The role of sport in combating the different forms of ‘violence’ used against people with disabilities

Most of the forms of violence arise out of the application of the medical model of disability. The social model of disability can help us understand the manner in which disability sport can help change perceptions within non-disabled society regarding people with disabilities and, thus, negate or at least lessen some of the ‘violence’ directed consciously or sub-consciously against people with disabilities. The impact of disability sport in this process appears to be two-fold. Firstly participation in disability sport impacts upon the self-confidence and self-image of people with disabilities helping them to overcome the negative perceptions of people with disabilities that they themselves may have often been socialised into believing (Huang & Brittain, 2005). Secondly, increasing media coverage, particularly of the Paralympic Games, has played a major role in highlighting just how wrong many of the negative perceptions of people with disabilities held by a large number of people within non-disabled society are.

Sport and Disability.

Devine (1997) claims that society has a prescribed set of standards by which we are all measured and when someone’s biological make-up or function fails to meet these standards they are ‘assumed to be inferior and are subject to a decrease in inclusion in society’ (Devine, 1997; p. 4). This is equally true for many aspects of life, but in the realm of sport, where one of the key aims is to distinguish between different levels of biological make-up and function through tests of physical strength, speed and endurance, this is especially true. In many ways sport is designed to highlight and revere extremes of bodily physical perfection and, under these circumstances, it is possible to see why, for some people, the idea of elite sport for people with disabilities, and in some cases any sport at all, is an anathema. Mastro et al (1988; p. 81) claim that part of the reason for this is that ‘there is no culturally recognised need for competition and sports beyond therapeutic programs’, which in itself has its roots in the schism between the socially constructed discourse of what sport is and the perceptions of disability embedded in the medical model discourse. By this I am referring to the view of sport as a means of highlighting bodily perfection and the perceptions embedded in the medical model discourse that views disability as a major form of biological imperfection. The outcome of such a situation for potential athletes with a disability is that their dreams and aspirations can be met with scorn or derision, which can then have a huge impact upon their self-confidence and self-image.

Self-Confidence and Self-Image.

When constantly confronted with negative perceptions about their abilities to carry out tasks that most people take for granted, and also bombarded with images of ‘physical perfection’ that most of the general public could not live up to, it is little wonder that many people with disabilities suffer from low self-esteem (Hargreaves, 2000). Seymour (1989) sums this up when she states:

“the body in which I live is visible to others, it is the object of social attention. I learn about my body from the impressions I see my body make on other people. These interactions with others provide critical visual data for my self-knowledge.” 

(Seymour, 1989 cited in Hargreaves, 2000; p. 185)

This perceived fear of failure and low sense of self-worth can act as a strong deterrent for many people (and especially women) with disabilities, to becoming involved in sport. This is especially true when you consider the fact that placing themselves in a sporting context is very likely to exacerbate the visibility of the very physical differences that lead to these feelings and perceptions in the first place. However, if these psychological barriers can be overcome Berger (2008) claims that the benefits gained by participation in sport include improved physical conditioning and a sense of bodily mastery, along with a heightened sense of self-esteem and personal empowerment that spills over into other social pursuits. (Berger, 2008; 650). These comments appear to concur with the findings of Sporner et al (2009) who investigated the psychosocial impact of participation in the 2006 National Veterans Wheelchair Games and Winter Sports Clinic for 132 veterans with disabilities. Key findings included that 84% felt that participation in these events led them to a greater acceptance of their own disabilities and 77.1% felt it led to a greater participation by themselves in society.

The Impact of the Paralympic Games

The Paralympic Games is effectively the ‘shop window’ for disability sport and previous research has shown that it can have a major impact upon perceptions regarding people with disabilities for both non-disabled society and for other people with disabilities, some of whom may be inspired to try and take up sport (cf Brittain, 2009). Increasing media coverage, particularly of the Paralympic Games, has played a major role in highlighting just how wrong many of the negative perceptions of people with disabilities held by a large number of people within non-disabled society are. According to Hardin & Hardin (2004 in Berger, 2008; 650) disabled athletes themselves say they find media representations of other disabled athletes inspiring, believing that the latter model an affirmative experience of disability for people with disabilities as well as the general public. Dummer (1998) claims that media coverage of disability sport means that:

Athletes may be more likely to achieve at higher levels and to persist in sports when they receive media recognition for their accomplishments. Athletes, sports organizations, and event hosts find it easier to acquire sponsors when there is adequate media coverage. Media coverage also facilitates public awareness and acceptance of disability and disability sport. Finally, as more and more people with disabilities learn about sport opportunities, the number of participants increases

(Dummer, 1998; p.56)

For the Sydney 2000 summer Paralympic Games the BBC produced around 10-12 hours of coverage in the UK. For the London 2012 summer Paralympic Games Chennel 4, who won the right to be the host broadcaster in a competitive tender with the BBC, have contracted to broadcast 130 hours of coverage. This is a more than ten-fold increase in just twelve years. A recent Department of Culture, Media and Sport report entitled ‘London 2012: a legacy for disabled people’ stated:

A successful Paralympic Games will raise awareness, help to challenge stereotypes, and improve understanding, while at the same time raising the profile of disability sport…The 2012 Games must be seen as a beacon of accessibility and inclusion for participants and visitors alike. In the 2009 annual opinion tracker survey, 77 per cent of disabled people under 65 believed this to be a very important benefit of the Games.

(DCMS, 2010; p.12)


In conclusion the impact that disability sport can have upon the self-confidence and self image of people with disabilities and upon the perceptions of those within non-disabled society regarding people with disabilities appear to indicate a potentially strong role in over-coming or combating the different forms of violence outlined in my last post. These different forms of violence highlighted in the adaptation of Galtung’s Triangle of Violence and rooted in the medical model of disability can have a hugely negative impact upon the lives of people with disabilities. There is a growing body of evidence of the potential for sport to transform these conflicts into positive experiences for both disabled and non-disabled individuals alike.

Berger, R.J., 2008, Disability and the Dedicated Wheelchair Athlete: Beyond the “Supercrip” Critique, Journal of Contemporary Ethnography, Vol. 37 (6); p. 647 – 678.

Brittain, I., 2009, The Paralympic Games Explained, Rouledge, UK

DCMS, 2010, London 2012: a legacy for disabled people, DCMS, London.

Devine, M.A., Inclusive Leisure Services and Research: A Consideration of the Use of Social Construction Theory in Journal of Leisurability, Spring 1997,Vol. 24(2), p. 3 – 11.

Dummer, G.M., 1998, Media Coverage of Disability Sport, Palaestra, Vol. 14 (4); p. 56.

Hardin, M.M. & Hardin, B., 2004, The “Supercrip” in Sport Media: WQheelchair athletes discuss hegemony’s disabled hero. Sociology of Sport online Vol. 7(1),

Hargreaves, J., 2000, Heroines of Sport: The Politics of Difference and Identity, Routledge, London.

Huang, C. J. & Brittain. I., 2006, Negotiating identities through disability sport: From negative label to positive self-identification, Sociology of Sport Journal, Vol. 23(4), p. 352-375.

Mastro, J.V., Hall, M.M., & Canabal, M.Y., 1988, Cultural and Attitudinal Similarities – Females and Disabled Individuals in Sports and Athletics, in JOPERD, Nov/ Dec 1988, Vol. 59(9), p.80-83.

Seymour, W., 1989, Body Alterations, Unwin Hyman, London.

Sporner, M.L., Fitzgerald, S.G., Dicianno, B.E., Collins, D., Teodorski, E., Pasquina, P.F. & Cooper, R.A., 2009, Psychosocial impact of participation in the National Veterans Games and Winter Sports Clinic, Disability and Rehabilitation, Vol. 31(5); p. 410 – 418.



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