Oct. 16, 2014
Wherever the Paralympic Games go, life can get easier for people living with a physical impairment. Accessibility improves, and attitudes change.
The Paralympics, which are held almost immediately after each summer and winter Olympic Games, are about ability, and not disability. They are about human triumph over obstacles and limitations, and the competition among athletes as they strive to achieve is an inspiration with the lesson that all of us can be better.
“Paralympians are fighters,” said Sir Philip Craven of Britain, President of International Paralympic Committee (IPC). “If we believe we’ve got to do something, we do it, and we do it against the odds if we have to.”
A five-time Paralympian in wheelchair basketball, Craven spoke today at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club of Japan in Tokyo of the transformative effect of the Paralympics on the places where the games are held, on the people who are inspired to compete, and on social acceptance for people living with impairments.
The Paralympics grew out of a rehabilitation program for British soldiers after World War II. The first actual Paralympics were held in Rome in 1960, and the second games were held in Tokyo in 1964. Winter Paralympic games started in Sweden in 1976.
The Paralympics became officially connected to the Olympic games in 2000.
Over time, the Paralympic movement has been gaining global recognition not simply as an Olympic sidekick but as a full-scale campaign to “enable Paralympic athletes to achieve sporting excellence and to inspire and excite the world,” as the IPC’s vision puts it.
The Beijing 2008 Paralympics had a huge impact on Chinese society, Craven said. Chinese authorities invested RMB 1 billion making 14,000 facilities throughout China accessible, including the Great Wall of China. The games transformed perceptions of people with an impairment, who earlier had been largely excluded from society.
“The games created seismic shifts in attitudes and perceptions,” Craven said. “Paralympians are seen as great athletes, not athletes with a disability. No other game in the world can change attitudes and perceptions like the Paralympics.”
The winter Paralympics in Sochi had the highest viewing ratings to date. The Paralympics are the third biggest sporting event in the world by ticket sales, after the Olympics and the FIFA World Cup.
Yasushi Yamawaki, a Japanese governing board member of the IPC, said the 2020 Paralympics in Tokyo will have a big impact on Japanese society, from inspiring young children with an impairment to compete and overcome their challenges, to helping people to accommodate themselves to an aging Japanese population.
“In 2020, one-third of the nation’s population will be over 65,” he said. “We have to help each other, and we need an inclusive society, inclusive means equal opportunity and participation not only for people with an impairment but also for every member of society. The Tokyo 2020 Paralympics will be a kind of gateway to a future society. This is a golden opportunity to leave a legacy that connects to an equitable, inclusive society.”
One more thing about the Paralympics: Don’t use the D word, Craven asks.
“Let’s get rid of the ‘D’ word, disability, drop it, don’t replace it, drop it from a great height,” he said. He has no objection to naming specific impairments – amputee, blind, wheelchaired, etc. But if you call an engine disabled, that means it doesn’t work – Paralympians prove they are able to overcome limitations.
“Paralympians don’t have time to worry about what doesn’t work,” Craven said, “they maximize what does.”