The Paralympics have now been over for a bit over half a week. They were a top-class event put together by a masterful organising committee that also had responsibility for that other successful major event, the Olympic Games. Australia did so well. We put together the most successful touring performance of any Australian Paralympic team in history. That performance put us just two gold medals and a number of silver and bronze behind the strongly-funded hosts, Great Britain and just four golds and a handful of minor medals behind second placed Russian Federation.
But far from the phenomenal medal-winning performances and that of all the athletes across all nations involved, the London 2012 Paralympics have taught us some valuable lessons which can be harnessed to facilitate lasting change when it comes to the politics of disability.
Firstly, London put on an amazing show, on an unprecedented scale. These were the highest selling Paralympic Games ever. That mantle looks sure to be safe for quite some time too, perhaps never to be broken, ever. Nearly all of the two and a half million tickets allocated for the Games in London were sold, that makes a huge change to the usually relatively empty stands that our Paralympians tend to have to deal with every four years.
This says that London and Europe in particular “do” disability very well. It shows that people there view disability much more favourably than the much discriminated against and stigmatised disability community here in Australia. This could be a product of many things, but clearly disability and difference experiences a much greater degree of acceptance across Europe. That’s not to say things are great over there, disability has experienced cuts as the economic woes continue in that region.
A large contributing factor is probably how the welfare state is viewed in Europe as compared to Australia. There is less of a stigma to it in that region of the world. Those who rely on it are not discriminated against as much and are viewed as needing it and entitled to it, more so than Australians who tend to view welfare, even for those who cannot avoid it, with a level of disdain.
What the great spectator turnout at the Paralympics also shows is that disabled sport now appears, at least in Europe as just as elite and requiring just as much training, skill, ability and overall sporting prowess as the “able bods”.
But far from the lessons we can learn about Europe and how they view disability, we can also look at how they were viewed back here at home in Australia.
That story is almost as positive. As I wrote last week, the Paralympic Games from London consistently brought strong ratings for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation’s digital channel, ABC2, as well as the original channel, ABC1. That means Australians were more than willing to give the Paralympics a go and the relatively consistent ratings throughout proves that people continued to be enthralled by the exploits of our elite athletes.
It shows that, as I wrote last week, the Paralympic Games have the ability to transform how we view disability here in Australia, not just the sporting abilities of those with impairments, but also how disability is looked at within the broader community.
The efforts of our Paralympians must be harnessed by disability advocates in order to continue to foment change in such a neglected sector of the community. It shows that the efforts of supporters of those with a disability may well not be in vain, that there is a positive view of disability that is growing across Australia. That growth may be slow, but it is something that can be pushed along just that little bit faster by displays such as the Paralympics. Stigmas are hard to break, some would say impossible, but you certainly couldn’t say that after the last two weeks.
Australia and the world is learning and learning fast about disability. But that means absolutely nothing if the lessons that have been learnt over the last two weeks are not actually used to further the interests of people with a disability. It would be nice if Australia could aim to be more accepting of disability than the Brits showed. You could call it the ‘Ashes of Acceptance’, since we love beating the Poms so much at contests.
The London 2012 Paralympic Games are almost over. Most races and events have been run and won. Australia has done amazingly well given the relatively small contingent of 161 athletes representing us against some of the bigger teams we are competing with. As a nation, Australia have, at the time of writing, scored a total of 25 gold, 18 silver and 26 bronze, a phenomenal haul, putting us 5th on the medal tally, happily just ahead of the United States of America. The only teams ahead of us are China way out in front, the host nation Great Britain even in gold medals with Russia but ahead on the overall count and Ukraine ahead of us by two.
At just 5:30am in the morning on the 30th of August Australian time, a total of 347,000 Australians woke up to tune into the Opening Ceremony of the London Paralympics, giving the station some of its strongest ratings ever. These relatively high viewing numbers have continued throughout the coverage of the events during the 7-11:00pm timeslot on the ABC’s digital television station ABC2. The Paralympics have also continued to be shown on ABC1 for the finals sessions, occurring from 4am in the morning AEST.
But aside from the prolific medal-winning performances of our Paralympians in London, the biggest and most important element of the Paralympics is the effects that it is having back here at home on the Australian population.
The Paralympic Games, with such in-depth coverage give the opportunity for transformative effects on the Australian population, in particular the way in which people with a disability are viewed in Australia. All too often those with a disability are viewed by some ‘able-bods’ as having little worth and something to gawk at when we dare venture out into the community to live our lives to the best of our boundless abilities.
There’s been a lot of talk in recent times within the disability community about the word inspiration and particularly about so-called ‘inspiration porn’, that is, images of people with a disability with slogans meant to tug at the heartstrings. A lot of that has been viewed by those who have a disability with disdain.
Equally too and relevant directly to the 2012 Paralympics, words such as ‘inspirational’ and ‘amazing’ have been used to excess in describing the astonishing feats of our elite athletes with a disability. These comments again from some in the disability community have drawn equal condemnation to that which inspiration porn has attracted.
Many want our Paralympians to be seen as no different to our Olympians. They are elite sportspeople getting out of bed early and often to train to the highest level in their chosen sport. They don’t want to be seen as having done something any different to that of athletes without an impairment.
In the case of the Paralympics though, is it fair to view people commenting about the achievements of our Paralympic athletes with the kind of annoyance of that in relation to inspiration porn?
Recently, our Olympians had their shot at glory and in the early days of the Games, didn’t have as much success as was expected. But then we came good in the latter stages of the event to at least gain a respectable finish.
The superlatives flew in the final days of the competition with the strong performances we recorded, particularly in events we weren’t expected to excel in after under-performing in those we were. During the Olympic Games in London the words ‘inspirational’ and ‘extraordinary’ and just about any other superlative in existence were used to describe our Olympic athletes too.
So in this sense, we aren’t treating athletes with a disability any differently to athletes that do not. We might use a different degree of vigour in describing the efforts of our Paralympians, but for all intents and purposes they’re being referred to in exactly the same way as their Olympic counterparts.
We as Australians find our sportsmen and women inspiring. Sport is so entwined in our culture that we elevate those that show immense sporting prowess to a g0d-like status. Now that might be right or wrong, but that’s what happens and that is now happening to a similar extent with the broader commentary that our Paralympic athletes have been subjected to since the London Paralympics began.
That doesn’t mean that the occasional over-enthusiastic labelling of a Paralympian’s effort hasn’t occurred during the coverage of the Paralympic Games. It probably has. But is this automatically a bad thing?
Disability in Australia, as mentioned earlier, is not viewed as favourably and treated as equally as it is in particularly European countries and in the UK as anecdotal evidence has shown over the past week and a bit. So any change in the Australian mindset that results from this more in-depth broadcasting of the most elite of disabled sporting events should be viewed as a positive.
The fact that our Paralympic athletes are now being referred to as inspirational and amazing signals at least a small shift in the perceptions of disability and it would be great if this continued to pervade the Australian political, social and cultural discourse.
It shouldn’t particularly matter how the minds of Australians are changed when viewing disability, providing that people aren’t condescending pricks when they talk to or about someone with a disability, what should matter is that the change itself is occurring.
So let’s embrace the inspirational, amazing, fantastic exploits of our Paralympic heroes, perhaps then, through maintained or increased exposure, we’ll begin to experience the change in thinking that we want to see.
With the 2012 London Paralympics getting ever closer by the day and the weekend fast approaching us it’s time to have a look at another sport that will feature at the Paralympics.
This week we take a look at the sport of Sitting Volleyball.
This variation of Volleyball has been a part of the Summer Paralympics since the event in 1980 held in the Netherlands where it was first introduced into the competitive schedule for men. Women’s Sitting Volleyball took a little longer (two decades in fact) before it was introduced at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens.
WHO CAN PLAY?
Unlike many other sports for people with a disability, the sport does not classify athletes in a variety of different groupings according to physical disability. Instead, participants in the sport must meet minimal disability requirements as identified by one or more medical practitioners who are sanctioned to determine the level of disability that potential athletes have.
The disability must be permanent and it can include amputees, people with spinal cord injuries, Cerebral Palsy and les autres (‘the others’), that is, people that do not have a disability that fits into other identified categories of impairment.
When classified, participants are either deemed to have one of two levels of disability, either classified as disability (D) or minimal disability (MD). Only two people classified as having minimal disability are allowed in a team.
ON THE COURT
Sitting Volleyball is played between two teams where there are no more than 6 players on the court at any time and no more than 12 are in the entire team.
Each team is only permitted to have one of their two players classed as having minimal disability on the court at any one time.
The players must all sit on the modified Volleyball court where among other things the net is at a lower level (1.15m for men and 1.05m for women), the court is smaller.
The game is commenced like it’s counterpart with a serve.
Front-row players are allowed to block a serve.
Front-row players must have their pelvis in contact with the floor
Defensive players can assist in an attacking move but cannot cross or touch what is known as the attacking line with their pelvis.
Defensive players in attempting to stop a ball from bouncing in their side of the court are allowed to temporarily lift up off the court past the regular pelvis rule.
The ball can only be touched 3 times before it must go over the net into your opponent’s court.
The game at the Paralympic level has an added special player called a ‘libero player’. This team member is a special defensive player who can be “subbed on” during a stop in play to replace a person on the back court. They are identified because they must wear a different coloured uniform to the rest of the team.
HOW TO WIN
The game is best of 5 sets with the first 4 sets requiring 25 points to win and the final set a score of 15 to triumph.
In the men’s competition the defending champion from the 2008 Paralympic Games in Beijing is Iran and in the women’s draw the winner and defending champion from Beijing was the home team, China.
A VIDEO OF THE GAME
Here is a YouTube link showing the fast-paced game that is Sitting Volleyball:
A change of pace now and a much needed focus on the results of our swimmers with a disability who are vying for selection in what are termed the “real Olympics”, otherwise known as the Paralympic Games.
From tonight I will publish a summary of results in each multi-class AWD event daily with a mind to getting you acquainted with some of our Paralympic stars and budding champions, people who struggle for media attention, but train just as hard and not only that, have to overcome their impairment too.
First an explanation of the results and how they work as they are very different to those for the Olympic trial events. Athletes are divided into classes relating to their level and type of disability, be it a physical or intellectual impairment.
People with a physical disability are classed from S1-10, with S1 being the most impaired and S10 the least.
Those in classifications S11-13 have visual impairments, with S13 the least visually impaired.
S14 is for people with an intellectual impairment.
S15 is for deaf or hearing impaired athletes.
S16 For those who have had an organ or bone transplant.
Athletes are also classified into SB group for breastroke and SM for medley and their rating can differ from stroke to stroke depending on their physical and anatomical ability to perform the functions of each.
Swimmers in multi-class events at the trials compete against the world record time for their classification with the 8 closest to their respective world records making the final.
In the final the 3 closest swimmers to a world record for their respective classification win the corresponding gold, silver and bronze medals.
FEMALE 100m BACKSTROKE
1 Kayla Clarke S14 1:10.44
2 Ellie Cole S9 1:10.71
3 Taylor Corry S14 1:11.09
4 Jacqueline Freney S7 1:25.22
5 Katrina Porter S7 1:26.08
6 Teneale Houghton S15 1:11.75
7 Katherine Downie S10 1:11.43
8 Kara Leo S14 1:16.20
Kayla Clarke was 12 seconds faster than the qualifying time expected of her in the S14 classification for intellectually impaired swimmers.
MENS 100m BACKSTROKE
1 Michael Anderson S10 1:01.35
2 Matthew Cowdrey S9 1:02.78
3 Grant Patterson S3 2:00.48
4 Michael Auprince S9 1:04.31
5 Sean Russo S13 1:01.94
6 Andrew Pasterfield S10 1:03.53
7 Daniel Fox S14 1:06.00
8 Jeremy Tidy S10 1:05.27
Michael Anderson and Matthew Cowdrey were over 5 seconds quicker than the qualifying time needed to qualify for the Australian team to compete at the London Paralympics.
Grant Patterson was just over 4 seconds from his world record time.