There exists an apparent paradox that coalesces around the Paralympic spectacle: for some, a force for good, social change and the betterment of everyday life for Disabled people; for others, a commercial spectacle that celebrates exceptional elite sporting performance, yet remains divorced from (and potentially harmful to) the lives of the vast majority of Disabled people.
The Paralympic Games are perhaps the most visible and celebrated representation of disability; a broadcast spectacle that has the potential to reach audiences globally. Indeed, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) proposes the worldwide reach of the Paralympic Games through broadcast media (4.25 billion audience reach for the Tokyo Games in 2021) offers an elevated platform from which to showcase the societal benefit of Parasport.
Through its ‘Change Starts with Sport’ tagline, the IPC leverages the Games as a highly visible and powerful player in shaping everyday public perceptions, attitudes and understandings of disability; ultimately contributing towards meaningful social change and the realisation of fully integrated disability-inclusive societies.
However, there remain significant questions over the potential societal benefit from Parasport and, more specifically, the impact of Parasport broadcasts for the everyday lives of the majority of Disabled people.
Multiple stakeholders – including Disability Rights groups, academics, artists, advocates, and grassroots organisations – have instead been relatively dismissive of the potential of the Paralympics to realise any form of social change and play a role in the betterment of rights and quality of life for Disabled people. These arguments broadly coalesce around the elevation of narratives that emphasise bravery, inspiration, courage – a superhuman narrative that thrives on overcoming disability; a narrative termed inspiration porn by Australian journalist, comedian and activist Stella Young.
These arguments suggest that the Paralympics can be counterproductive to disability rights beyond sport, arguing that viewing disability through the lens of the Paralympics could lead to a warped understanding of most Disabled people’s lived experience.
There has been progress in the broadcast industry to address this apparent Paralympic paradox. Most notably, UK-based broadcaster Channel 4 has been praised for its approach to coverage both on and off screen. Indeed, the channel has been an important vehicle in progressive forms of disability representation marked by greater inclusion, education and the visibility of disability. Yet, despite substantive progress and a subtle shift away from the superhuman framing, there remain complexities and contradictions in coverage, especially when held together with the intersecting vectors of race, gender, nation and ableism.
The picture is even cloudier with respect to the impact of Paralympic broadcast coverage outside of the UK, not least the extent of coverage in different nations, how client broadcasters reshape broadcasts for domestic consumption, and indeed the impact such coverage may have on disability inclusion worldwide.
What can be made of this apparent Paralympic paradox? Can the potential of the Paralympic stage be harnessed for positive social change for Disabled people beyond sport? If so, what role, if any, for the sports industry? And what of the athlete voice in all of this? How do Paralympic athletes want to be represented; is there an appetite for speaking out beyond sport on pressing social issues, injustices and inequalities that Disabled people experience on a daily basis?
The limited research that has incorporated athlete voice suggests an equally paradoxical picture, with various factors contributing towards mixed views on representation – including lived experience (such as education, gender, type of impairment, sport, number of Games competed at) and media experience (number of media interactions, perception of consuming media, perception of media experiences).
Such ambiguity is not particularly surprising: there will be athletes who understandably want high-quality media coverage narrated around their elite athletic achievement. Others will see Paralympic media as an important site for disrupting dominant narratives and disability discourses and providing a platform for disability activism.
Despite deep historical roots claiming that sport is apolitical, sport is sutured with politics. Indeed, sport has always been an important cultural site on which any given society’s anxieties, concerns and social issues are played out and through which issues of social justice have been narrated and framed. Think recently, for example, of the role of Colin Kaepernick in the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement or of the ‘unwanted kiss’ in the aftermath of Spain’s 2023 Women’s World Cup victory in exposing misogyny via #SeAcabó. However, inequalities related to disability have, for the most part, been absent in these debates.
Yet, do we sense something of a sea change here with para-athletes increasingly speaking out on injustices and lived experiences beyond sport? Indeed, the Paralympics GB YouTube series ‘My Voice’ is predicated on the organisation’s new focus on social impact and aims to better connect Paralympic athletes to their lives outside of sport.
Most recently, seven-time Paralympian Hannah Cockroft spoke out about the ways in which Paralympic athletes are shown for (celebrated) what they can do whilst the majority of disabled people are shown for what they can’t do (at best) or criminalised (at worst). Whilst Cockroft was critiquing the British government’s lack of prioritisation afforded to disability rights and advocacy, she also speaks to the differences between the elevated Paralympic pedestal, the representation of disability, and the lived experiences of Disabled people.
Our own research suggests that socially progressive forms of disability representation can lead to positive social change, especially with respect to disability awareness. Further, the Paralympics can be an important vehicle toward greater inclusion, education and the visibility of disability. Yet such sustainable cultural legacies remain plagued – at present – by complexity and contradiction with respect to issues of inclusion/exclusion, empowerment/disempowerment, and continued forms of marginalisation and ableism.
The research suggests that significant challenges remain for broadcasters, host committees and governing bodies to harness their powers to ensure parasport is representative of – and for – all disabled people. To that end, we offer a number of challenges and opportunities for multiple stakeholders to consider that coalesce around:
- Ensuring coverage beyond that focused on the ‘able-disabled’ and which embraces a wider range of sports than typically shown;
- Continued dialogue between disability rights groups and broadcasters on representation;
- Engaging with the athlete voice;
- Extending coverage beyond the ‘two weeks every four years’ Paralympic cycle;
- Developing a greater understanding of the multiple intersections between disability and other forms of inequality;
- The exploration of narrative framing that embraced both high-performance sport and spoke to wider social inequalities faced by Disabled people in an ableist society
The Paralympics will not be a panacea for inequality; it will not, in and of itself, lead to fully integrated disability-inclusive societies. Yet, as arguably the most visible representation of disability on our screens, it would likely be equally redundant to ignore or decry the potential of Paralympic representations in contributing towards meaningful social change.
At a moment in time in which even celebrated Paralympians decry that the world is scary for Disabled people, with government ‘failing to listen’ to the needs of some of the most vulnerable people in society, and with inequalities exacerbated by the Covid pandemic, never has there been a more important time to embrace the complexities of this Paralympic paradox.
About the author: Michael Silk is a Professor of Sport, Culture and Society and Director of the Sport & Physical Activity Research Centre (SPARC) at Bournemouth University. He is an interdisciplinary scholar focusing on the intersections between sport, social and economic inequalities, and the media.