Arley McNeney: Are the Paralympics Patronizing?

Note: In order to start discussions on our blog, we will be posting blog content about general topics relating to the Paralympic Sports movement. This blog post comes courtesy of Arley McNeney, who is the Communications Coordinator for the 2010 World Wheelchair Rugby Championships and also a former wheelchair basketball player. This blog post is reprinted from her blog "Young and Hip."

Before my hip replacement, I was a Paralympic athlete in wheelchair basketball. I won 2 World Championship gold medals (2002 and 2006) and won bronze at the 2004 Paralympics in Athens. Today, the former athlete (and current disability studies enthusiast) in me was intrigued by a blog post entitled "Are the Paralympics Patronizing?" The article (here: reflects on a survey that found that less than a quarter of people with disabilities are excited about the Paralympics. This, the blogger says, "questions the core purpose of Paralympic sport."

I'm not so sure.

First, it's tough to make the argument that the Paralympics themselves are patronizing. Separating athletes out based on biological categories has been around since the advent of sports. Boxers and wrestlers have weight classes. Women have their own teams. There are championships for athletes of various ages from junior up to masters. No one is arguing that some 50 kg wrestler should hop in the ring with a 80kg wrestler. Why? Because sport is better when people compete against their equals.

One of our fundamental beliefs in sport is that champions are not born fully formed, but are created out of hard work and dedication.  Separating athletes into fair categories allows such a principle to be carried out. If sports like boxing or wrestling did not have weight classes, the athlete who happened to be born with the most appropriate body type would overpower athletes who trained harder, were smarter or were more skilled. Allowing like to compete against like shows us true excellence, since the athlete who has done the most to maximize his or her natural gifts is the winner.

For this reason, the Paralympics as an event cannot be patronizing. What can be patronizing, however, is the way the Paralympics are represented in popular culture. Just as the lack of popularity of women's sport is less a reflection on women's sport and more a reflection on our culture's beliefs about women, the Paralympic movement reveals society's attitude towards people with disabilities. This attitude is often highly patronizing.

One of those patronizing attitudes is the notion that the "core purpose of Paralympic sport" is to inspire other people with disabilities. Athletes compete in the Paralympics to win. It is an elite sporting event and a wheelchair is just another piece of sporting equipment that allows athletes to achieve this level of excellence. When I competed, I did not get up at 5:30 every morning so that some 50-year-old accountant with polio could learn to follow his dreams. I got up at 5:30 every morning to win a gold medal. Athletes able-bodied and otherwise are notoriously bad at being role models (see: Michael Phelps) because their #1 goal isn't to inspire. Their goal is to win.

The problem is that when the "inspirational" narrative that exists in able-bodied sports gets applied to the Paralympics, it's filtered through a thick lens of ableism. Michael Phelps is inspirational because he won roughly 8 million gold medals. A Paralympic athlete, however, is inspirational because she overcame a disability (bonus points if this disability was acquired in a tragic manner) and is exhibiting hope and courage and rainbows and butterflies by just competing at all. To reduce any sport to a Hallmark made-for-TV movie is to cheapen it and the word "inspirational" as applied to Paralympic athletes has been degraded to the point that it's a dirty word.

This, I suspect, is what the bulk of people with disabilities are reacting to when they profess to be not excited about the Paralympics. Even the question is filtered through a bias. Why should one person with a disability be expected to feel a rah-rah sense of allegiance to someone else with a disability, be they Paralympian or otherwise? Why should a person who has no interest in sports be interested in the Paralympics just because he or she has a spinal cord injury or a missing limb? I imagine that by the time the Paralympics arrive, there will be a lot of non-sporty people with disabilities in Britain sick of being asked by well-meaning people on buses or in shops whether they're excited that The Disabled are being put on TV thanks to the Paralympics, in much the same way that conservative African-Americans must have gotten sick of well-meaning white people asking them if they're excited about the election of Barack Obama.

 Personally, I don't care whether only 22% of people with disabilities are excited about the Paralympics. I care that wheelchair sports are represented in a way that allows both able-bodied and disabled people alike to make up their own minds. When Paralympic sports are treated like the sports they are, we see time and again that people who love sports "get" them. A professional wheelchair basketball league is thriving in Europe not because people want to show their kids that people with disabilities can accomplish great things, but because wheelchair basketball is exciting, fast-paced and fun to watch. When a wheelchair is viewed as a piece of sporting equipment, all that awareness and advocacy and empathy stuff takes care of itself.

My hope is that in London 2012, the "I word" takes a backseat to an intelligent, honest analysis of Paralympic sports. The good news it that it's starting to happen, as more and more journalists (Gary Kingston, for example) and bloggers represent Paralympic sports for what they are. This may mean criticizing a team or athlete for underperforming, or it may mean admitting that some Paralympic sports (like some Olympic sports) are not as exciting as others. Without this honesty, however, the Paralympics become nothing more than an extended human interest story. And if that's the case, there will be a lot more people with disabilities changing the channel.