Orr (1979) claims people will follow their beliefs until exposure or new knowledge is sufficient to overcome misinformation. The Paralympic Movement is always seeking new ways in which to help change people’s attitudes towards the disabled in sport and the wider world. However it does not have the resources, infrastructure or mechanisms as yet to do this effectively. The Olympic Movement, on the other hand, is relatively advanced in the area of education dissemination and would benefit from new material and new ways of educating people about its philosophies through its Olympic Education programmes. According to Landry (1996):
“giving fuller acceptance and legitimacy to athletes with a disability does not constitute a mutation in, but rather a re-surfacing of, the fundamental values of Olympism: the promotion of mutual understanding, mutual respect, and cooperation.”
Athletes with disabilities have made great leaps forward in terms of performance and, to some extent, public perception in the relatively short space of fifty years since the inception of what are now called the Paralympic Games. However there is still a long way to go before societal attitudes and perceptions truly accept athletes with disabilities as elite sports performers. The advent of wheelchair demonstration events during the Olympic Games went some way to begin this process, but as DePauw (1997) argues the selection of those wheelchair athletes and events were based around societal views of athleticism and physicality. She points out that it is possible to view these performances and the sporting bodies of these athletes as athletic, with relatively slight modifications of societal conceptions of the athletic body. DePauw claims this is due to the fact that the wheelchair can be “used to compensate for, or see past, the lack of lower body function”, and the upper body is viewed as an acceptable “normal looking” athletic physique. Although steps such as these helped the promotion of sport for the disabled at all levels great care must be taken not to get into the situation of reinforcing a hierarchy of acceptance amongst the impairment groups. A large part of the task of gaining acceptance in the wider society lies with the athletes with disabilities themselves. They need to speak and perform from a unified platform and make strong and positive use of role models to attract more individuals with disabilities into sport at all levels. This will lead to a further strengthening of the level of competition and so steadily increase public awareness and hopefully at the same time change public perceptions of what athletes with all kinds of disabilities are really capable of.
At the same time the Olympic Movement, through its Olympic Education Programmes can play a major part in reinforcing positive changes in people’s attitudes towards athletes with disabilities. This is especially true of programmes aimed at the younger generation whose attitudes towards people with disabilities may not yet have been tainted by those of society in general. At this age they are more willing to listen to and accept other views and although this may take longer to achieve the kinds of changes in attitude I am sure we would all like to see, in the long term the effects will be far greater and more lasting. A prime example of this was the SOCOG ‘Set No Limits’ education kit prepared by a team of experienced teachers, including a Paralympian, Liesl Tesch, which was distributed to 10,000 Australian primary and secondary schools prior to the Sydney 2000 Games. This was one of the first educational resources specifically designed to give information on the Paralympic Games, its history and its athletes and an insight into what motivates and drives athletes with disabilities. The kit included videos, posters and worksheets and was aimed at children in the 8 – 15 age range. Similar programmes have been run with various degrees of success at every Games since then.
Given the close working relationship that now exists between the IOC and the IPC in terms of the organisation of the Games themselves it would be good to see this relationship extended further to see IOC Olympic Studies Centres and NOCs with Olympic Education Programmes to include the Paralympic Games and disability sport within their remit. They have the structure, funding and distribution mechanisms for this information already in place. It would appear a waste of the already limited resources of the Paralympic movement if they had to duplicate this process in order to disseminate a similar kind of educational material through separate channels when they are aimed at the same audience. What the Paralympic movement does have is the people who can provide the information for inclusion in the relevant Olympic Education Programmes. By incorporating itself within these programmes the Paralympic Movement might also increase its credibility as an area for further study and research by individuals who up until now have been reluctant to do so for a whole variety of reasons.
In conclusion then by incorporating programmes with regard to athletes with disabilities within its remit the Olympic Movement would not only bring itself closer to its own stated philosophy of uniting ALL people of the world, but also add greater credibility and weight to its own aims and greater visibility to those of the Paralympic Movement.
DePauw, K.P., (1997), The (In)Visibility of DisAbility: Cultural Contexts and “Sporting Bodies”, in Quest, Vol. 49 (4), p. 416 – 430.
Landry, F., (1996), Paralympic Games and Social Integration, on Barcelona Olympic Studies Centre website (http://olympicstudies.uab.es/pdf/wp041_eng.pdf) accessed 10/2/99)
Orr, R.E., (1979), Sport, Myth and the Handicapped Athlete, in JOPER, Vol. 50 (3), p. 33 – 34.