Witnessing human beings push themselves to the outer limits of physical and mental endurance in the pursuit of greatness is an inspiring, often transformative moment.
But for those of us living with what from most angles would be defined as a physical or mental impairment, the Paralympic Games can be a profoundly emotional experience.
For hundreds of millions of people across the world, pushing oneself to the outer limits of physical and mental endurance – simply to be able to function productively in a society that can often seem dismissive of the challenges they face – is an inescapable, fundamental aspect of everyday life.
The Paralympics represent this reality. They are a celebration of skill, strength, resilience and spirit; qualities disabled persons demonstrate day in, day out, without even meaning to. To see athletes overcoming similar obstacles to you and achieving greatness is both life-affirming and hugely motivating. Their accomplishments are self-validation and a call-to-arms. They’re a reminder that we do not need to be “perfect” or “normal” in order to achieve our own life goals.
Watching somebody like Lee Pearson win his twelfth medal at a Paralympic Games; or Olivia Broome power-lifting a weight most fully grown, able-bodied men and women would balk at, is a sharp rebuke to anyone who thinks having a disability is a weakness. Yes, life can be more complex. And yes, sometimes you have to work a little harder to overcome mental, physical or even social barriers. But focusing on this risks trivialising the personal battles everyone faces every day. We are all human, we’re all capable of incredible things, and we all deserve respect.
That’s why representation of disabilities – seen or unseen – in the media remains problematic. It’s estimated that 14.1million people in the UK can be classed as having a disability. This constitutes 8% of children, 19% of the working age population and 45% of pensioners. Why, then, is it that the vast majority of people we see on the TV, for example, are non-representative? What does this say about society’s lingering attitudes toward disability?
Strides are being made to improve this, of course – and credit must go to broadcasters who are taking genuine action. This also isn’t a cry for sympathy. In my case, wearing a prosthesis has ultimately proven to be anything but an issue from a professional or personal standpoint.
But I’m relatively fortunate in that life has dealt me a good hand in terms of the right opportunities, people and support entering my life at the right times. For others, society can feel like an uninviting, distant place that sees no value in what they can offer. How we’re portrayed in the media plays a huge part in the formulation of this perception. If you’re not represented in the snapshots of reality that you see, hear or read every day, how can you expect to feel included and empowered when the screen’s turned off?
Ultimately, whether we’re talking about disability, race, gender or sexuality, diversity should be cherished. The Paralympic Games resoundingly make this vital point every four years. But amazing things are being achieved every single day, and that’s something worth writing home about.