The Paralympics are coming. This afternoon the four flames from the four capital cities of the UK will be combining in Stoke Mandeville, and beginning the journey into London for the opening of the Paralympic Games tomorrow. I’ll be watching eagerly, and not just because my mum is volunteering as a steward at Stoke Mandeville and I’m hoping to catch her on the telly (isn’t it supposed to be ‘Hello Mum’ and not the other way around?!).
Before the Olympics I had a feeling of reluctant enthusiasm. I felt that I should be more excited about it than I actually was. I think it was partly the uncertainty of whether the UK could pull off such a huge event of worldwide interest. It was almost stage nerves, on the country’s behalf. But then the Opening Ceremony totally got to me. Our athletes showed what great competitors they were, and what a passionate and likeable bunch they turned out to be.
The Paralympics don’t hold the same uncertainty for me. The excitement of the Olympics has carried through. And that excitement has been so well corralled by Channel 4, official broadcasters of the Paralympic Games. Their billboard says it all: thanks for the warm-up.
David Abraham, Channel 4 chief exec, has stated that rather than an opportunity for political correctness, “We saw it is an opportunity to change attitudes and minds about disability.” There’s also been some interesting interviews regarding the commercial reasons – or lack of them – for Channel 4 to broadcast the Paralympics, suggesting that they are expecting a “commercially neutral” end result.
One of the major strengths of the Channel 4 approach to the Games is to focus on the individuals. The UK has some top class athletes competing in these Paralympics, highlighted through the ‘Meet the Paralympians‘ spots and in the brilliantly paced, adrenaline raising TV advert, ‘Meet the Superhumans’. The promo presents the Games as exciting, action-packed and totally brutal, with Public Enemy’s ‘Harder Than You Think’ (with spot-on timing of the line “thank you for lettin’ us be ourself”) the perfect blood-thumping accompaniment. But the whole campaign isn’t just focussing on the athletes, it features the disabilities themselves. By including scenes of a car accident, military action and a pregnant mother receiving news of a complication, the promo speaks to me about both dimensions: these are disabled athletes, and these athletes are disabled.
There’s been some chat about the use of that word ‘disabled’ lately. The President of the International Paralympic Committee Sir Philip Craven has demanded that we should stop using it to describe Paralympians altogether, saying “You know what the word ‘disabled’ means. It means something that doesn’t work, doesn’t function.” I see his problem, but I think it’s a problem of context, rather than vocabulary. I have no personal experience of being disabled, but I do understand the power of words. As a former lexicographer I once considered assessing the meaning behind a word a speciality.
Words come loaded with meaning and connotations. And so for some, describing an athlete or a sport as disabled may seem to diminish its importance. Craven is certainly suggesting that it is in some way demeaning. But is that really the case? My big red Chambers describes disability as “lack of power; lack of legal power or qualification; a disqualification; a difficulty, esp physical”. So, “a difficulty”. Isn’t that fair? Isn’t it fair to say that swimming the 400m freestyle is more difficult for Ellie Simmonds than Becky Adlington? As long as both are recognised as the phenomenal competitors and athletes that they are, is there a problem in recognising a difference? I don’t think so, but I’m looking forward to watching the Paralympics coverage where I’m sure every competitor, commentator and expert will have their own view on it. I’m prepared to have my mind changed. For me, it comes down to respect – for each athlete and for the sport they compete in.
What’s clear is that there are sensitivities and uncertainties around the description and treatment of the athletes competing in the Paralympics, and the wider community of people with disabilities. And if the Paralympics garners as much public interest as it’s shaping up to do, these issues will be considered and debated on a national scale. #Paralympics is trending. Disabilities are being demystified. Comedian Adam Hills is hosting an evening talk show on Channel 4 to talk about, and even make jokes about, these subjects. There’s a Lexicon Decoder to help viewers understand type and level of impairment within sporting classes. And in a move towards the equal recognition of Paralympians as that of Olympic medallists, the Royal Mail will now be issuing stamps for every gold winning Paralympian.
So it all kicks off this evening! Maybe Team GB’s Paralympians will bring home some golds. Maybe it’ll change the way we talk about disabilities. Maybe my mum will be on telly. Only time will tell…