“I love the Paralympics but this time round they need to be more than just a feel-good story.” Sophie Christiansen CBE is a British dressage rider who has competed in four successive Paralympic Games. Already an eight-times gold champion, she had hoped to up that medal tally at this year’s games in Japan, until a last minute problem with her horse sadly forced her to pull withdraw, meaning she’ll be cheering on her ParalympicsGB teammates all the louder.
Post-Olympics, the Paralympics light up Tokyo again this week, starting with Tuesday’s opening ceremony. But something about this year’s games feels different. After all, the games, which celebrate the sporting achievements of disabled people, and have been held every four years since Rome in 1960, are taking place a year later than planned due to (and during) a global pandemic. One in which disabled and vulnerable people are among those most affected.
Christiansen is leading a campaign with Scope and the British Paralympic Association with a rallying call to turn cheers into change. “I want to use them as a platform to show the reality of living as a disabled person in the UK,” she says.
This is because, like so many others in the disabled community, she’s concerned that interest in the Paralympics does not translate into support for disabled people.
Channel 4 certainly anticipates an audience for the games, having launched its most ambitious Paralympics schedule yet with a high-budget promo. At first glance, the ad seems like any other piece of media selling disabled people’s lives as a sob story or the ultimate bravery, until you focus on the narrative.
Instead of framing Paralympians as “super humans”, a message that saw the broadcaster heavily criticised in 2016, this new campaign shows the everyday struggles of disabled people and, in turn, para-athletes – from making hospital appointments to taking medication, and the general inaccessibility of life, whether at sporting facilities or, for one woman, her local greasy spoon.
“So you might as well quit, if you haven’t got it,” rings out the Bugsy Malone backing track, echoed in a pointed clip of Boris Johnson saying the same – before the “super” in the phrase “super humans” is smashed right through.
Evidently, the broadcaster want us to know it has listened – and that there’ll be no more switching off the comments on YouTube as in 2016. This year, Channel 4 and More 4 will carry live subtitles. The opening ceremony will have live signing and enhanced open AD/commentary simulcast on 4Seven, while the majority of content on the Paralympics microsite will also have subtitles.
Unfortunately, the messaging that accompanies the campaign lets it down: “To be a Paralympian, there’s got to be something wrong with you.” To non-disabled people, that may read as tongue-in-cheek, but for many disabled people, it brings back memories of being taunted with “what’s wrong with you?!”
Causing an even bigger uproar online is the accompanying billboard and bus shelter campaign, which uses the slogan: “It’s rude not to stare”.
It’s clear Channel 4 are trying to be subversive here, but when you’ve grown up being told you don’t fit in, that there is something wrong with you, and that if you don’t control your disability, people will stare, these words can still hurt.
There’s also the fact that most people seeing the advert won’t have experienced bias or hate because of their disability, so to them it won’t read as “watch the Paralympics.” It reads as “make disabled people your inspo porn.” Again.
The ads have certainly divided disabled people, and that’s to be expected. Contrary to some reports, we don’t all think the same about things.
Comedian and presenter Rosie Jones is part of The Last Leg team, presenting live from Tokyo. “I really think since the Paralympics have been on Channel 4, it’s a completely different thing,” she says, looking ahead to the coverage this year.
“Maybe I’m being naive but I don’t think there’s been an ‘inspiration porn’ aspect. It’s all about balance and it’s like, ‘yeah, great, we know how we got disabled, now can we watch then just smash the rowing or the cycling.’”
Inspiration porn, a term widely used by the disability community, was first coined by activist Stella Young to describe a situation where a disabled person is seen as inspirational purely because of their disability – for example, an Instagram post showing a disabled athlete running a race on prosthetic legs with the text: “If they can do it, what’s your excuse.”
These sort of clichés ignore the hard work disabled people put in to get to the top of their game, despite the ableism thrown at them – whether the game in question is sport, as for Paralympians, or in Jones’s case, stand-up comedy.
For her part, Jones attributes a reduction in inspirational imagery to a rise in disabled talent – for the first time, more than 70% of Channel 4′s presenters for the Paralympics are disabled themselves. “The storytelling comes with a sense of authenticity you wouldn’t get if the entire team were abled bodied.”
Although what Jones says has some truth in it, much Paralympics coverage still leans on sob stories and in-depth personal details from disabled people’s lives in order to get an emotive response from non-disabled viewers. But Paralympian wheelchair racer Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, who will be commentating the games for Channel 4, believes there’s a clear solution.
“They need to show sport, and they need to commentate on it as just sport.”
“If we’re in the studio having a discussion about the politics of disability, then that’s the time to educate and talk about someone’s disability, not when they’re getting ready to compete,” she says. “They need to show sport, and they need to commentate on it as just sport.”
In something of a Catch-22, the very fact that disabled people are ignored or overlooked so much of the time is what leads people to pay closer attention when they are doing something out of the ordinary, like competing in the Paralympics, and to hold them to impossible standards.
Something that could be solved, perhaps, if the world was built more for disabled people
“If we invested more attention in creating a world in which everyone was enabled and empowered to get on with their lives, being disabled wouldn’t be seen as something to be ‘pitied’ or dramatised,” says Liz Johnson, Paralympian swimmer, commentator and co-founder of The Ability People and Podium, a platform for people who are unable to work conventionally, due to disability or impairment, to share and promote their skills and expertise.
“It’s assumed that Paralympians represent all disabled people. But just as not every person wants to be an athlete, nor does everyone with a disability want to be a Paralympian,” says Johnson. “The better representation we give to disabled people from all walks of life, doing all kinds of jobs, the more we’ll level the playing field and stop ‘othering’ people who happen to have a disability.”
Now more than ever, the Paralympics wants to champion sporting excellence while using its legacy to draw attention to the lives of disabled people – but how big a burden is this on an event that happens only once every four years?
“We can’t expect the Paralympics to do everything. If we wait for the Paralympic movement to raise the bar, it’s never going to raise,” says Grey-Thompson. “We need government and other people to raise the bar. If you just let the Paralympic movement do it, it means government don’t have to take any responsibility.”
London 2012 was widely seen as a high water mark for disabled visibility, with the Paralympic events as packed as their Olympic equivalents. But by no means was it ‘job done’ for equality.
“Yes, 2012 changed the world for disabled people, but, it didn’t stop, “do not attempt resuscitation” orders being put on 1000s of disabled people last year. It hasn’t changed hate crime doubling against disabled children since 2012. It didn’t change my ability to get on the Northern line,” Grey-Thompson adds.
Mike Sharrock, chief executive of ParalympicsGB, sees the urgency of this moment. “Following the disproportionate impact of Covid-19 on so many disabled people, we now believe more than ever that the success of ParalympicsGB must be a catalyst for meaningful, long-term action,” he says.
“Athletes are powerful advocates to turn the nation’s cheers into change and those medals into a UK-wide movement. The Paralympics might only be four weeks every four years but the message from disabled campaigners and Paralympians alike is clear – we won’t be forgotten when the Paralympics end.”
Ultimately, the International Paralympic Committee, the British Paralympic Association and Channel 4 aren’t the ones in power. We can hold them to account for the ways they portray disabled people, but we can’t expect them to enact meaningful change in our lives. For that, we need to lobby government and, disabled or non-disabled, we can all play our part.
“My concern is the after-care and how quickly people go back to their normal lives and they forget about disabled people,” says Rosie Jones, summing it up. “We’re at a point now as a country where we’re just as excited for the Paralympics as the Olympics, but we shouldn’t be grateful that for four weeks, we’re equal to abled-bodied people. That should be happening all the time.”
This article was edited on August 22 to include Sophie Christiansen’s late withdrawal from the Paralympics competition.