Social Science blog

Exploring Social Science at the British Library

11 February 2011

Paralympic Discourse

Simone Bacchini writes:

Overall, the Olympic Games is an event that has overwhelmingly positive connotations. It is a showcase for physical excellence where the human body takes centre stage. The body beautiful is displayed in all its splendour and signifies a number of things. The competing athlete, especially when winning, embodies a number of highly valued qualities: physical and mental strength, effort, determination, stamina, and endurance. It is perhaps unsurprising that sport, where the connection between personal dedication and personal triumph is so direct and apparent, should prove to be such a rich source of metaphors for other areas. This is even truer of the Paralympics.

 Paralympians want to be seen as simply athletes, judged for their performances. In the discourse of and around the Paralympic Games, disability is something that competing athletes have but it not coterminous with them. And yet, disability itself is never too far from any Paralympic performance. Perhaps it acts as a constant reminder that we, as a society, are still not completely comfortable with disability itself.

 Shortly before the start of the 2000 Sydney Summer Paralympics, Richard Hinds (The Sydney Morning Herald, 14th October 2000) wrote of the unease felt by many sport commentators in writing about paralympians’ performance. At the heart of the dilemma was, fundamentally, a question of what to focus on: performance or disability. If the focus is on the performance, then one might feel free to criticise, even harshly, a paralympic athlete. If, however, one focuses - albeit unconsciously - on the disability, the commentator might feel inhibited in heaping anything other than praise on the athlete; after all, she or he has achieved what most able-bodied individuals could only dream of achieving; all this notwithstanding a physical or mental obstacle.

 Therein lies the problem. Is it truly possible, or desirable, to completely separate individuals from their disabilities? This is, after all, what is implied by the International Paralympic Committee’s guidelines on ‘reporting on persons with a disability’, where the phrase ‘person with a disability’ posits, linguistically and conceptually, a separation between the individual and her or his disability.

 Such policies are understandable and obviously well-intentioned. But are they necessarily right? Are they what all paralympians desire? Some scholars have argued that, for example, the linguistic policy mentioned above (known as “People-First”) in reality eliminates the possibility of understanding disability as a complex phenomenon, social and political.

 It is also far from certain that that is what paralympians themselves prefer. Recently (Evening Standard, 20th Jan. 2011), Sophia Warner, a runner with cerebral palsy, has said that, although she wouldn’t let her disability rule her, she’s not sure she would have been as determined to succeed, had it not been for her disability.

 The achievements of all sportspeople can be immensely inspiring; but the achievement of an athlete who has had to contend with a disability can prove tremendously encouraging. Like the exempla popular from the classical through to the renaissance period, paralympians’ achievement can be used to emphasise virtues such as fortitude and determination. Disability, in this context, is highly relevant and, although not the whole story, is an important aspect of it. And after all, aren’t the Olympics supposed to inspire?

 The debate, I’m sure, is unlikely to stop.

 Wilson, C.J. and Lewiecki-Wilson, C. (eds.) (2001) Embodied Rhetorics: Disability in Language and Culture. Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois University Press.

London reference collections shelfmark: YC.2001.a.20236

 Lending collections shelfmark: m01/40694

Titchkosky, T. (2001) ‘Disability: A Rose by any other Name? “People-First” Language in Canadian Society, in Canadian Review of Sociology, (38)2, 125-140.

Lending collections shelfmark: 3044.649000 DSC 

 Davis, L.J. (ed.) (2010). The Disability Studies Reader. 3rd ed. London: Routledge.

London reference collections shelfmark:

Lending collections shelfmark: m10/28356



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