The Other 2012 Olympic Games: See The Ability, Not The Disability, in the Paralympics

Rowing, Sailing, Swimming, Cycling: Sounds like sports you’d find at the Olympics, right? They are. But they’re also part of the Paralympic Games 2012, happening in London until September 9. Also included: Wheelchair Basketball, Sitting Volleyball and Wheelchair Fencing. A record 4200 athletes from 166 countries are competing at the Paralympics. Some are in wheelchairs, some are visually-impaired, some are missing limbs, some are intellectually disabled, but they all have one thing in common: outstanding athletic ability. Spend some time watching YouTube’s ParalympicSportTV channel and that’s easy to see.

I’ve watched the games on YouTube because NBC’s barely covered them, a move that disturbed many disabled rights groups along with those of us who wanted to see the Paralympic Games on TV, same as we were excited to see the Olympics. NBC’s screening four one-hour highlight programs along with a 90-minute roundup, a mere five-and-a-half hours of coverage on NBC Sports Network (not part of basic cable subscription)—far behind other competing countries. Meanwhile, the United States has the third largest team, behind China and Britain.

This is an improvement over the single 90-minute program offered during the last summer Paralympics, in Beijing. But it’s not enough. “Some people feel that North America leads on everything, and on this, they don’t. It’s about time they caught up,” said Philip Craven, President of the International Paralympic Committee.

The problem seems obvious, to me: Too many people think “disability” instead of “ability” when they think Paralympics. Perhaps they view these competitors as “lesser” athletes. Perhaps they don’t consider them to be in the same category as “regular” Olympians, a prejudice that reared its head when Oscar Pistorius became the first amputee to compete in track and field at the London Olympics. One sports writer dubbed the decision to let Pistorius, who runs on carbon prostheses, compete as setting a “regrettable precedent.

It’s true in sports, and true in life in general: People with disabilities often aren’t seen as the equals of other people because of their disabilities. As the mom of a child with cerebral palsy, this pains me to hear. Perhaps Max may not be an athlete in this lifetime, but he has plenty of abilities—ones people often can’t see, or understand.

It’s time we stopped thinking so single-mindedly about the wide variety of physical and intellectual abilities in our world—and what it means to be a world-class athlete. Whether you rely on upper-body strength or lower-body strength to compete in a sport, you’re still competing. Whether you shoot hoops from a wheelchair and score or you shoot standing up and score, you’ve still scored. Whether you win a race running on carbon-fiber blades or your legs, you’ve still won.

Check out the much-discussed men’s 200M—incredible athletes, all of them, with abilities most of us will never have. Max was awed, as was our entire family.

U.S. table tennis players Pam Fontaine and Tara Profitt competed in the London Paralympics. Both were successful teen athletes when they became disabled; Pam had a diving accident that left her paralyzed from the chest down, and Tara was in a car accident that sent her flying through the windshield and put her in a wheelchair, too. They competed back in the 1984 Paralympic Games, and returned this year. As Fontaine says, “I’ve never really thought of myself as an inspiration—I just feel I am blessed to be an athlete. I’ve been an athlete my entire life.”

You can bet that every athlete competing in the Paralympic Games sees themselves as a true athlete. I hope America can start seeing Paralympians that way, too.

From my other blog:

8 ways to make inclusion work for kids with special needs

Oscar Pistorius: The man who’s already won at the 2012 Summer Olympics

What it’s like to do a farm stay vacay 

Photo: Flickr/Ben Rodford

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  1. by Heather Bowie

    On September 7, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    I’ve been glued to the Paralympics this week. I think the closing ceremonies will be so exciting, especially if Londoner David Weir wins the marathon as the medal ceremony will be at the Closing. I’ve been blogging about the Paralympics all week starting here:

  2. by Todd Gowin

    On September 9, 2012 at 4:51 pm

    I’m sitting in the airport waiting for my return flight to Seattle. I have spent the last 17 days serving the athletes, coaches and staff at the 2012 Paralympics in London.

    The motto of the games was “Inspire a Generation!” I have served as a Chaplain at the last two Paralympic Games and I wouldn’t trade it for anything. These athletes are amazing! These games saw over 2.1 million tickets sold. The look on athletes faces when they walked into stadiums for walk throughs and saw how large the venues were in London. Then a day or two later the kid like reaction when they saw these venues at full capacity was priceless! I wish the NBC had picked up the coverage. These athletes do inspire… And for our youth, military and any other person who deal with a disability they deserve to see these games as do the rest of the world! My organization will do everything we can to promote and serve these athletes. I can serve at the Olympics but choose to serve at the Paralympics. These are truly some of the best athletes in the world and deserve all the praise as such.

    I had the opportunity to take my daughter and a friend to wheel chair basketball… The impact those games had on them is inspiring. My full thanks goes out to all of the athletes, coaches and staff who competed this year in London! See you in Sochi and Brazil!

  3. by Sandra Fairclough

    On September 10, 2012 at 5:27 am

    Don’t lay the blame solely with NBC I searched Paralympics on Huff Post today and the most recent entry was Sept 1 – the entire US Media seems to have ignored one of the best sporting events of the year on the misguided belief that there was not an audience for it and therefore no ad dollars to be made. The UK media covered and honored athletes from many different nations and the excellent IPC Facebook page published hundreds of awe inspiring photos every day. Surveys over the weekend on Sky News (Fox) indicated that more than 80% of the British public believe that the games have helped improve the understanding of and empathy with the disabled community and changed the attitude of the British public to disability. I live in Singapore and I saw coverage everyday. Shame you missed it…check out IPC on facebook