Australian athletes at the Atlanta 1996 Paralympic Games

The Paralympics and ‘Inspiration Porn’

The surprise success of the 2016 Paralympic games have given athletics enthusiasts an eleven-day patchwork blanket of enthralling sporting action. Packed with twists and turns enough to drive even the stuffiest of great aunts to the edge of their rockers, the games have been an unexpected triumph, with tickets selling well past the pessimistic figures forecasted by Brazilian Paralympic authorities. Stories of impossible feats and nations inspired by their athletes are flying left, right and centre. However, amid the adoration and heroism being thrown, voices from disabled activist groups have raised concerns over an increasing media tendency to fetishize Paralympian accomplishments.

The ‘there’s no such thing as can’t’ Paralympic ‘superhuman’ spin put on the games by Channel 4 has overwhelmingly positive connotations. It implies limitless possibilities and opportunity for those with disabilities, and doesn’t put pity at the centre of our admiration. Not only does it revel in the sheer diversity of activities that now accommodate for disabled individuals, it dismisses the idea that a person’s lifestyle is limited by their disability.

The general backlash comes from many disabled people who believe that it is actually healthier for them to accept that there are limits imposed by their conditions and that they must create a ‘new normal’. They argue that the continued disappointment of failing to accept a disability can put incredible strain on a person’s self-esteem. After all, most people don’t have the super-fast twitch muscle of Usain Bolt or the natural coordination of Simone Biles to allow us to be world class athletes.

One of the key issues with the notion of disabled people being singled out as superhuman is that it can detract from the sometimes dire situations that individuals face. It draws attention away from the countless personal and societal barriers that people living on the broad spectrum of ‘disabled’ deal with on a daily basis. Unfortunately, the games only allow the public to see a small spectrum of often the most able-bodied individuals, leading to a glossy impression of life as a disabled person.

Another problem with the notion of the superhuman Paralympian is that is reinforces disability as a terrible tragedy that must be overcome to achieve any sort of contentment. It promotes the idea that a ‘normal’ physical life is something that exists and needs to be strived towards, rather than each individual being comfortable with their own ideas about what is possible. Additionally, and perhaps rather more controversially, activists argue that this attitude gives rise to disabled achievement merely being a source from which non-disabled people seek gratification. This idea of ‘Inspiration Porn’ is that disabled people are courageous yet pitiable, and only serve the purpose of making non-disabled people feel better about life.

However, this seems a little cynical. The vast majority of people are just enjoying being swept up in the whole spectacle of the celebration. Former Paralympic medal winner Elizabeth Warren writes, “I have been watching not to be inspired, but to cheer on the Aussie team”, which seems to be a sentiment carried by the majority. In support of this, many disability activists argue that high viewing figures mean heightened awareness and celebration of disabilities in general, which benefits all of society.

Whatever the argument, all threads point towards a need to embrace disability as part of everyday life; an acceptance that the norm is different from person to person. Though the Paralympic coverage has its critics, there is little that can match the unity and awareness raised by this eclectic and vibrant celebration of disability around the world. We can only hope that the games will continue to remove the societal blinkers that sustain the stigma surrounding disability.

Image: Wikipedia Commons, Australian Paralympics

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The Student Newspaper 2016