Tuesday 4 September 2012

What The Paralympics Has Taught Us

And what some of us already knew!

I love the paralympics. I have worked in the disability field as a volunteer and then in paid employment, on and off for 25 years. The Paralympics is a rare opportunity for the general public to see people with disabilities do remarkable things. Some of us are lucky enough to see people with disabilities do amazing things every day. During the course of my career I have seen amazing things. A man who could not speak given a computer at the age of 13 and suddenly able to communicate and attend university. Another young man with spina bifida and rods in his back doing indoor rock climbing.  My husband happens to have a severe physical disability, arthrogryposis multiplex congenita, the same condition as Will Bayley

I think a lot of these lessons can absolutely be applied to us as parents, and to our children, especially those born prematurely. 

Sport is amazing therapy - It's no surprise to me that the Paralympics started at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Sports like swimming are so popular because swimming is a major part of rehabilitation following injury or sudden onset of illness. Sport is fun, promotes achievement, and gives a warm fuzzy glow, whether you win or not. Paralympics is sport at an elite level. Not every person with a disability will be a paralympian, but sport in some way can be enjoyed by us all, whatever our limitations.

Disability is not the end - it can be a stunning new beginning  Who hasn't been moved by Martine Wright who lost her legs in the London bombings of 7/7? Her injury occured the day after London's winning bid had been announced, and she kept the paralympics in her sights as an integral part of her recovery. Bradley Snyder lost his vision whilst in Afghanistan in just September 2011 and here he is winning gold in the Paralympics in 2012. One of the most powerful things I learnt in my disability training course in my early 20s is that all of us are just an accident away from a disability. But we can still fulfil our potential and have an amazing life worth living.

People with disabilities are not angels and should not be put on a pedestal just because they have an impairment.  Many moons ago I did an amazing course about Wolf Wolfensberger's theory of social role valorisation. It was all about challenging the roles we put people with disabilities into, and about empowering them to achieve their full potential without these contraints. The reactions of Jody Cundy and Oscar Pistorious remind us that people with disabilities are just like any other athlete, they have their ups and down, and aren't always gracious, and that's ok. Sometimes its ok to be pissed off, whether you have a disability or not. I think its disappointing that the coverage of such outbursts by the media has been so over the top, and I think this gets back to my point, that sometimes we think people with disabilities are angels, are better than us, and should be grateful, and when an athlete like Jody loses it, it becomes a spectacle.

Humans are incredibly adaptable I was watching the high jump on Monday night. Now I have two perfectly good legs and have never mastered the high jump. To see what these athletes can achieve with one leg is truly inspiring. Their actions are each completely different, they find the technique that suits them the best. Whilst devices like Oscar Pistorius' blades or Jody Cundy's amazing leg are awesome, it's the human body's ability to adapt to adversity, and to overcome which is truly inspiring.

The media are still well behind the diversity 8 ball I think some of the coverage has been wonderful, and The Last Leg show with Adam Hills, who himself has a physical disability, is boldly breaking down stereotypes and taboos. However some of the coverage in the media has been pretty woeful. Sometimes just ignorance about the impact of impairments, or making too big a deal about the impairment rather than the achievement have let the side down. I think the remedy is to have more coverage of positive stories about people with disabilities in the media all the time, rather than just 10 days every 4 years. Practice makes perfect. But, at least the UK is trying, and the coverage is sound, in Australia they are having just 2 hours a night of highlights.

Technological improvments are not universal Looking at the medal tables, and even just the athletes parading our in the opening ceremony, it's clear that rich countries are at an advantage. If you look around at some of the wheelchairs and other adaptive equipment, some athletes are doing it tough. We need to do much better at making technological advancements made available to people with disabilities around the world, whether they are athletes or not. It's not a level playing field.

Disability isn't always obvious Often disability is hidden. The Paralympics, with its classification system, makes it clear who has what and what the impact is. But you often can't tell who has a disability and who hasn't. 

Believe and you can achieve It may be a cliche, but the biggest obstacle any of us have is in our minds, our self belief, it's not our physical limitations, it's our mental ones that hold us back. The Paralympians teach us that if we do not believe in ourselves, we have lost.  


  1. This is so true. I have been completely blown away by them. I wasn't expecting to be as effected by them as I am, just amazing viewing.

  2. The Paralympics has certainly highlighted these amazing people and their dedication - there has been an outcry in NZ as well over the poor coverage compared to the Olympics; but the positive PR the paralympics has recieved can only reap benefits.

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