The Paralympic ParadigmHow the “Inspiring” Narrative Restricts and Fetishizes Disabled Athletes

Stephanie Jallen, a double amputee, competes in the Women's Standing Super-G. The sky is blue and clear and powdered snow flurries behind her.

Stephanie Jallen of the United States competes in the Women's Standing Super-G at the 2018 Winter Paralympic Games on March 11, 2018 in Pyeongchang-gun, South Korea. (Photo credit: Maddie Meyer/Getty Images)

This week marks the opening of the Winter Paralympics in Beijing. Running from March 4 to March 13, the global contest features more than 700 disabled athletes competing in 78 medal events. Since its inception in 1960, the Paralympics represent the only time that many people will see disabled sports represented in the media. For a few weeks, the disabled body is a spectacle, but also a figure of pride and excitement, with viewers eager to rack up nationalistic medal counts in sports such as biathlon, sled hockey, snowboarding, and wheelchair curling. Most viewers will not turn the lens back on themselves when the Olympic flame is extinguished. 

The Paralympics is a moment of fantastic visibility for disabled sports, and it’s both exciting and validating for athletes who’ve dedicated their lives to this work. But it can also be frustrating. Alongside the media interest in the event runs an undercurrent of stigmatizing social attitudes that are undoubtedly familiar to disabled athletes—and the same struggles they face at home follow them to the Paralympics. Even the person wearing gold and smiling from ear to ear is not exempt from disablism, and medaling doesn’t mean their wheelchair won’t get broken by the airline on the way home or that they’ll be able to find accessible housing

Negative attitudes toward disability start with how athletes are framed in news coverage. Athletes are consistently described by journalists as “brave,” “courageous,” or “resilient.” And, of course, it’s difficult to throw a ski pole during the Paralympics without encountering references to how “inspiring” the athletes are, a turn of phrase that sets off alarm bells for many members in the disability community. You can read “inspiring stories” or, if you prefer, “heartwarming, inspiring stories,” feast your eyes on inspiring quotes, and learn from Team USA about a skier who is “more than an inspiration.” For some disabled people, “inspiring” is a loaded word with a complex history. When applied to nondisabled athletes, this eager celebration is because they’re athletes at peak performance, pushing themselves to excellence in an international competition. But when the athlete is disabled, a fraught tension emerges: Are abled people celebrating an athlete for their performance or falling into the trap of believing that someone is “inspiring” simply because they’re disabled? For Paralympic athletes, the word carries a sense of astonishment that a disabled person could be athletic, with the inspiration stemming from the trying rather than the doing. This is akin to a simpering smile that an abled customer might offer a grocery clerk with Down syndrome who’s just trying to do their job.

Some disabled people, including athletes, have been highly outspoken about their desire to be perceived as athletes, not tokens. Understandably, they’ve come to resent the “inspirational” labeling. “I’ve lost count of the number of times that I’ve been approached by strangers wanting to tell me that they think I’m brave or inspirational,” remarked the late Australian journalist and comedian Stella Young in a TED Talk where she discussed how ordinary and boring she was, really. Others gladly take on the mantle; disabled athletes, for example, may use inspirational language in materials promoting them as coaches and speakers. Some may genuinely believe in these kinds of narratives and disability exceptionalism, while others may see them as a powerful marketing tool: “After the accident, I thought my life was over…”; “Growing up, my parents never let me see myself as disabled…”; “I thought I would never ski again….”

Athletes may be forced to make difficult decisions about building a brand identity and reputation. Leaning in on exceptionalism and validating nondisabled people’s ideas about disability can make them more palatable, and therefore interesting to sponsors and supporters. Some take it a step further: Philip Craven, former chair of the International Paralympic Committee, argued for not using the “d-word,” playing into an old disability trope that requires rejecting disability as an identity, a sort of “not like other girls” mentality. Athletes become ensnared in a mythos of performance—a tragic event, a moment that changed their lives, a heroic recovery, following a comfortable, familiar, and sometimes exploitative arc—but the presentation of that story may not always be true to how they feel.

Disabled athletes can find themselves in the awkward position of being gawked at for their disability, not just admired for their athleticism. Memes featuring disabled athletes with captions like “what’s your excuse” or “the only disability is a bad attitude” or “if he can do it…” abound. One such example that regularly makes the rounds is a photograph of disgraced runner Oscar Pistorius running with then 5-year-old Ellie Challis, a quadruple amputee balancing on small versions of his own famous running blades. Language around the image often cites it as “inspirational,” but is it because both of the figures are disabled, or because a high-performing athlete is encouraging a child to chase her dreams (Challis, now 17, became a Paralympian herself)? Sometimes, the distinction is not clear, and that blurring reflects intentionality; it remains a feel-good image when the viewer does not have to stop to more deeply consider who either of the players really is, and what difficulties they might face beyond the most basic of assumptions. Both athletes face consistent discrimination because of their disability status, but awareness of that reality would force the viewer to examine their complicity. That same intentionality allows society to discard disabled people when they are no longer inspirational; if they have nothing distracting to offer, such as a touching photograph that can be endlessly memed, they no longer serve a purpose.

The cover of the Plastic issue of Bitch magazine with the text "Get the magazine that started it all:"

The eagerness to watch the Paralympics, complete with a slew of breathless reactions from audience members, including Vladimir Putin, is usually not paired with material support for the athletes. Competitors in both the Olympics and Paralympics have to pay their own way through their careers, which comes as a surprise to casual viewers. Being a high-performing athlete is extremely expensive, and only a select few will reap significant financial rewards; for example, before he rose to fame, nondisabled figure skater Adam Rippon used to steal apples from the gym because his budget was so tight. National committees and federations may provide assistance to elite athletes, but the degree of available help is highly variable. In order to receive assistance, athletes have to attract attention by excelling in competition—and, as USA Gymnastics has profoundly illustrated, the system of support in the high-stakes world of international competition is deeply broken. 

Olympians are more likely to be able to access sponsorship deals and other funds to help them cover the costs of training and competing, but Paralympians enjoy lesser support because their sports receive less attention, and because of the fear, hatred, and lack of understanding surrounding disability itself. If they can’t sell an inspirational narrative or they compete in a lesser-known sport, securing funds can be a struggle. It’s not uncommon to see GoFundMes and other fundraisers pleading for financial support for athletes trying to get to the Paralympics or access numerous qualifying events. Disabled athletes don’t just have to pay for travel, lodging, coaching, and fees to advance their careers—they also need to buy adaptive sports equipment, which can be expensive and is highly customized, and cover costs for aides and other supports. As with other institutions, the disability tax rings true in sports: It is simply more expensive to do something while disabled. For every Oscar Pistorius (before he murdered his partner, Reeva Steenkamp) or Aimee Mullins who can access sponsorship and support, there are scores of other talented athletes who may never even make it to the slope, rink, field, track, or pool, or who are forced to give up before they reach elite levels. 

The decision to focus solely on disabled sports during the Paralympics forces athletes to scramble to support themselves, rather than building a sustainable sporting culture that encourages financial and social support of athletes as they develop their careers and pursue Paralympic competition and other high-level events. It also further reiterates their positioning as exceptional and inspiring by nature of their disabilities; when disabled people are rarely seen, they look remarkable and shocking, especially when they are engaging in sports, a field of endeavor usually associated with people who are nondisabled (note: disabled athletes can and do compete in the Olympics). The image of a blind skier whizzing down the hill with a guide may look alien, remarkable, fascinating, outlandish to viewers that rarely encounter blind people, and cannot conceive of a world where blindness doesn’t preclude athleticism. Imagine only seeing a team of 200+ pound men taking to a field to chase a ball every four years, or seeing strikingly tall women shoot a ball through a hoop in a series of heated games at the same interval; these sports and athletes might look strange or confusing because the viewer hasn’t been exposed to them, their bodies the spectacle as much as the sport. (“She didn’t let her height stop her from chasing her dreams…”; “Growing up, everyone made fun of me for my size….”)

Negative attitudes toward disability start with how athletes are framed in news coverage. Athletes are consistently described by journalists as “brave,” “courageous,” or “resilient.”

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As athletes ask for help so they can represent themselves and their nations at international events, it doesn’t escape notice that disabled people at home are also fundraising for a more immediate purpose: staying alive. One-third of GoFundMe campaigns are for medical expenses, and most fail. While not all medical fundraisers involve disability, there is significant overlap, and disabled people often utilize crowdfunding and personal appeals on social media to pay for routine care, copays, and treatments that are not covered by insurance or Medicaid. Disabled people are also nearly three times more likely to live in poverty, which means that public pleas for help with housing instability, pet care, food access, and more are more likely to involve disabled people. In these cases, their asks for survival assistance aren’t considered inspiring, though. When they aren’t performing by putting their bodies on the line for international consumption, their requests are likely to remain unfunded or underfunded. 

In fact, the culture of exceptionalism that surrounds disabled athletes contributes to the devaluation of other disabled people, though this is neither the design nor the desire of those involved in disabled sporting events. Those same inspirational memes (“if they can do it…”) are also used to cudgel other disabled people; just because one disabled person can swim very well, or snowboard with extreme skill, does not mean that anyone who shares their disability is equally skilled, just as the fact that Nathan Chen can score a gold medal doesn’t mean every Chinese American excels at ice skating (contrary to the beliefs of the New York Times). The notion that it’s possible to try harder to “overcome disability” undermines the accomplishments of disabled athletes while also suggesting that all disabled people simply need to work harder.

The underlying bootstraps attitude behind the way society interacts with disabled people asking for help—those who aren’t perceived as contributors or participants in the inspiration economy, such as the supercrips of the Paralympics—could perhaps be summed up with one question: Do you think society should pay just for you to be alive? It is one thing to ask for help with a heartwarming purpose, such as attending the Paralympics or meeting a one-time heroic need (a ramp for a veteran’s house, an accessible van for a family with a disabled child), but ongoing services and supports are a bridge too far. In an ideal world, people would simply overcome their disability, whether it be a president with a stutter or a physicist with an alternative communication device.

As commentators call athletes “brave” and “inspiring” in the coming weeks while brands roll out their obligatory Paralympic promotional campaigns, leveraging social attitudes about disability for engagement and sales, some disabled people will be excited to see athletes who look like them getting attention on the world stage. But with that visibility comes an awareness of what happens next: A return to the cold, familiar experience of being left to sink or swim, the swimmers praised for their determination and the sinkers jeered at for not trying hard enough.

 

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s.e. smith is a writer, agitator, and commentator based in Northern California.