London Paralympics 2012: A realistic strategy for challenging prejudice?

London Paralympics 2012: A realistic strategy for challenging prejudice?

Over the past decade there have been a number of studies highlighting the extent to which disabled people experience prejudice in their everyday lives. Time and again these studies demonstrate how negative attitudes towards disability remain stubbornly resistant to change. Worse still – as the murders of Brent Martin and the ‘vulnerable’ pensioner Peter Lewis horrifically demonstrated – such attitudes all too often act as a precursor to discrimination, harassment, hostility and, on occasion, murder.

Whilst cases such as Brent Martin and Peter Lewis are thankfully rare, it remains that verbal, physical and emotional abuse are depressingly common within disabled communities.

Of all the so-called ‘hate crimes’, acts perpetrated against those with disabilities are perhaps the most difficult to comprehend. Conceivably this is representative of a somewhat paternalistic attitude towards disability. As Mike Davis points out in the recent ‘Hidden in Plain Sight’ report[1], ‘‘we are supposed to feel sorry for these people, so why would anyone be deliberately horrible to them?’ Maybe it just makes us too uncomfortable, thinking that might be the society in which we live’.

As depressing as this picture may be, it is worth considering that societal attitudes towards previously stigmatised ‘groups’ can and do change. Naturally, such changes do not happen overnight and evidently necessitate a review of existing policies, positive media representation(s), increased visibility and not inconsiderable effort from lobbyists and activists (amongst other things).

Take, for example, attitudes towards homosexuality in the UK. As recently as 1983, 62 per cent of adults felt that homosexual acts were ‘always’ or ‘mostly’ wrong. By last year, this figure had come down to 36 per cent. Of course, this is not to say that a gay man living in the UK in 2012 is immune to prejudice and hostility (far from it), but everyday hate and prejudice is more likely to flourish in circumstances where anti-gay sentiments are the ‘norm’. No doubt life becomes that little bit more tolerable knowing that the majority of society has no problems with who you choose to love.

In considering examples of large-scale changes in social attitudes, the London Paralympics presented a number of potential opportunities for changing how wider society perceived disability. Of course, it would be naïve to think that a two week sporting event would – on its own – facilitate a wholesale shift in attitudes towards disability. Moreover, the reasons that led those to so brutally attack Brent Martin in August 2007 are complex and arguably represent a wider social malaise. This requires a different and multi-faceted solution.

But this should not detract from the opportunity for the Paralympics to be a real force for change. Prejudice thrives on ignorance, misconception and a fear of the ‘other’; for children to have been able to see that for every Usain Bolt there was also an Oscar Pistorius waiting in the wings, may end up resulting in the usual distinction between ‘us’ and ‘them’ becoming more blurred.

Longer-term it may also have encouraged more people with disabilities to become involved in sport, which can only be a good thing. As Alice Maynard from the charity Scope points out, at a time when attitudes towards disabled people appear to be getting worse, the Paralympics can play a positive role in raising the profile of disabled people through increasing visibility and familiarity in everyday life.

In fact, the planned disability legacy for the London 2012 Paralympic Games includes a commitment to improve public perceptions of disabled people.

Whether this is wishful thinking remains to be seen, but it is worth pointing out that the Beijing Paralympics appears to have brought about a more progressive attitude towards disability in China.

More research is required to capture any long-term change post-London 2012 and the role of schools, policymakers and the ‘media’ is clearly important in maintaining momentum. Whilst the 2012 Paralympics are unlikely to have any discernible impact on the more extreme forms of disability hate crimes, it is not inconceivable that, through increased exposure to disability, the Paralympics will have helped to (re)shape everyday perceptions.

This may in turn lead to reductions in the constant low-level abuse and social exclusion that blights the quality of life for so many disabled people.

Paul Hamilton
Criminology Lecturer
School of Social Sciences

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Tackling ableism by being focused on our labels

The Paralympics could be a vehicle for eroding stereotypes

The Paralympics could be a vehicle for eroding stereotypes

As we near the end of a fascinating and enjoyable Paralympic Games, this event offers an opportunity to reflect on the language that has been used to describe the competitors and how they are being portrayed.

Are they seen as inspirational? Brave? Or are they put forward as extraordinary, superhuman beings?  How have the media used a range of superlatives and biographies to get us to engage more fully in the Paralympic experience and to identify with the competitors?

Take a look at the headlines that have been used recently. One simply read “Inspirational Murray calls it quits after settling for boccia bronze”; another says “Heather Fredricksen’s brave recovery earns golden reward”, while an article on the BBC’s website asks “Is it OK to call the athletes brave?”.

Clearly, there is some concern about labels that are being used.  Labels stick. They can be disempowering and they can narrow our focus by getting us to see only one part to that person. By calling someone “disabled” rather than “differently able”, there is already an emphasis on what a person cannot do.  Luckily, scientific advances and societal attitudes have begun a shift away from looking at what’s wrong with someone and has rather begun to see more of what is right with someone and how they can flourish. The recent rise in positive psychological research to uncover people’s strengths[1] is evidence of just that.

There is another reason why using ill-considered labels for Paralympians, may be problematic. The label becomes all-consuming and it then goes on to marginalise those being labelled; it creates an in-group and out-group, with the Paralympians being treated as separate and different from the mainstream.

The broadcasters – and some of the media portrayals of the athletes – may have fallen into the trap of using ableist language to perpetuate this marginalisation of differently able people. The prejudice that is inherent in ableism works with the premise that disability is a “bad” thing and is compared unfavourably with the able-bodied ‘norm’.

There is even the unpleasantly labelled ‘super-crip’ phenomenon – this occurs when those people with disabilities are depicted as having great courage and determination and are even given other-worldly qualities (e.g. the stereotype of people with visual impairments having superior hearing).

We may even find that ableism is perpetuated after the Paralympics has finished; this possibility has been considered by researchers who recently published an article in the Journal of Sport and Social Issues[2] in which they argued that the Paralympics may reinforce an achievement syndrome of disabled people needing to be a success in spite of their disability.

However, we need to move away from using the Paralympics as a means of treating disabled people as strange and extraordinary entities in the long-term. Let us move away too from just seeing a person through the lens of having a pervasive label.

For example, in one study[3] we published into the perceptions of those who had a genetically transmitted disorder known as Neurofibromatosis (NF), one of our interviewees tellingly reflected on the power that could be had by distancing oneself from a label, especially if it could be stigmatising and likely to create a sense of ‘otherness’ and separateness from those who did not have such a label.

That interviewee reflected that, “I have NF, NF does not have me”.

Let us stop looking at someone who might seem different from oneself with pity, revulsion, a sense of wonder or awe, or any other reaction that might come from spotting someone who may appear different from oneself.  Let us start to look beyond the labels and truly get to know that person and see how we are more alike than different.

The Paralympics could be a vehicle for eroding stereotypes and getting us to do just that. Let us see if does…

Dr Glenn Williams
School of Social Sciences

[1] Peterson, C. & Seligman, M.E.P. (2004) Character strengths and virtues: A handbook and classification. Oxford: Oxford University Press

[2] Silva, C.F. & Howe. P.D. (2012) The (In)validity of Supercrip Representation of Paralympian Athletes. Journal of Sport and Social Issues, 36 (2), 174-194.

[3] Dheensa, S. & Williams, G. (2009) ‘I have NF. NF does not have me': an interpretative phenomenological analysis of coping with Neurofibromatosis Type 1 . Health Psychology Update. 18  (1) , 3-8.

Posted in Uncategorized | Leave a comment

Paralympics highlights varied attitudes towards disability

Hopefully the Paralympics will help to change people's wider opinions

Hopefully the Paralympics will help to change some people’s wider opinions

The Paralympics opening ceremony was a celebration, both of intellectual and physical achievement of the past, and Britain’s willingness to embrace new ideas as it moves into the future. It was also a hymn to tolerance and diversity, with virtually everyone suggesting that this would be the most successful Paralympics of all time with record breaking attendance and viewing figures.

Unfortunately it also draws attention to the public’s slightly schizophrenic attitude towards disability.

On the one hand the Para-Olympians are celebrated, rightly, for their tremendous achievements. However on the other, the latest research suggests that many people are less tolerant of disabled people than in the past. Physical and verbal abuse is on the increase, while the government seems to be intent on cutting support for those most in need of it.

The ability of the public to hold seemingly two distinct and opposite viewpoints at the same time isn’t too surprising. After all, most people are full of contradictions. It’s what allows some people to feel sympathy for people suffering hundreds of miles away in a third world country, while dismissing people in their own city as being benefit scroungers. This is a viewpoint not always helped by the media. Far too often the disabled are either portrayed as being saintly or up to no good.

For instance Shameless, never the best show for promoting a balanced view of Britain, has a character who fakes a disability in order to claim benefits. It’s heavily implied in the pilot episode of Phoenix Nights that the main protagonist, Brian Potter, can actually walk. While overall the number of disabled characters on British TV has increased, this seems too often be a case of tokenism. When was the last time you saw a disabled actor in Doctor Who or Downton Abbey on a regular basis?

This narrow mindedness can be illustrated by the fact that when the BBC introduced Cerrie Burnell as presenter on children’s channel CBBC, they received a significant number of complaints from concerned parents, afraid that the fact that she is missing part of her arm might give their children nightmares. I can’t help to suspect that the parents’ skewered worldview will do more damage to their children than anything they might see on TV.

What we need is a more balanced view. If we’re really going to treat the disabled equally we need to see them the same way as we see everyone else. Putting them on a pedestal or showering them with pity and fear isn’t the way forward. Hopefully the Paralympics, while celebrating sporting achievement, will also change people’s wider opinions and promote greater tolerance.

Dr Matthew Ashton
School of Social Sciences

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

The Paralympics and the elephant in the room …. Classification

Athlete in wheelchair

During the 2012 Paralympics there is an elephant in the room which must be accounted for – that of Classification.

The forthcoming Paralympics will be the best ever for many reasons. The British public will embrace the Games and demonstrate a totally supportive wave of enthusiasm. This will be in part be due to a nation which relatively is more ‘educated’ in terms of understanding and showing empathy for those people with an impairment than almost all other counties in the world.

In part this anticipated success will depend upon the way the media deals with the presentation, commentary and reporting upon, the many inspiring achievements. I am sure Channel 4 will be very proficient in all these areas and carry the audience with them. They seem also to have empowered a range of people with disabilities to be totally involved in this potential process to add credibility.

Yet why are there are two parallel Olympics?

The answer comes down to one person in the form of the late Sir Ludwig Guttmann and dramatised so well on the BBC 2 recently. Anyone reading about him or indeed viewing the dramatisation of this period of his life on television will understand how single-minded he had to be to gain this ‘tipping point’ in professional and community attitudes. I was fortunate to have insight and gain from this driven obsession in 1979 at Nottingham Trent University (then Nottingham Polytechnic). We were proposing the first module on Sport for the Disabled in the UK, with however, some concerns being expressed via the local physiotherapy school – they thought we would embark upon a ‘treatment’ approach. We therefore invited Sir Ludwig up to support our application. His presentation and endorsement on our behalf to the validating body at the time (CNAA) was rather inspirational, and of course succeeded! Nothing was going to stop him from having yet another avenue of influence for his ‘sport for the disabled’.

Yet prior to his modest parallel disabled games in 1948 at Stoke Mandeville there were instances of some attempts to encourage the disabled in sport, as in the USA for example. However, what Guttmann did was to coherently link the benefits of the ‘physical contests’ which are innate in sport, with a special group of people. This cause and effect, coupled with his driving ambition for the ultimate sporting stage, became a powerful package which has now probably even outgrown Guttmann’s original vision. He therefore created the concept that sport could be transposed to a level in which people with a disability could participate in with dignity.

Whilst this significant accomplishment achieved external acknowledgement in society, Sir Ludwig Guttmann still had challenges within his ‘Games’ approach if it was to be perceived as a fair sport. This was because not all people with a spinal injury were left with the same physical abilities for all sports. He therefore found that to make contests fair within his spinal cord population, he had to create different groups for those with a similar ability. This became known as Classification and the underpinning aspect of sport for people with a disability. Over the subsequent years as other disability groups joined in – amputee, visually impaired, cerebral palsy, les autres – they also had to design levels of ability groupings for competition. Over the years these different disability groups have mostly been combined into one classification system specific to each sport. To those unfamiliar with this avenue of sport classification can often be confusing.

So for Channel 4‘s forthcoming task during the 2012 Paralympics there is an elephant in the room which must be accounted for – that of Classification - if they are to be successful and provide coherent coverage of the Games. In mainstream sport there are instances of graded competition groups for competition – weight lifting, rowing, boxing, and golf for example. But for the Paralympics this grading is applied to every contest. The whole classification area in sport for the disabled is governed by prudent evaluations – medical and technical – of a participant’s potential movement ability for a specific sport.

What most spectators will not appreciate is the ‘luck of the draw’ as to where a competitor is in relation to the upper and lower limits in a class of the adjacent classification classes. Thus someone at the top of a band, will, with their ability probably dominate those in the same band with relatively less ability/greater impairment. So a specific class/band has competitors of a range of relative ability in it, not the same potential ability. This often takes some understanding on behalf of new competitors and their families. Thus a commentator on the events at the London 2012 Paralympics will have to explain why, if there is classification, there is so much spread in ability/performances.

As well as this fundamental aspect of classification, there are other aspects linked to the classification system which can give rise to further challenges and which could emerge in the coverage of the games, as the following four examples illustrate:

1. The classification process in part has to rely upon the cooperation of the participants so it can be open to giving false impressions to the classifiers. Unfortunately some of these get through the system and cause considerable concern, including public embarrassment – as the apparent visually impaired runner did in Sydney 2000. So let’s hope there are none of these in 2012!

2. If a competitor at the top of a specific class because of a review was to be attributed to have more ability than appropriate for the class they are presently in, they would be ‘bumped up’ a class, but would now be in the bottom regions of that higher class and thus have little chance of being competitive in it. This instance is certain to happen several times during the London 2012 Paralympics. Naturally it is devastating for the competitor who may have been selected as a prospective medal winner. It is worse than an injury in the mainstream Olympics because they are still fit. It is also worse than a ‘drug situation’ in mainstream sport as it is not their fault but rather a consequence of the system. In a couple of the early Paralympics I had the press from a number of countries chasing me because I was seen responsible for this type of change – one was not very popular!

3. A further challenge in relation to classification can be that if one country considers a competitor from another country to be in the wrong class (in comparison to one of their competitors) they can lodge an appeal. This is quite unnerving for the competitor and their supporting coaches, and whilst it might indirectly act as a further ‘quality control’ in some ways, it can add ill-feeling to the context of that particular sport, whether it is successful or not.

4. Lastly in relation to classification, over the last 15 years or so a trend has evolved in which there seems to be a disproportionate number of the ‘less disabled’ being involved in Paralympic sport as opposed to those with more obvious and severe disabilities. This trend I personally find difficult to support. When for example you can have a cerebral palsy competitor achieving close to 50 seconds for a 400 metres running event or amputee individuals with a loss of a minimum area of the hand capable of mainstream sports technique, surely this is not what sport for the disabled was designed for. These are those individuals who ‘just qualify’ with a minimum loss of points in the classification system. The problem I have with this is, is that for these individuals, they really don’t ‘need’ sport for the disabled opportunities as they would be quite competitive in many mainstream club and County competitions. Also the resources they use could really be going to those individuals with greater impairment. For the commentators at the Paralympics this will take some explaining when a number of competition groups appear ‘able-bodied’.

Appropriately, a statue was recently unveiled of Sir Ludwig at Stoke Mandeville Sports Stadium. What we hope remains after the London 2012 Paralympics is a legacy way beyond that of a statue which will carry the spirit of the Paralympics into a new generation. So, as first mentioned above, the ‘forthcoming Paralympics will be the best ever’. However for the media, unless Classification – the elephant in the room – is communicated in a coherent manner when required, and possibly in a simplistic manner, so it is not too complicated, there could be some confused messages being perceived about what sport for people with a disability is really about.

Douglas. C. Williamson
Visiting Fellow, School of Education

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , | Leave a comment

Quality and quantity: media coverage of the London 2012 Paralympic Games

News stand

This year the focus is not solely on the amount of media coverage, but also the quality of the reporting.

The London 2012 Olympic Games were an amazing media extravaganza, and one which attracted record levels of viewing and internet access. Nearly 52 million people – 90% of the population in the UK – watched the Olympics for at least fifteen minutes, making it the largest national television event since the current ratings system began. Meanwhile 24 million people watched coverage on one or more of the BBC’s 26 dedicated Olympic television channels, with an audience of 37 million for online coverage, helping to fulfilling the corporation’s aspiration to deliver the first truly digital and mobile Olympics.  

It probably isn’t any exaggeration to say that the Olympics dominated many peoples’ lives. I have heard stories from friends losing their partners to the Olympics who have become self-confessed armchair athletes, devoting hours on end to consuming the wall-to-wall coverage.

On August 29th the London 2012 Paralympic Games shall begin, and whilst it won’t attract the same level or amount of media coverage, the early signs are that the Paralympics will be historic for a number of reasons.

Back on January 8th 2010, Channel 4 announced that it had won the tender rights to broadcast 150 hours of television coverage from the Paralympic Games. In addition to this the broadcaster will be utilising its multiple channels and platforms to provide what is widely believed to be the most extensive coverage of the Paralympic Games that has ever been broadcast in the UK.

This is a far cry to previous media coverage of the Paralympic Games, which has always been the poor neighbour and a sideshow to the Olympics, which attracts a significant international media presence.

People with disabilities have traditionally been under-represented in the media and when they are depicted it tends to be within the context of negative stereotypes. Existing research on media coverage of disabled athletes has however highlighted some positive changes over time. That said, certain stereotypes do tend to pervade. Athletes with a disability are commonly seen as ‘tragic’ and passive individuals, whilst studies on elite Paralympian athletes suggest that a ‘supercrip’ ideology is dominant, with sportspeople having to overcome incredible odds to conquer their disability.

I was fortunate enough to be in Vancouver in March 2010 for the beginning of the Winter Paralympic Games. I was pleasantly surprised at the amount of coverage the Paralympics were attracting. It was front page news, as well as having a significant television profile, and of course the obligatory billboards, flags and decoration around the city. This was in stark contrast to coverage back home. The BBC at that time streamed some of the content online, and had a single one hour highlights programme after the Games had ended. This was in contrast to 160 hours the corporation had devoted to the Winter Olympics.

Back to this year’s Paralympics and the focus is not solely on the amount of coverage, but also the quality of the reporting. Channel 4 have already made a statement of intent by launching a multi-million pound television advertising campaign to heighten the profile of its coverage of the London 2012 Paralympic Games.

The ninety-second advert, created by Channel 4’s in-house agency 4Creative, featured the strapline “Meet the Superhumans” and was premiered by being shown simultaneously on 78 channels. It is unashamedly hard-hitting, featuring a number of members from ParalympicsGB with a broad range of disabilities. This is one of the main strengths of the advert, making visible a number of disabilities that traditionally are overlooked or ignored, and not just focusing on wheelchair sports. Judging by the public reaction online, the feedback has been incredibly positive with some press reports describing the campaign as ‘brand defining’ as well as contributing to record ticket sales for the Paralympic Games. 

Dr David Hindley
School of Education

Posted in Uncategorized | 1 Comment

Menstruation and sports performance

The inclusion of female events in the Olympics has been slower than their male counterparts

The inclusion of female events in the Olympics has been slower than their male counterparts

Known as “The Curse” menstruation has had some bad publicity, especially when it comes to sports performance.

Rumour has it that the renowned physiologist Per-Olof Astrand once wrote that “women should not swim during menstruation because of the possibility of infection“.

This ethos has meant that the inclusion of female events in the Olympics has been slower than their male counterparts and often associated with controversy. Take the Olympic marathon; the female event was not introduced until 1984, whilst males have been running it since 1896.

So what exactly is this “curse” and how does it affect performance?

The term menstruation or “time of the month” refers to the time in the menstrual cycle when there is a discharge of blood, tissue, fluid and mucus – i.e. the lining of the womb. The term menstrual cycle denotes the cyclical changes in uterine and ovarian function, which usually occur every 23 to 35 days. The timing and length of menstruation is usually established by the age 16 and on average lasts between three and seven days. During this time, concentrations of both oestrogen and progesterone – the female sex hormones – are low.

So, in terms of overall effect on sports performance, well the jury is still out. Up until 1971, the general consensus, based on the recommendations of gynaecologists, was that physical exertion should be kept to a minimum due to an increased risk of infection. At around this time, however, the Olympic Information Centre published a report, aptly entitled “Sport and Menstruation”, wherein the author concluded that girls should be instructed to persist in their pursuit of sport during menstruation and that this was the easiest way to overcome the “menstrual inferiority complex”. Wise words indeed!

Fast-forward to 1993 and the esteemed American physician Constance Lebrun published an impressive review paper investigating the effect of menstrual cycle phase – menstruation being one of those phases – on athletic performance. She concluded that there was no consistent or compelling evidence to suggest that menstruation had a tangible effect on sports performance.

And for an opposing view, the BBC published a news item in 2006 suggesting that, based on the observation of 319 female soccer players, women were more likely to sustain an injury of the ankle, knee or thigh during menstruation. Some have countered this argument labelling the observations as an “occupational hazard”.

There is a wealth of literature available on both scientific and anecdotal evidence on this topic. My view, based on more than ten years of scientific research in this area, is that menstruation does not affect muscle strength – my slice of the performance pie.

Unbiased evidence shows that world records in the widest range of disciplines have been achieved at every point in the menstrual cycle.

You decide.

Dr Kirsty Elliott-Sale
School of Science and Technology

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

Research challenges Paralympic perceptions

wheelchair basketball

Existing research suggests that media coverage tends to centre on wheelchair sport, and thus overlooks or ignores other forms of disability.

Conventional wisdom suggests that the Paralympic Games provide specific opportunities to advance the social wellbeing of disabled people, and underpinning this, has the potential to change and enhance societal attitudes towards, and perceptions of, people with disabilities. This is manifest in the vision of the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) which describe the Paralympic brand as ‘a bridge which links sport with social awareness to challenge stereotypes and ultimately leads to equality’ (IPC Strategic Plan 2011-14). This perspective is shared by athletes, administrators, and commentators alike, who commonly cite the showcase of disability sport as a primary means to change perceptions.

In the run up to the London 2012 Paralympics, Ade Adepitan – wheelchair basketball Paralympic medallist – predicted that ‘it will change people’s perceptions of disability, and not just able-bodied people, whilst sprinter Sophia Warner states ‘[the Paralympics] will educate people and will intrigue people. Instead of disabled people taking a backseat, we’ve all chosen to put ourselves out there in the limelight” (The Guardian 21/5/12). 

There is a need however to be circumspect, to not uncritically accept the Games as a panacea, and to question whether the increases in media coverage will result in wholesale changes. Indeed a survey commissioned by the charity Scope which was carried out in December 2011 raises serious doubts as to the positive effect of the Paralympic Games. The poll, undertaken by ComRes, found that 42% of disabled people didn’t believe that the Paralympics had a positive impact on public perceptions of disability. Furthermore, 20% felt that the Games make disabled people appear second class, while 22% believe the event is patronising towards them (The Guardian 3/12/11).

The findings of the survey, along with the significant number of column inches being devoted to South African sprinter Oscar Pistorius and whether his Cheetah Flex-Foot prosthetics give him an unfair advantage over able-bodied runners, provided the catalyst for a small-scale project  carried out by two researchers – Dr David Hindley and Dr Maria Kontogianni – in the School of Education. The research seeks to examine primary school age children and comparing their perceptions of able-bodied and disabled athletes. The decision to focus on this particular age group stems from the widely held view that childhood represents an influential phase in an individual’s development, shaping their norms, values and attitudes.

Research on the values communicated about disability sport through the media whilst growing, remains in its infancy. The focus has tended to concentrate on the exclusion of disability sport from the mainstream media, and whilst it is undoubted that the Paralympics has over time attracted increased media presence, it remains in stark contrast to the considerable coverage afforded to the Olympics. The inference is thus that disability sport is considered to be different and not taken as seriously. Existing research also suggests that media coverage tends to centre on wheelchair sport, and thus tends to overlook or ignore other forms of disability. The condition of cerebral palsy, for example, is rarely ever mentioned.  

A second line of inquiry has been to examine how people with disabilities are represented in relation to sport. Here, it is widely recognised that the media reinforces stereotypical representations regarding individual with disabilities. One of the recurring concepts to emerge from the literature is that of the ‘supercrip’ ideology which emphasises the problematic and potentially harmful way that disabled athletes are framed in the media. The term reinforces the notion that people with disabilities have to be heroic in order to be accepted. There is also a tendency to underplay the athletic attributes and achievements of the individual, focusing instead on the human interest story. The stress is on the individual effort needed to overcome barriers, which often leads to a sense of being pitied or patronised.

Authors Gilbert and Schantz (2008:252) neatly summarise the key themes from the literature, stating ‘we should be blinded neither by the emotive discourses of athletes nor the enthusiastic propaganda of the Paralympic leaders and oversee the fact that categorising people as Olympians and Paralympians has a result in a binomial order where the one elite group is on the topic and the others, the Paralympians, on the bottom’.

This leads us to the empirical research which was undertaken in a Nottinghamshire Primary School. The small-scale study took place over two days, involving two classes and 45 pupils in total aged between seven and nine. The data gathering took the form of two designs. Design 1 examined individual responses using a self-report method. Here, two images were used. One featuring an able-bodied athlete; the second, showing a disabled athlete. The pupils were asked to circle a list of adjectives (positive and negative) for each image. One list was generic adjectives (e.g. confident; kind; team player); the second performance-related adjectives (e.g. powerful; active; fast). Design 2 took the form of a group-based activity, with 4-5 pupils in each group. The children were given eight images of athletes from a range of sports (4 able-bodied, 4 disabled) and asked to discuss and agree the placement of each image into one of four categories (winner, loser, honest and cheat).

The results of the small-scale study were fascinating. From the self-report exercise a clear pattern emerged. When provided with generic adjectives the primary school children tended to view the disabled athlete in negative terms. In contrast, the disabled athlete was viewed more positively when the descriptors were performance related. This raises the question whether Paralympians can only be accepted or seen in a positive light if they are evaluated in a sporting role and not in general terms? Or put alternatively, does their value diminish as soon as they are placed outside a sporting context?

The results from the group-based activity reinforced this notion of difference. Again, the disabled athletes in comparison to the able-bodied athletes were viewed in more negative terms, but what was interesting was the justification and the narrative that was constructed to support the decision-making of the group. Here, the key themes were threefold. Firstly, the notion of difference was emphasised to explain the classification of the disabled athletes, as encapsulated by the comment of one pupil: “Everybody like that is a loser”.

Second, in support of one of the key themes from the literature, there was an element of personal tragedy in the children’s attempts to understand and categorise the disabled athletes, as well as feeling pity towards them: “I feel sorry for him”; “I feel sorry for all disabled people; I bet he can’t run properly”; “He is disabled and it is a bit hard really”; and “he hasn’t even got a real swimming costume; he is quite poor; he has no legs”. Other groups constructed their own stories to explain the athlete’s disability: “he must have been in the army and he lost his legs”, or “it was winter and there was ice on the road. He slipped and a car hit him and he lost his legs; it’s not his fault”.

The third theme which emerged was the notion of personal endeavour, often seen as a means of trying to deal with their personal circumstances. In describing a wheelchair tennis player one group commented “he looks like he is trying hard; he is just trying to feed his poor family; he is poor and he is trying to win”. Another commented “he has got a disability, and he has a dream to run that has come true”.

In summary, the research project has helped to highlight that children construct stereotypes of disabled people at a young age. These stereotypes appear to support the themes from existing research, with a strong emphasis on a tragedy model of disability. Moreover, the ‘supercrip’ ideology of overcoming disabilities was prevalent in the primary research carried out with the primary school children. These perceptions raise interesting questions, as well as shining a spotlight on the media representation of disability sport, especially with the forthcoming coverage of the London 2012 Paralympic Games that will receive an unprecedented 150 hours on Channel 4 this summer.

Dr David Hindley and Dr Maria Kontogianni
School of Education

Posted in Uncategorized | Tagged , | Leave a comment