Brave new Paralympic Games

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It was a breakthrough event for disabled people, as a people. Media coverage in the U.K. was wall-to-wall. Events were sold out. The opening and closing ceremonies showcased people with disabilities as full participants in life and in the world. The Paralympic athletes were as exciting and inspiring as the non-disabled Olympians a few weeks before.

In addition to the sheer joy and excitement of sport, the primary aim of the Olympics has always been to provide a way for nations to compete peacefully through sport instead of war. The goal is to develop a spirit of international co-operation.  Host countries compete for honour and vie for praise as they showcase the identity, strengths, history and founding myths of their nations.

Since the first Paralympic Games in 1948, the goals of the Paralympics have been different. Of course the Games are intended to generate opportunities for people with disabilities to participate in sports, but they are also intended to transform perceptions of people with disabilities, challenge the way society deals with disability and envision what kinds of communities we could create if we tried. 

Everything about the 2012 Paralympic Games was different from previous Paralympics and from “business as usual” for people with disabilities.  In the U.K., live television coverage of the Paralympics was non-stop. Channel 4, the U.K. network with the contract for the games, selected people with disabilities as announcers. The nightly wrap-up of each day’s Games featured disability humour. As is often the way, children were the quickest to pick up the message. When questioned by a TV reporter, one British child summed it up: “What have I learned from the Paralympics? That being disabled isn’t the baddest thing in the world.” Bingo. Hallelujah.

People with disabilities sometimes get tired of the adjective “inspiring” being applied to everything we do. However, Paralympians are elite athletes in a class far beyond most of us, and they are legitimately inspiring.  The physical prowess, the determination, the courage is powerful to see. Yes, we may be locked into our daily routines — studying, working and squeezing in some fitness where we can — but there are people who show us what the bodies of the most highly conditioned, trained and motivated athletes in the world can do. These bodies are flat-out inspiring. Dazzling. Wondrous. The 2012 Paralympics were inspiring as sport, but also in numerous other ways.

The greatest show we ever missed

The opening of the Olympics was a hard act to follow. Yet the Paralympics equaled or surpassed it in splendour, in energy and in creativity. From centre stage, Stephen Hawking pointed to the stars and invited us to wonder.  At the end of the ceremony, a larger-than-life white marble nude statue of a beautiful, pregnant, disabled woman presided over the stadium like an awesome goddess. The controversial statue, “Alison Lapper Pregnant,” is the work of sculptor Marc Quinn and has been famously exhibited in London’s Trafalgar Square. Graeae Theatre Company, composed entirely of performing artists who are disabled, rocked out the late Ian Dury’s punk anthem, “Spasticus Autisticus,” once banned on the BBC. It was electrifying.

Before his death in 2000, the singer-songwriter had produced a groundbreaking body of work. The song featured in the Paralympics opening ceremony has a refrain that echoes a scene in the film Spartacus. To protect their leader, enslaved Roman gladiators all shout out, “I am Spartacus!” when ordered to identify him. Dury wrote the song to protest the treatment of people with disabilities in what he calls “Normal Land.” Dury had polio as a child and was disabled himself.

Vancouver-based disability activist Paul Caune recalls that “Spasticus Autisticus” was deemed too offensive for daytime radio.  “It’s hard to know who the ban was supposed to be protecting,” says Caune, who is the executive director of Civil Rights Now. “But it’s not really surprising that they banned it. I’ve encountered in my own experience the mindset that people with disabilities should be grateful — and I’ve seen this with healthcare professionals, for example. Some people get hysterical when they encounter what they consider defiance.” Caune was surprised and impressed that “Spasticus Autisticus” was performed at the Paralympics. “It’s refreshing to see it performed at such a huge public event. I’m really glad they honoured that song.”

Co-designed by Deaf artistic director Jenny Sealey, and featuring thousands of athletes and performers, all disabled, the Paralympic opening ceremony dramatically reframed disability as a
normal and constant aspect of humanity — worthy of respect and admiration rather than pity or fear. Unfortunately, Canadian television networks CTV and CBC didn’t broadcast any live coverage at all from the Paralympics, even the opening ceremonies. Neither did the American networks. North Americans, therefore, missed nearly every part of these game-changing Games.

The Paralympics and Protest

An unmistakable note of political awareness was also unique to this year’s Paralympics. London’s Games highlighted the fact that people with disabilities are faced with discrimination and exclusion. Even in Britain, the birthplace of the Paralympics, people with disabilities are under pressure and facing unprecedented cuts to the supports and services that allow their independence. The difficult truth is that the disability movement is on the ropes around the world.

A comprehensive 2011 study of British media, “Bad News for Disabled People: how newspapers are reporting disability,” revealed that people with disabilities in the U.K. were receiving increasingly negative media coverage in U.K. media. Seeing themselves portrayed as “cheats” and “scroungers,” highly organized disability groups accused the government of using the media to heighten negative perceptions of the disabled in an attempt to soften up the public in preparation for planned cuts to disability supports.

In response, well-organized public protests by disability groups ran concurrent with the Games. Great Britain’s Paralympic athletes spoke out against the government. The Guardianpublished many of these remarks. Aaron Phipps, who competed as part of the U.K. Paralympic rugby team, had this to say about the government’s proposed cuts to the Disability Living Allowance (DLA): “It pays for the essential things I need . . . I would be completely lost without it.” Footballer David Clarke said, “It does seem as though disabled people’s independence is being jeopardized by the government’s proposals.” So intertwined with Paralympic coverage was the news of the British funding cuts and the protests against them that much of the massive U.K. coverage of the Paralympics also included the disability protests from around the country.

The London Games brought into broader public view the difficult truth about increasing dismissal and outright cruelty towards disabled people.

Paralympics on the fast track

The first precursor to the Paralympics, organized by British physician Sir Ludwig Guttmann, were held outside the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in England in the late summer of 1948. Guttmann believed that no medical effort should be spared to save the lives of wounded and paralyzed veterans of the Second World War. He also championed the importance of sports rehabilitation for their recovery and reintegration into community life.

Victoria-based physiotherapist and author Graeme McCreath marvels at how far and how fast the Paralympic Games have come. “The attention and respect is so much more,” he says. In Rome, at the first official Paralympic Games in 1960, there were 400 athletes from 23 countries.  London 2012 brought together more than 4 000 athletes from 164 countries, and the Paralympic Summer Games are now the second-largest sporting event in the world.

McCreath, who is blind, competed in the Paralympic Games in 1974 on the site of the original Stoke Mandeville Games. It was the first international sport event to combine various disabilities, and it included blind athletes for the first time. He says sport is critical in rehabilitation and adds, “Sport has shown such incredible potential to change attitudes, that’s the thing. The more open we can be, the more people see us participating out there, the more familiar sight we are going about our daily lives and engaged in things like sports, the more attitudes will change.”

McCreath remains a great believer in the transformative power of the Games and looks forward to increased coverage from Rio de Janeiro in 2016. “It is wonderful to know that millions of people in the U.K. and around the world saw thousands of athletes, including blind athletes, thriving and competing and doing just what all people do, given the chance.”

What about Canada? 

Canada has much to be proud of. We sent 145 Paralympic athletes to London 2012. They were fabulous, and UVic was well represented. UVic alumnus Jessica Vliegenthart and former Vike Janet McLachlan were there with the Canadian women’s wheelchair basketball team. Tim Rees, a postdoctoral research fellow at UVic’s School of Earth and Ocean Sciences, competed in judo. And Brianna Nelson, a UVic psychology major, won silver medals for her swimming in the 50-metre butterfly and the 200-metre S7 individual medley, even setting a new Canadian record in the latter. Beyond the UVic contingent, swimmers Benoit Huot and Ashley Mortimer won gold for Canada, as did the Canadian men’s wheelchair basketball team and wheelchair racer Michelle Stilwell.

While Canada won 31 medals, seven of them gold, the 2012 total is an undeniable nose-dive from Beijing in 2008, where we won 50 medals, 19 of them gold. Most explanations point to increased interest from other countries as the reason for Canada’s relative slide. Another problem is that only four per cent of Canadians with disabilities play a sport, compared to 33 per cent of non-disabled Canadians, according to CEO of the Canadian Paralympic Committee Henry Storgaard. Athletes acknowledge that more investment and attention is needed but also emphasize the importance of removing barriers and creating more opportunities for all Canadians with disabilities to participate in sports. 

Judging by the enthusiasm of our athletes, and building on the momentum of the London Games, we can hope to see more Canadians on the podium in Rio de Janeiro. Let’s hope that more Canadians can be in the 2016 global TV audience, too.

The Superhumans

For a world that loves high-tech gadgetry, the eye popping bionic extensions to the human body were an amazing part of the 2012 Paralympics. “Meet the Superhumans,” the hugely successful British advertising campaign for the Paralympics, intentionally incorporated a refreshingly positive tone and attitude about disability and cutting-edge technology. New prosthetics used by runners and other Paralympians maximize efficiency and no longer mimic flesh and bone. Some of the pioneering technology is sophisticated enough to replace key functions of the human body. Sleek new wheelchair designs are marvels of engineering. Seemingly integrated with the athletes’ bodies, the designs vary according to the demands of specific sports. Goalball, a hybrid between soccer, lawn bowling and dodgeball, is a delightful example of a resourceful adaptation to sports equipment. The ball in play is weighted with bells that chime so that blind players can track its location. Many athletes demonstrated inventive methods for holding, throwing, signaling and communicating.  According to Caune, “People with complex disabilities have to think very hard on how to make the most of every day — Paralympians just take that that to the nth degree.”

In world media, including Canadian media, the most celebrated athlete was Oscar Pistorius, The Blade Runner. He had competed in the regular Olympics and caught the attention of the public, not least because of controversy about whether his blades surpassed the capability of normal legs. It was suggested that if the bionic prosthetics were superior, he might have an unfair advantage. Of course, at the Paralympics, Pistorius was one of hundreds of blade runners.  That was a great thing about these games: the spread of new visuals, photographs and videos of human bodies that are not as frequently seen, and a revelation that there are many people with disabilities in the world well enough, focused enough and ambitious enough to make it to the Olympic level.  Photographs from the sporting events were extraordinary, the athletes radiant with strength and power. McCreath couldn’t be more pleased. “The more we are out there, participating and including ourselves, the more we’ll be included in the minds of the general public,” he says.

These beautiful lines from Shakespeare’s The Tempest were used in the opening ceremony and capture the parting impression of the 2012 Paralympic Games: “O wonder! How many goodly creatures there are here! How beauteous mankind is! O brave new world that has such people in’t.”