Ableism Displayed Through Paralympics’ Lack of Attention

On March 18, 2018, the U.S. Paralympic sled hockey team won an unprecedented third-straight gold medal in the Winter Paralympics after beating Canada in overtime 2–1. This was after creaming Japan (10–0), the Czech Republic (10–0), South Korea (8–0), and Italy (10–1). Yet, the historic win didn’t make front page news. In fact, many people don’t even know what sled hockey is. To clarify, it’s hockey played on very small sleds that sit on top of two ice hockey blades. The players navigate the ice using two small hockey sticks with metal picks on the end of them. The rules are essentially the same as typical hockey.

Even though the Paralympic Games have been around since 1948, they’ve only recently started to receive the attention from the media and from sponsors that they deserve. The typical Pyeongchang Olympics had over twice the number of worldwide sponsors that the Paralympic Pyeongchang Olympics did. Paralympic and Olympic athletes do not receive salaries from the International Olympic Committee and therefore have to pay their way through the games using their own money or company endorsements. Early in the Games’ history, American Olympians legally had to be “amateurs,” which meant no company could sponsor them. However, in 1978 the Ted Stevens Olympic and Amateur Sports Act was passed, allowing Olympic athletes to receive company endorsements to pay their way through the games. Yet, it still took 20 years for the act to be amended to include Paralympians.

Recently, certain summer Olympians — such as swimmer Michael Phelps and gymnast Simone Biles — have reached celebrity status in the United States. However, the vast majority of people can’t name a single Paralympian. Although Phelps is held up as one of the most decorated Olympians, with 28 total medals, his career pales in comparison to that of Paralympian Trischa Zorn. During her Paralympic swimming career, which lasted from 1980 to 2004, Zorn won 55 medals.

I believe this lack of attention stems — at least partially — from the idea that Paralympians aren’t “real athletes.” Scope, a British disability rights organization that makes YouTube videos about the awkward questions and microaggressions that disabled people experience, felt the need to make a video featuring TV journalist Sophie Morgan clarifying that just because someone is in a wheelchair doesn’t mean they were in the Paralympics. Although I’m very grateful that Scope made the video, the fact that this is a common misconception is absurd. Making it to the Paralympics means that you are one of the best athletes in the world. Although many disabled people participate in a wide variety of sports, most of us don’t even come close to the Paralympic level.

Physically disabled bodies are often viewed as inherently “less than” typical bodies. Even though having physical disabilities does mean that your body has limitations that most bodies don’t have, this doesn’t mean that disabled bodies are less valuable or worse than typical bodies. Because I use a manual wheelchair most of the time, many people comment on how strong my arms must be. My arms aren’t that much stronger than a typical person’s legs. I only accept the compliment because I know that my arms are muscular from yoga, the rowing machine, and making bread for my co-op every week — which involves a lot of lifting and kneading.

By minimizing the accomplishments of disabled athletes, we further ableism and undermine real athletic achievements. The Paralympics is just as entertaining and amazing as the typical Olympics. When the 2020 summer Olympics come around, don’t turn off the TV after Aug. 9; on Aug. 25, the Paralympics begin, and those athletes deserve just as much of our attention. Besides, table tennis is far more exciting when the players hold the paddles in their mouths.