For good or for bad the Paralympics 2012 left its mark on the British public. Over 400 hours of TV coverage by Channel Four, an interesting figure when you consider that the Paralympics lasted only eleven days, and there are only 24 hours in a day, made this possibly the biggest ever British media initiative concerning disabled people. Disabled sports personalities were brought into homes in a previously unprecedented way. We were invited to celebrate the local achievements, for example a Welsh tally of 14 medals: 3 Gold, 3 Silver, and 8 Bronze. People started to talk about disability in ways that would have previously generated a bag of nerves.Of course, despite Channel 4’s efforts to de ploy disabled people as presenters and commentators, not to say as athletes, they could not resist a “Meet The Superhumans” portrayal on their pre games display boards. This shows the ongoing contradiction, and tension, in how the media, and our society, treats disability. Disabled people are either tragic victims of their conditions, or super heroes because they have overcome it. Can they be ordinary humans who enjoy sporting endeavours? However, was this blemish counterbalanced by the rivalry that emerged during the games, both friendly and otherwise? The rivalry, which sometimes grabbed the attention of the media and the public alike, may have shocked, and even upset. It did though spell out that Paralympians are people, like the rest of us.
Jo Public Attends Paralympics
I was able to spend four days going round various Paralympic events and then watched many more hours, on the TV, back home. One thing which struck me was the high proportion of spectators who were apparently not in any way associated with disability, either through personal experience or their profession. It seemed that, at last, there was a disability event which was accessible to the non disabled public. Indeed, one disabled punter commented that the British public had taken a “step into our world”. True, many people had bought tickets because they had failed to get into the Olympic Games. However, the Paralympics had become an event that Jo Public could attend.
Perhaps some of the personalities from the 2012 Paralympics, for example Sarah Storey, Josie Pearson, and Ade Adepitan, will keep a higher profile. Maybe in the future, when Britain, or even Wales, has Paralympics success, people will take a little more interest. They will now be able to connect it to the activities of September 2012. Finally, disabled children, and young people, will have stronger role models to chase after as they develop into adulthood. Social change is painfully slow, and can only be assessed in the past tense. Nevertheless it does happen, and is fundamental to our progress towards inclusion.
But What About Africa?
Everything we have discussed though, relates to the anticipated social change in Wales. This is unlikely to have relevance to our disabled friends and colleagues in Africa where, on many occasions, any sporting success would be lucky to get a single mention. The first thing we, in Wales, think about when considering disabled people in Africa, is likely to be the lack of resources, both in terms of equipment and support personnel. The truth is that, for African disabled communities, a sustainable mechanism for change may well start with a higher public profile. The basic rules of social development are the same in Africa, as in Wales.
A quick look at the 2012 Paralympic Medal Table shows that Sub Saharan African countries certainly had success at the Games. South Africa, Nigeria, Kenya, and others, all took home Gold Medals. Many African Paralympians see themselves as mechanisms of social change, within their countries, in the same way as others hope for in Britain. So often, when we see the need in Africa we become overwhelmed and forget that a little input can go a long way.
During the opening ceremony a commentator remarked on the differences in equipment, particularly wheelchairs, between some African athletes, and those from Europe, America and so on. The inequalities became clear to me in the first event I visited, table tennis. Directly in front of me I saw a game between a Nigerian and a French player. There seemed little doubt that the extra manoeuvrability of the French player’s wheelchair was a factor in the final result.
A Welsh Response
Within the context of Wales Africa development activities, disability issues often lag behind those of Orphans, Health Equipment, and School Links. All of these are very important. They appear as immediate needs, for Africa, and quick wins for Wales. A common response is that disabled people are not seen therefore how can we work with them? However, a key way in which Welsh disabled people have gained the support they have, has been by promoting their collective profile. There is still a long way to go, in both Wales and Africa, but having the public made aware of what could happen is part of the process.
Sport has regularly been seen as an important tool in the promotion of international collaboration and even development. It has also been shown to be a significant medium through which a group can raise its profile and advocate for their needs. Disabled people are often segregated because they are different. They may be identified as an embarrassment to the family and community. Out of site, and out of mind, they are also ignored and silenced. Provide a stage and the possibilities for change start to appear.
The next time the world will provide such a major sporting stage will be Rio 2016. Anyone who watched the 100 metres for visually impaired women, at London 2012, will be aware of the skill the Brazilian trio demonstrated in executing a clean sweep of the medals. They not only had the three fastest runners, but had also mastered the art of running with a guide. Practice makes perfect.
Many African athletes will no doubt return home and disappear into oblivions. The celebration and recognition that we have experienced is less likely to happen in their context. What can we do to help them raise the profile of Paralympian, and disabled people in general? The future could very well depend on them.