The Paralympic Games in Rio got off to a spectacular start with last night’s opening ceremony, defying recent criticism of the way the games have been handled.
There was some great entertainment on offer, but the highlight of the ceremony was surely the athletes’ parade.
While as many as 264 athletes are representing Britain at the games and the United States is sending a team of 267, some smaller nations such as Haiti, Guatemala, Somalia and Guinea, are represented by only one or two athletes.
As the Paralympic Games grow in stature and popularity, more countries are choosing to take part, which ought to be good news for para-sports at home and abroad.
While it was nigh impossible not to be taken in by the endless stream of athletes parading around the stadium in Rio, some disability rights advocates criticise the way the Paralympic Games have been publicised.
Britain’s Channel 4, for example, released a promotional trailer dubbing Paralympians ‘the superhumans’.
But, says Guardian journalist Frances Ryan, the idea that disabled athletes are superhumans implies that they are something other than simply human. It also perpetuates the myth that disabled people can do whatever they put their mind to and that failure to succeed means they haven’t tried hard enough.
Calling disabled people ‘inspirational,’ in turn, might be well intended but is another fraught issue for many people living with a disability.
What’s wrong with calling someone inspirational, you might wonder. Usain Bolt, after all, is hugely inspirational, so why can’t we call a disabled sprinter inspirational?
In 2014, the late Stella Young, comedian and disability rights advocate, gave a TED talk titled “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much.”
Her point was that disabled people are often not seen as real people but as exceptional on account of their disability and as objects of inspiration.
Images of disabled children and adults, Young argued, often objectify disabled people for the benefit of non-disabled people.
“The purpose of these images is to inspire you, to motivate you, so that we can look at them and think, ‘Well, however bad my life is, it could be worse. I could be that person.'”
The point is that disabled people are claiming their right to be respected as human plain and simple. They’re not exceptional people – they’re normal. And as Young said,
“I want to live in a world where disability is not the exception, but the norm.”