As the focus in Rio shifts from the Olympics to the Paralympics this blog reflects on what we can learn from the British Library oral history collections about the history of the Paralympics, changing opportunities for participation in disability sport and shifting attitudes to them. These collections provide perspectives from within the disabled community as well as from those outside it.
The Chartered Society of Physiotherapy Retirement Association Oral History Project is an extensive collection that includes recollections of the Stoke Mandeville Games, the predecessors of the Paralympics. Gill McCay recalls watching the games, which were for athletes with spinal injuries, while Ida Bromley remembers the involvement of physiotherapists in the early years and their need to engage specialist help as the range of sports expanded.
By the time Tanni Grey-Thompson and Danny Crates were competing and winning gold medals in the Paralympics in the late 20th and early 21st century the scale and scope of the event had expanded significantly to include many thousands of athletes from around the globe. For them competition was intense and success required many hours of training, foregoing the company of family and friends to focus on their athletic ambitions.
Listening Project interviews with teenage amputees Kieran Maxwell and Ryan Cinnamond reveal how the achievements of Paralympic athletes fuelled their sporting ambitions and raised their own expectations as they learned to walk again with prosthetic legs after life-threatening illnesses.
These hopes and expectations seem a long way from many of the experiences recounted by older interviewees in the collection’ “How Was School?” Interviews with Disabled People about their experience of Education over the last 100 years. Here interviewees such as Joanne Akallo Wacha recall the difficulties they experienced in getting involved in sport, usually the result of the lack of facilities or relevant expertise and absence of any encouragement.
This collection also reveals a range of views on the Paralympics themselves, with some contributors expressing the view that the event does a good job or raising awareness and promoting inclusion, while others remained sceptical about its positive outcomes.
Spectators are also represented in the collection, including William Burn, charity administrator, who attended the Stoke Mandeville Games in the 1950s (C984/14/01). As the collections continue to grow it is likely that they will also include more recollections on the 2012 London Olympics and Paralympics such as those of architect Rab Bennetts (C467/103) who reflects on changing attitudes towards disability as well as the architectural legacy of the events.
By Dr Sally Horrocks