Paralympians compete in their own specialised sports landscape and do so with great pride, rather than performing off the back of a consolation of the Olympics. Language used during the Paralympic Games can impact attitudes towards disability.
Sophie Verass

19 Aug 2016 - 7:30 AM  UPDATED 19 Aug 2016 - 7:26 AM

I say ‘Olympics’, you say ‘Paralympics’ - let’s call the whole thing “sport”.

Well, not exactly.

While Paralympians have committed themselves to the highest standard of sporting excellence and should be credited the same amount of recognition as any other able-bodied elite athlete, failing to address the ‘Para’ on the field can have an impact on the important role the Paralympic Games not only plays in sport, but our society as a whole.

Despite running under a similar format as the Olympics, with the same or modified competitions played, the Paralympics - not ‘Para-Olympics’, - isn’t simply a sequel or ‘different flavour’ to the events we’ve been glued to over the last week. 

Paralympic Pride

This is the attitude of Para-swimmer Prue Watt, who says she regularly corrects people calling her an Olympian, rather than a Paralympian.

“I think it is imperative for Paralympic athletes to be true to themselves and authentically represent the values of the Paralympic movement rather than be incorrectly portrayed as an ‘Olympian’,” she told Zela.

Watt says individualising the Paralympics is important as it represents a sporting journey different to that of their Olympic counterparts.

“Being called a Paralympian represents the fact that although we are born with or acquire disability, we have overcome unique challenges through adaptability and have fought the many battles of misconceptions or assumed inability surrounding disability,” Watt told Zela.

“To represent our country at the highest level in our sport, Paralympians play an important role in transforming societal attitudes towards people with disabilities and promoting a more inclusive society. Being called an ‘Olympian’ does not align to this role or the values of the Paralympic movement and so it’s misrepresentative of Paralympic athletes.”

Australian Paralympic teammate and Javelin thrower, Madeline Hogan also corrects people and finds many tend to avoid differentiating, as they’re not well-versed in the correct language.

“I feel that people aren’t yet in a place where they’re comfortable to use the word, so they avoid it and stick with what they know in the hope not to offend. I’m sure as the years progress this will change.”

While people may not want to suggest the two Games or the athletes are not at the same level of competition, another official teammate and wheelchair sprinter Angie Ballard says it’s important to distinguish, as the pathways of the Paralympics are different as are its unique specialised sports.

“The Paralympics is the peak event for my sport, just like the Olympics is for many other sports,” Ballard told Zela.

“The resources, support, interest, pathways and recognition of Paralympic level athletes is not on the same trajectory as the Olympics.

“The thing that Olympians and Paralympians share most is a desire to work hard and compete at an elite level. It’s fantastic when people understand and support all Australian athletes, but if you want to see me race it’s important that you tune into the Paralympics not the Olympics.”

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Para-Rowing, Para-Sailing - what’s with ‘Para’?

The ‘Para’ in Paralympics stems from parallel, as the event runs parallel with the Olympic Games. In recent years, ‘Para’ has been prefixed before the name of a sport to avoid common confusion that they are the same as able-bodied sports.

Watts says that the naming acknowledges the unique variations that underpin the existence of Paralympic sport, however, some feel that the name blending further ‘others’ athletes with disabilities from being accepted in the mainstream.

“[The prefix] comes from a lack of exposure or understanding,” Angie Ballard told Zela. “The constant mentioning of disability before athlete means it’s more important to keep that label than it is to acknowledge accomplishment and effort to succeed.

“Yes, I use a wheelchair when I go to training each day it’s not because I’m in a wheelchair, it’s because I’m an athlete. We don’t say ‘athlete with ovaries’ or ‘athlete with testes’ so I personally wouldn’t mind if we could drop the labels.”

Javelin thrower, Madeline Hogan also thinks the prefix can be unnecessary labelling,

“It doesn't concern me too much. To be honest I don't really see there's a need for it. We don't call it 'able-bodied rowing'. Whether I'm missing an arm or not I'm still throwing a javelin.”

Using the term “inspirational”

In the same way that the term ‘Golden Girl’ is done to death, the Australian Paralympic Committee recommends people to avoid sensationalising the achievements of athletes with disabilities in a way that seems as though expectations are not that high.

Ballard is familiar with this use of language,

“[The language] is changing and I’m having more conversations about the content of my sport that acknowledges my athletic pursuit and its complexities rather than a basic view of participation,” Ballard said.

“One thing that still really frustrates me is that this athlete is “inspirational” for just showing up.

“The word inspirational is overused in relation to Paralympics athletes … I’m not even sure what people are inspired by anymore, especially when they don’t know my resume or who I am as a person.

“I find it can be used as a way of distancing us from others. I rarely hear someone saying that want to be like me, and I don’t mean that in an immature way, but I see people aspiring to be like my able-bodied peers. I feel so often that even though I’m an educated, well-traveled, hard working individual with many accomplishments under my belt, I can still be boiled down to someone in a wheelchair - one which is fine to be inspiring, but not to want to be like.”

Challenging stereotypes

While stereotypes and judgements are still a reality for people living with disability the Paralympic Games has played a fundamental role in challenging close-minded attitudes about difference.

The Paralympics promotes inclusivity and sets a new benchmark for what is thought to be possible.

Watt says, “It’s is a phenomenal display of ability and talent, and showcases the incredible spirit of athletes who, despite their disability, have achieved sporting excellence.

“This is hugely powerful in helping to change attitudes towards disability, and helping society to see that people with disability are extremely capable human beings who innately possess skills of determination, adaptability, problem solving and empathy that our able-bodied counterparts work so hard for. We are equipped with these skills because we use them to overcome challenges that we face each day.”

Despite performing outside of the Olympic Games, overall it’s important to remember that our Paralympic athletes are not competing in their own Games because of their limitations, but are competing on another world stage as they qualify on account of their abilities.

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