more with the Paralympics,” 30-year-old Jess Norwell tells me. Jess is a wheelchair user who has Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, Dysautonomia and Fibromyalgia. “[The Games] should be an opportunity for the disabled community to celebrate, but sometimes, it feels more like a spectacle of ‘acceptable disabled people’ for the enjoyment of non-disabled people” 

From speaking with both advocates and athletes, it has become clear to me that the issues lie not with the Paralympics themselves, but in the way that they are framed and mythologised by an ableist society. 

The last decade has been largely shaped by austerity policies that have devastated the disabled community and only served to further entrench the dichotomy of the superhero/scrounger narrative. In 2017, only a year after Team GB came second in the Paralympics medal table, the UN found that the UK government was guilty of “grave or systematic violations of the rights of persons with disabilities”.

“I had a lot of disabled friends at the start of the decade, and now I’m the only one left,” disabled advocate and journalist Karl Knights tells me. “By and large, the general public have no idea of the devastation disabled people are being forced to live through, day after day.”

Many disabled people have lost access to vital support after assessments deemed them ‘not disabled enough’ to need them – a constant shifting of goal posts, designed to support welfare cuts, which feeds on ‘proving’ that disabled people are exaggerating their need for support. And the Paralympics, with its focus on inspirational stories, can be held up as the ultimate ‘proof’ that disabled people can ‘overcome’ their disability (and their corresponding support needs) if only they ‘tried a little harder’. 

“Slowly but surely, the dominant narrative has become that disabled people like me are scroungers who are nothing but a drain on the economy,” Karl continues. “If someone with cerebral palsy is competing in the Paralympics, someone is liable to say to me, ‘well, why can’t you do it too?’” 

Two time Paralympic gold medalist Stephanie Wheeler has felt a growing unease around the culture that she experienced as part of the games, and has begun to examine how she inadvertently bolstered the ‘superhero’ and ‘scrounger’ narrative. “When I was an athlete competing at the Paralympics, it wasn’t complicated to me at all,” she tells me. “I bought into being the best of the best, so I trained with the mindset of trying to be as minimally disabled as I possibly could to align myself with non-disabled athletes.

“Now, I have a much more complicated relationship with the Paralympics. I love them, but for a long time, I thought being a Paralympic athlete was the best and only way to be disabled. We did whatever we needed to do to be seen as close to ‘normal’ as possible. Over time, I began to learn the harm that caused myself and other disabled people.” 

As a disabled freelance journalist and former para-sport athlete, John Loeppky has spent a lot of time speaking to fellow athletes about where this culture of internalised ableism comes from, and has explored how the idea of ‘superhumans’ impacts individual Paralympians as well as the wider disabled community. 

“Disabled athletes come back to a baseline of wanting to be acknowledged for their work,” he tells me. “When the only way to get acknowledged as human is to be perceived at the best of something in the public imagination, I think it’s no wonder that lateral and internalised ableism pops up.” 

But can this harm be placed purely at the feet of the Paralympics? “The movement is messy, and disabled athletes are not a monolith,” he says. “But the issue is that the media doesn’t cover it in a way that understands that – ‘inspiration porn’ [a term coined in 2012 by disability rights activist Stella Young to describe narratives that place disabled people as ‘inspirational’, often for the benefit of non-disabled people] is the easy story.” Indeed, it’s the inability of the media to cover disability with nuance and understanding, and the lack of disabled voices amongst journalists and producers, that enables the Paralympics to be weaponised into upholding a narrative of ‘superheroes’ and ‘scroungers’.

Liz Johnson, a Paralympic gold medallist and disability campaigner, who has co-founded two organisations aimed at closing the disability employment gap, The Ability People and Podium, believes that the Paralympics exists as a positive example of how society should be supporting disabled people. “I think the Paralympics do an incredible job of promoting disabled talent and increasing awareness of disability,” she tells me. “You’re given the tools you need to compete to the best of your ability, and a fair setting in which to do so. Society at large should treat disability in the same way.”  

But, she continues, this important message is often lost in a media narrative that dehumanises Paralympians by idolising them. “These stories are interpreted in a way which makes Paralympians out to be heroes who have ‘beaten the odds’ or ‘defied belief’. This is damaging for both Paralympic athletes and the wider disabled community.”

With a decade of austerity politics, and the disproportionate devastation that disabled people have faced at the hands of the UK’s Covid-19 response, it’s more important than ever that we call out the empty congratulations of politicians and the media, and demand to be seen and treated as the human beings we are. 

Stephanie is ensuring that the aspiring Paralympians under her tutelage are equipped to do just that. “We talk about issues like inspiration porn and the damage that it does to the disability community, both for athletes and for non-athletes” she tells me. “We also talk about all of the ways that anyone can be disabled and how they are all worthy and valuable, about how you don’t have to bounce a basketball or sculpt your body in order to be valued. This generation of athletes is far more progressive than I was at their age.”

While the narrative certainly needs to change so that all disabled bodies are seen as worthy of celebration, what the Paralympics positively represents to so many should not be overlooked. The first thing I felt when learning of Jessica-Jane Applegate’s success was joy – and, in a world with such social pressure to feel shame in disability, that joy is an important part of resistance and survival. 

Follow Erin Ekins on Twitter.

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