The Paralympics are upon is, but in that lies a paradox

The sweats of toil, the gasps of breath, the clash of wheels; the Paralympics will start on the 7th of September and I for one am immensely looking forward to seeing the intense spectacle of gamesmanship unfold. And I’m not the only one. Never before have I seen so much planned coverage of the games, seen so many videos of valour circling our social media and read of so many sponsored athletes with impairments. And I can know; I particpated and won medals at three Paralympics: Seoul, Barcelona and Atlanta.


As with all heights, there is the inevitable counter-balance of lows. But even I am suprised by the many complaints and occasional venomity, of impossible aspirations, of ignored disabilities and of over-hyped inspiration.

Of course I understand that sports is not everyone’s cup of tea and that all populations have optimists and pessimists, but as a society we need to be aware that with an increasing rise in disability awareness and respect, there comes a counter movement of apathy and despise, both from outside the community as well as within.

Bundesarchiv_Bild_146-1972-062-01,_Berlin,_bettelnder_KriegsinvalideTo be purposely provocative and at the risk of being scorned, I feel that as a perceived minority group we’ve had it too easy. ‘We’ have become a victim of a hand-out society where the label of disability equates to pity and care. A disability benefit is sometimes considered the ultimate escape from employment and less than 2% actually return to paid work.

According to the Organisation of Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), 25% of all persons with a disability in the Western World receive an income benefit, which equates to 1.2% of GDP. In Belgium, this equates to $500 per annum for each person of the total population. With monetery compensations came low societal expectations and as a consequence buildings were not adapted and education remained institutionalised. The potential economic contribution of the disabled population continued to be ignored and compensations have become too complex to manage. And now years later, society can no longer bare the costs.

Realising the unstustainabilty of social benefits, national governments have begun to stimulate work through various means; employee quota, smarter programmes that allow earnings on top of benefits for a period of time, reimbursement of required work-place adaptations and funding of projects that stimulate job development. All of these are intended to bring the pover 40% people with disabilities at work, closer to the 75% norm. However, much of these programmes miss the mark and are seen by corporations as means to lower costs rather than means to effectuate increased employment.

But companies themselves are starting to realise the value of having a more diverse workforce and an increased inclusive culture. As well as a positive rub on other employees, persons with disabilities can bring innovation, inclusive thinking and problem-solving techniques. Moreover, they may offer unique talents, such as the blind with acute hearing or the autistic with intense analytical skills.

And yet I’m worried that after so many years of subservience, at a time when ‘we’ can truly grab the flag, march up the hill and gain victory over prejudice and intolerance, persons with impairments have forgotton how to fight. And by that I don’t mean being the drummer boy sounding the rights, but actually baring arms and battling for inclusion in the work place.

Parents are still over-protective of their children being subject to the dangerous and cruel world outside. Given the chance, hospitals and rehabilitation will allow fresh patients to wallow in pity rather than offer a kick up the back-side. And the lack of structured curriculums on diversity, equality and inclusion means the disabled needs to develop weapons and armour against sustaining ablism.

As the upcoming Paralympics will demonstrate, the spirit embodied in the games arguably surpasses that of the Olympics. Yet many outsiders minimalise the feats attained and many insiders express irritation at the insensitive attention to handicaps. This is not illogical as the fear of the unknown breeds ignorance and only serves to contibute to the great divide. The Paralympics forms a bridge that we should cross, even if it means being pulled out of our comfort zones. We are all ambassadaders whether we like it or not. As in any population, there are winners and losers and everything in between, and that’s okay. But it’s wrong to complain about other people’s attitudes without feeling the need to contribute to their learning.