Last week, the 2016 Paralympics opened in Rio with enough pomp, ceremony, stunts and celebration to almost conceal the disgraceful plundering of its funding and shoddy state of the facilities. There were epic stunts, heartfelt moments and the obligatory booing of allegedly corrupt politicians.
The British press, perhaps empowered by the 2012 London “best ever” Paralympic games have been following the current games closely, but likely few American readers have noticed either the scandals or the opening ceremonies and ongoing competitions. No Paralympics-related hashtag trended on social media. Even the sports sections of American newspapers were far more interested in the Mets signing Tebow, the opening weekend of the NFL season, or the ongoing debates around Colin Kaepernick.
But Kaepernick’s decision to remain seated during the national anthem, now with the support of a number of other athletes in various sports, does show that the public spectacle of sports can create the opportunity to engage in social activism. As demonstrated by this brilliant collection of resources in the “Kaepernick Syllabus,” athletes have long challenged social and political norms either through direct action – the “Black Power” salute in the 1968 Olympics – or merely by competing and excelling in the public eye. Athletes with disabilities competing at the highest levels in the Paralympics would seem to have the potential to do something similar, to demonstrate that people with disabilities belong in public spaces, and that they have hopes and dreams that they can achieve when given adequate support. But what if no one’s watching? What if the competitions only appear in segregated spaces?
The erasure of Paralympians is not just measured in lack of social media enthusiasm and mass media stories. Vogue Brazil decided to promote the games by hiring two models and digitally removing two limbs to make them look like amputees. The caption: “We are all Paralympians.” We’re not, actually, and the real ones could use more attention. Many of them have beautifully sculpted athletic bodies that would do just fine in a major photoshoot. It’s hard to imagine an abled athlete being replaced by a model. At least they could have hired a disabled model. The erasure is literal here.
Meanwhile, even when the media does cover the games, it’s too easy to fall into tropes about sappy stories of overcoming disabilities. The typical Olympics (in the U.S. media market) loves such inspirational narratives anyway, but when it comes to disability, the tendency to write heartfelt clichéd leads about proving anyone can do anything if they just put their mind to it, no matter the obstacle, can overwhelm. It feeds into longstanding stereotypes. We – and by this I mean Western civilization and its stories in general – tend to talk about disabilities in two ways, as freaks or as angels. Both are dehumanizing, even though the latter is nicer. For example, the UK’s Channel 4 put together a gorgeously well-produced Paralympic video touting the British athletes, but decided to use the phrase “Superhumans” as their tag. Kim Sauder, an important scholar and writer on disability, discussed the ways that the ad, and “overcoming” narratives generally, erase the systemic barriers that keep disabled athletes from succeeding. They write, “The erasure of systemic barriers in favour of an “overcoming” disability narrative is misleading. It not only erases the reality of succeeding as a disabled athlete–the need for specialized adapted training and coaches who are willing to work to make those changes–but it also erases the people who don’t have access to those things and completely ignores the reasons why.”
Of course, sports do matter. Speaking to disability advocates and disabled athletes about the Games, few touted the Paralympics as particularly important to them. Instead, they wanted to talk about their own leagues and the experiences of re-discovering their body through sports. Sam de Leve, a critic of the way that Paralympic classification systems (who gets to compete against whom and with what disabilities) excludes lots of people, tells me via direct messaging, “To a great extent, the Paralympics tries to play to a nondisabled audience (can’t blame them, that’s where the money is, and they desperately need it!), but we use sport as part of creating our own disability culture, and seeing ourselves as a community with shared history and culture is important and even radical.” For de Leve, though, just playing sports has been important to creating a “more positive relationship with my disabled body,” as well as finding community. “Sports were my first gateway to disability community, and when I became more seriously disabled, having that face-to-face peer network was so important. In lots of places, there isn’t a lot of access to disability arts and culture, but a lot of times, you can find a sport team of some kind, so you’re with other people like you and you don’t have to be the Lone Crip all the time.”
Rebecca Cokley, Executive Director of the National Council on Disability, agrees. “Disability focused athleticism has almost always been a means for organizing,” she told me. “Growing up in the movement the first activists I knew played wheelchair rugby with my godmother. I mean, these were the folks who advocated for the air carriers act because they were being discriminated against in terms of traveling to tournaments.”
Who gets to play sports? Who gets to excel and be visible? The Paralympians are great athletes. The world has told them that their bodies and minds make them flawed, unsatisfactory, even worthless, a drain on society. Competing at this high level offers a powerful retort to such views. In fact, just competing, just pursuing excellence, community, or entertainment through athletics rebukes such stigma, and that’s true even if no one is watching.
But the silences and erasures around the games point out the problems in relying on culturally-conservative mass media to tell new stories. Alice Wong, founder of the Disability Visibility Project, a movement dedicated to documenting and celebrating the culture of disabled people, thinks that it’s good to see disabled people competing, but, “I won’t cheer every time I see someone like myself on TV. It’s not enough in 2016.” It’s time to listen to the disability community, both so to put celebrity athletes in the context of societal discrimination and to think about the bigger picture. Wong said, “Stories by disabled people about disabled athletes would be decidedly different (and better).”