Are We Patronising The Paralympians?

04 September 2012 by

Sophie Morgan, Channel 4's Paralympics Reporter

The Paralympics was more hotly anticipated than ever before – and it has not disappointed. Sarah Storey winning another gold medal: amazing. Richard Whitehead storming to gold and setting the new world record: thrilling. Ellie ‘Golden Girl’ Simmonds’ swim(s): awesome, in the true sense of the word. Other words to describe the athletes making us so proud (and, let’s face it, weep – a lot): brave, heroic… Inspiring.

But, though they might seem like fitting reflections on the performances of the Paralympians we admire so much, for some it’s more of an insult.

For Channel 4’s Paralympic Games presenter Sophie Morgan, it’s all too depressingly familiar. She became paraplegic after a car accident when she was 18 – and knows that condescending tones all too well.

‘’Inspiring’ is a word that is banded round all too often,’ she told Grazia. ‘It’s quite an interesting projection on the person who is calling the disabled person inspiring. Why is it that you’re actually finding them inspiring? Is it because if you put yourself in their shoes you couldn’t do that?

‘Personally, I take that word with a pinch of salt. A lot of people call disabled people in general inspiring, when they’ve just done something very simple and normal. These people are athletes, and that’s what we should be celebrating.’

Paralympics Opening Ceremony

And Sophie should know. ‘I’ve been out so many times and gone up to the bar to get a drink only to find someone saying to me ‘well done’, or ‘you’re so brave’ – just because I’m out, and use a wheelchair. It’s incredibly patronising.’

But are we really patronising the Paralympians by saying they’re inspiring? In reality, it’s not like we’re congratulating them on getting to the pub. These people are amazing – and many have achieved so much despite facing more adversity than most of us will in our entire lives. They are world class athletes, which is inspiring in itself, whether they are disabled or not.

Sophie’s not the only one who’s taken issue with London 2012. Danielle Peers, a Paralympian who won gold in Athens as part of the Canadian wheelchair basketball team and still works as a coach, says that the Paralympics have been sold like a ‘freak show’. To create ‘more profitable versions of the Games,’ she says, the marketing team have ‘drawn from the specific structures, stories and techniques of the freak show’.

Advertisement of the Games has been something that many disabled people have taken issue with – especially one advert which shows a man with a prosthetic leg teaching a young girl with prosthetic legs to run.

‘Underneath, it just said ‘inspiring,’ Sophie added. ‘Loads of people in the disabled community kicked off because this was just a man teaching a younger person to run.’

So, what do you think? Are we patronising the Paralympians? Get involved in the debate below.


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