Disabled by society: Paralympians face challenges beyond the field

Disabled by society: Paralympians face challenges beyond the field

Episode 72: Disabled by society: Paralympians face challenges beyond the field

Released: November 2017

Partners: Dr Erin O’Brien – Queensland University of Technology

Understanding the different models of disability and their relevance to sport and physical activity is important. It’s important because it provides a framework to look at ways in which sport and physical activity can be adapted to suit individual needs. In this article, first published in The Conversation in 2012, Erin O’Brien provides an overview of models of disability and their relevance to sport and physical activity.

Australians love a good sports story about a hero overcoming adversity. Track cyclist Anna Meares’ gold medal in London was all the more impressive given her recovery from a life-threatening neck injury she sustained just four years earlier. Perhaps it is this message of triumph over adversity which also captures the imagination during the Paralympic Games.

Paralympic athletes demonstrate feats of superhuman strength, not just after an injury, but in spite of a disability. But alongside this celebration of exceptional ability, there must also be a reflection on our worst disability – the way in which our society disables people.

A social theory of disability

Disability activists have long argued that individuals are disabled not by physical or intellectual impairments, but by a society that does not accommodate difference. In other words, a wheelchair user is not “disabled” by a spinal cord injury, but by building planners who fail to provide wheelchair access.

The challenge to a medical model of disability, in which people are perceived to be disabled by impairments alone, was largely pioneered in the United Kingdom by the Union of Physically Impaired Against Segregation (UPIAS), and disability activist Michael Oliver in his groundbreaking work The Politics of Disablement.

Oliver argued that a “personal tragedy theory”, which locates disability in the impairments of individuals, should be rejected. Instead, disability should be understood through a “social oppression theory” where disability is seen to be caused by society’s inadequate responses to impairment.

A social theory of disability is also favoured in many Scandinavian countries, where disability is typically understood as the result of a disconnect between the individual and their environment, or the individual and their situation.

Norwegian sociologist Jan Tossebro points to examples of people with a disability who may not be disabled in specific contexts. A deaf person is not disabled in a place where everyone speaks sign language. A person with a visual impairment is not disabled when using the telephone.

In adopting this social understanding of disability, it could be argued that a visually impaired athlete is thus not disabled when competing against other visually impaired people in the popular Paralympic sport goalball (see video below).

But despite removing disabling factors in some ways, the Paralympic Games can also undermine efforts to view disability as a societal, rather than an individual, problem.

Attitudinal hurdles

UK broadcaster Channel 4’s promotional campaign for the Paralympic Games, Meet the Superhumans, is a refreshing departure from the pity lens through which disability sports is often viewed. But while the advertisements can be congratulated for their focus on achievement, the campaign website persists in naming the impairment of each competitor, individualising their disability.

Prominent British disability academic Tom Shakespeare warns against divorcing an individual’s experience of impairment from a wider social understanding of disability. Certainly the success of Paralympians owes much more to a personal journey than a societal transformation.

However, a medicalisation of athletes’ experiences is in part a result of the Games themselves, which group participants according to medical definitions of impairment.

Categories such as T40-46 (for a track athlete with a loss of limb or limb deficiency) or S11-13 (for swimmers with a visual impairment), are used in an effort to ensure a level playing field for athletes in each event. But they can also result in damaging debates about what is “normal”.

Some athletes have been excluded from certain sports at the Paralympic Games because they are deemed “not disabled enough”. Others, such as the famous “Blade Runner” Oscar Pistorius, are charged with receiving an unfair advantage through the use of prosthetic limbs.

The initial exclusion of Pistorius from eligibility for the Summer Olympic Games in 2008 was the result of a farcical debate over what could be considered a “normal” level of achievement for an “able-bodied” man. This is despite the fact all Olympians regularly exceed any “normal” expectations.

Focusing on the technology Pistorius uses to compete, rather than on his abilities as an athlete, demonstrates a reluctance to move beyond traditional understandings of what a normal athlete’s body should look like.

In the quest to achieve personal best, people with a disability have overcome many technological barriers, only to be faced with attitudinal ones. The ultimate inclusion of Pistorius in the Summer Olympic Games shows some attitudes are changing.

But achievement in and outside of the sporting arena is still measured according to what an “able-bodied” man or woman can do.

“Social apartheid”?

Gerard Goggin and Christopher Newell argue in their book Disability in Australia: Exposing a Social Apartheid that a dominant understanding of what is normal has created a “social apartheid” and inequality in work and home life.

People with a disability are faced with workplaces which do not support those who work differently, public spaces which reject those who look different, and social norms which shame those who communicate differently.

Embracing a social theory of disability requires a large scale rethinking of not just physically disabling structures, but also of social spaces and workplace environments, in order to challenge the assumption that “normal” even exists.

The ConversationDeconstructing the ways in which our society disables people does not end with buildings that have wheelchair access. But it can at least begin with a recognition that Paralympians, like all Olympians, are exceptional athletes, to whom the measure of “normal” can never be applied.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


The Inclusion Club is a non-profit health promotion charity – if you like this episode you can help us out with a donation – thanks, it all helps keep The Inclusion Club going!

About the author: Erin O'Biren

About the author: Erin O'Biren

Lecturer Faculty of Law, School of Justice, Queensland University of Technology

Dr Erin O’Brien is a Senior Lecturer in the School of Justice, Faculty of Law, at the Queensland University of Technology, where she teaches and researches in the areas of politics and social justice. Dr O’Brien is the lead author of ‘The Politics of Sex Trafficking: a moral geography’ and co-editor of ‘Crime, Justice and Social Democracy: international perspectives’. She has a wide variety of research interests that include disability and politics.

The Diabetes Football Community

The Diabetes Football Community

Episode 71: The Diabetes Football Community

Released: August 2017

Partners: Chris Bright – The Diabetes Football Community

Created in February 2017, The Diabetes Football Community has been developed to support the needs of diabetics who share a passion for football. Chris Bright is the founder of the Diabetes Football Community and is a type 1 Diabetic who was diagnosed with the condition at the age of 8, in 1999. The Diabetes Football Community believes in providing diabetics throughout society with a peer support network that deals with first hand experiences, that help to deliver further understanding and enjoyment from football for people with the condition.

Networks can be powerful things. The Inclusion Club is an example of an international online network of people with a common interest. We share stuff. We collaborate and good things happen.

Chris Bright is someone who also believes in the power of networks. So much so that he went ahead and created one specifically in his area of passion – football. Chris was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes at the age of 8. He went onto play futsal for Wales. So he had to cope. He had to find ways to manage the condition and pursue his ambitions as a footballer.

He’s seen huge developments in the care for diabetics in that time but he always felt that peer support was something that could enhance his experience. In early 2017 he decided that it was time to change that and develop a support community which fills the void he always felt was missing.

Hence, the Diabetes Football Community was born.

If you take a look at the website you’ll see blog posts on ‘Type 1 Diabetes: A disability or not? How do you identify with it?’ and ‘The Psychology of a Diabetic Footballer’ and ‘Tips for Exercising with Type 1 Diabetes’. It’s all great work and intended to give users information, resources and support to help manage the condition while playing football.

I recently caught up with Chris via Skype to talk about The Diabetes Football Community. It’s the best way to learn about his excellent work.

You can see what a terrific initiative The Diabetes Football Community is.

Chris obviously knows a lot about exercise and diabetes. The tips below are taken from one of Chris’s blog posts and are applicable for all types of exercise  – just that Chris’s passion is for football.

Chris’s top 5 tips for exercising with type 1 diabetes

1. Testing

Testing is obviously vital to keeping diabetes under control but it becomes even more important when you’re trying to exercise. By increasing the number of checks you do before, during and after your exercise, the more likely you are to catch potential hypos or hypers which may creep up on you as a result of the exercise you’ve undertaken.

Tip – I test as often as I can, because ultimately I want to be able to enjoy my exercise and avoid any complications, so if I can spot a trend in my blood glucose early enough and use the appropriate treatment to correct it, I’m more likely to have fun. It’s vital to ensure you remain in a safe range to allow you to perform to the best of your ability; remain safe and most importantly, enjoy it!

2. Treatments

It’s so important to be well prepared with your treatments. Since I was a teenager I’ve carried around dextrose tablets in my pocket regardless of whether I’m playing sport or not in case I was hit with a hypo. It’s not just about hypos though as hypers can occur around exercise, so being able to administer insulin should your levels increase is also a vitally important treatment. You have to be careful you don’t overdo either a hypo or hyper treatment as you don’t want to move towards the other extremity, but ensuring you have your treatments easily accessible to you will hopefully make any precarious situations easier to avoid.

Tip – My go to hypo treatment is Lucozade sport as it’s an isotonic drink which ensures uptake is quicker, whilst it’s not as glucose rich as a can of coke, ensuring I don’t over treat my hypo and run with high glucose levels (Half a bottle normally sorts things out pretty quickly!). Whilst my hyper treatment is normally dependent on how high my levels are and the intensity of exercise, so it’s good to have an understanding of the expected outcome for your glucose levels as a result of the type of exercise. You can then use your insulin dose appropriately.

3. Routine / Preparation

“Fail to prepare, prepare to Fail!” This famous quote is never more apparent than with Diabetes control around sport. If you think you can just turn up, throw your bag down and have a swig of water before you start running around you’re so wrong and you will undoubtedly, in my opinion, suffer regularly with hypos and hypers during exercise.

Tip – For many years I’ve been preparing for games the night before, through the consumption of carbohydrate rich food and trying my best to keep my levels stable. I then would undertake the same morning breakfast and lunch on every single game day to ensure my levels were as predictable as possible to help with managing the game. I’ve used beans on toast as a regular meal prior to a game and tried to ensure my insulin was taken 2.5 – 3 hours prior to a game kicking off, to avoid insulin peaks. Everyone will be different and approaches will need to change for the timing of exercise but the key is to find a routine which you’ve found successful in getting your glucose levels within range, which allows you to enjoy the exercise and get the best from your body.

Diabetes Team

4. Post Exercise Nutrition/Preparation

The hours after a period of exercise, can cause you trouble. You’ve enjoyed a 2 hour session in the gym or a game of football and your levels were absolutely fine throughout it but you’ve now been hit with a hypo 3 hours later! The General rule is the longer the exercise or more intense it is, the more likely this is to happen (Very general!), so you need to take steps in order to avoid it happening.

Tip – You should eat a carbohydrate and protein fuelled meal post exercise, whilst reducing your normal carbohydrate ratio for dosing to help counteract this drop, but by how much should be your decision. It’s a phenomenon known to most sporty diabetics which if you prepare for and seek advice should alleviate the concern around post-exercise and night time hypos.

5. Mindset

I can’t stress this one enough. You can’t and won’t get your blood glucose levels right every single time you exercise, so please don’t think any of us do! Be prepared for it to go wrong and treat it, but don’t get disheartened by your inability to get it right 100% of the time. Identify the reasons why you think it might have gone wrong, learn from the mistakes and ensure the next time you come to exercise you’ve adapted. Exercise can add so much value to your life that it would be a shame to give up or reduce the number of times you do it, because it went wrong with your levels a few times. Remain positive and seek help! There’s no doubting that exercise is an important factor in diabetes control and has huge health benefits.

Tip – There are so many great resources and people with knowledge to support in the #GBdoc on Twitter, The Diabetes Football Community is something I provide support on, whilst runsweet.com or forums like diabetes.co.uk can support and guide you if you need it. Social support can be invaluable in encouragement and guidance surrounding exercise.


We know very well what a challenge it is to develop and maintain a network in the way Chris has set out to do. He deserves a lot of support so why not pop over to the website, leave a comment, share and support for the Diabetes Football Community.


The Inclusion Club is a non-profit health promotion charity – if you like this episode you can help us out with a donation – thanks, it all helps keep The Inclusion Club going!

About the author: Peter Downs

About the author: Peter Downs

Founding Director - The Inclusion Club

Peter is Founding Director of The Inclusion Club and Manager of Play by the Rules – a national initiative to promote safe, fair and inclusive sport. Peter has worked for over 25 years in the field of inclusive sport, disability sport and physical activity including 17 years managing the Australian Sports Commission’s Disability Sport Unit.  In 2013 Peter was fortunate enough to receive a Churchill Fellowship to study models of best practice in inclusive sport and physical activity.

Me Too – Listening to the voices of people with disability

Me Too – Listening to the voices of people with disability

Episode 70: Me Too – Listening to the voices of people with disability

Released: July 2017

Following our previous episode – My Voice – this episode focuses on a campaign that is all about listening to the voices of people with disabilities themselves to hear what sports and physical activity means to them in their lives. It’s a campaign driven by CARA in Ireland and was launched by Irish Paralympian Jason Smyth last December. They launched the campaign by releasing 5 multimedia videos, of 5 ‘Me Too’ Ambassadors explaining in their own words what impact has had on their lives.

Partners: Doireann Ni Mhuircheartaigh (CARA)

The Irish are at it again!

CARA in Ireland is one of the world leading organisations in terms of training and awareness of sport and recreation for people with a disability. They produce a lot of excellent high quality work and are making a real difference in the world.

Last December they launched a new campaign that focuses on listening to the voices of people with disability – why they participate in and value sport? What motivates them? What their wishes and aspirations are? The campaign has four major elements that we will highlight below. You can see how powerful the videos are.

This type of campaign is actually a good model for any sport or club to replicate. These days it’s very easy to produce videos that you can use to raise awareness and help educate your members. You don’t need a professional film crew! Why not get your mobile phone out and do a short interview with a person with a disability in your sport setting? Circulate the video – put it on social media or on your website. It’s an easy and effective way to help raise awareness and educate members about inclusion. So how did CARA put their campaign together?

They structured the campaign around four themes:


A key objective of the ‘Me Too’ campaign was to highlight the voices of people with disabilities, explaining in their own words, the importance of sport and physical activity in their everyday lives. The videos were produced in ‘short’ and ‘long’ versions, suitable for different platforms. There was no script, just the thoughts and words of people with disability.



To accurately capture the voices and lived experiences of people with disabilities in terms of participating in sport and physical activity, they carried out focus groups nationwide, to gain a better understanding of the barriers, solutions and impact sport and physical activity has on the lives of people with disabilities.



From information gathered via focus groups, a National Charter for Inclusion is being  developed. CARA asks organisations to sign up to and adopt this Charter, and commit to be inclusive of people with disabilities in their organisation/club.



As part of the National Physical Activity Plan, an education programme will be developed specifically for people with disabilities, on why and how they can participate in regular physical activity. This will be developed and rolled out through the support and assistance of the disability services nationwide as part of a health promotion campaign for people with disabilities.


The ‘Me Too’ campaign is a terrific example of how to go about developing an awareness and education program that is based on the thoughts and ideas of people with disability directly. The good news too is that it is not that hard to replicate in your own back yard – you just have to listen!

To support and find out more about the campaign go to – http://caracentre.ie/me-too/


About the author: Peter Downs

About the author: Peter Downs

Founding Director - The Inclusion Club

Peter is Founding Director of The Inclusion Club and Manager of Play by the Rules – a national initiative to promote safe, fair and inclusive sport. Peter has worked for over 25 years in the field of inclusive sport, disability sport and physical activity including 17 years managing the Australian Sports Commission’s Disability Sport Unit.  In 2013 Peter was fortunate enough to receive a Churchill Fellowship to study models of best practice in inclusive sport and physical activity.

My Voice

My Voice

Episode 69: My Voice

Released: March 2017

Events like the Paralympic Games present tremendous opportunities for the voices of people with disability to be heard. However, those voices are often told by people who do not have an experience of disability and so the message is different. What happens when people with disability construct AND tell their own stories?

Events like the Paralympic Games gets the media interested. While there is reporting all year round on disability issues, it’s only when events like the Paralympics Games come around that the media have a golden opportunity to showcase  a great sporting event, the positive aspects of disability and, most importantly, highlight the role that sport plays in the lives of people with disability.

There are a few problems however. Media coverage of the Paralympic Games ranks way behind that of its counterpart. Not just in terms of the amount of coverage but also, more importantly, in the quality and approach to coverage. It’s a missed opportunity in most countries. An exception to the rule was the ground breaking coverage of Channel 4 in the UK. Their London We’re the Superhumans and Rio’s Yes I Can campaigns tackled head on stereotypes and perceptions of disability and sport.

Channel 4 chief executive David Abrahams at the time of the Rio Games said the channel’s commitment to the Paralympics reflected its public service remit.

I’m incredibly proud that our coverage and marketing of the Games has both helped change public perceptions of people with impairments and encouraged broadcasters around the world to show Paralympic sport.

Not only did the coverage set international benchmarks, Channel 4’s approach to the coverage was also ground breaking. The 11-day coverage of the 15th Paralympic Games was produced by the largest group of people with disability, both on and off screen, ever assembled. Of the 36 presenters on the programme, 21 had a disability – about 58%.

The most globally recognisable face in the lineup was RJ Mitte (far left), the actor with cerebral palsy who played Walt Jr, the son of the science teacher turned drug dealer, Walter White, in Breaking Bad.

It’s important to show people with disabilities on screen,” Mitte said. “This isn’t just a celebration of disability. This is what we can do when we are limited [by] things that do confine us, do sometimes control and dictate who we are.

This gave a voice to people with disability and control over how the Games and athletes were portrayed. Channel 4’s 2012 coverage and media campaign clearly resonated with many people, particularly people with disability directly.  One of the stars of the 2016 trailer was fencer Dimitri Coutya, who says the 2012 trailer and Games had a huge effect on him.

It made me so excited and proud at the way it promoted Paralympian sport. It inspired me to continue doing my fencing.

But this type of portrayal, that was guided and developed by people with disability, is the exception. In fact, it is more than an exception – it is, sadly, unique! The benchmark approach to coverage has not been copied by other countries. Countries such as the US, with so many great athletes and so much influence globally, still give scant coverage of the games. Youth news network .Mic sums it up perfectly…

Channel 4’s approach to coverage has led to much change. The London Games coverage included an evening entertainment show focusing on the achievements of the day. That show, The Last Leg, was so successful it continues today 7 years later, Paralympic Games or not!

Again, the show gives a voice for people with disability to tell their stories, to tell their jokes, to showcase their abilities and to determine their own perceptions and stereotypes. This was never more exemplified than when co-host of The Last Leg, Alex Brooker, talked about the achievements of Alex Zenardi, a former Formula 1 driver who went on to win a Gold medal at the Rio Games.

This a powerful clip of a person with a disability talking about what inspires him and what makes him proud to have a disability. He talks about how much Alex Zenardi’s attitude to disability inspires him. This is the power of having people with disability self-determining their own portrayal. A person without a disability cannot do what Alex Brooker did here. People without disability may be inspired by Alex Zenardi, but not like Alex Brooker.

The message of inspiration here is completely different to those we often here in the media that are based on the notion of there but for the grace of god go I.

Stuart Tripp is an Australian cyclist who also medaled during the Rio Paralympic Games. In this post event interview Stuart talks about what sport means to him. Again, this is example of the power of giving people with disability the opportunity to tell their own story.

Australian wheelchair tennis player Dylan Allcot backed up his Gold medal in wheelchair basketball in 2008 with Gold in Men’s Quad Singles and Doubles in Rio. Dylan has since gone onto further celebrity status in Australia, hosting his own radio program on national network Triple J. He also won Tennis Australia’s highest individual honour, the Newcombe Medal, in 2016.

Dylan takes every opportunity to speak his mind and he is having a similar impact in Australia to those on The Last Leg in the UK. Following his Gold medal triumph in Rio Dylan took the opportunity to articulate what it meant to him.

People with disability have precious few opportunities to construct and tell their own stories in the media. Sport gives a chance to do that, particularly when organisations like Channel 4 have the foresight to ensure that the narrative is planned by people with disability in the first instance.

What we have seen above is a snapshot of what can happen when athletes and media people with disability have their say. These people are, relatively speaking, high profile with access to the media. But what about people who don’t have access to the media, who hardly ever get the opportunity to tell their story? What about their narratives?

In the next episode we will look at the stories of people with disability at a local level through an excellent program coming out of Ireland – Me Too.


About the author: Peter Downs

About the author: Peter Downs

Founding Director - The Inclusion Club

Peter is Founding Director of The Inclusion Club and Manager of Play by the Rules – a national initiative to promote safe, fair and inclusive sport. Peter has worked for over 25 years in the field of inclusive sport, disability sport and physical activity including 17 years managing the Australian Sports Commission’s Disability Sport Unit.  In 2013 Peter was fortunate enough to receive a Churchill Fellowship to study models of best practice in inclusive sport and physical activity.

TIC31: Aaron Dragwidge

TIC31: Aaron Dragwidge

Aaron Dragwidge

Aaron Dragwidge

Disability Engagement Specialist

Aaron Dragwidge is the Disability Engagement Specialist with Cricket Australia. Aaron has been one of the driving forces behind Cricket Australia’s Sport For All initiative and, in particular, their rapidly growing disability inclusion programs.  He is transforming Cricket’s approach to the inclusion of people with disability and has a passion for inclusion and human rights – perfect for a great TIC TALK podcast!

Transcript of the Podcast with Aaron Dragwidge

Coming soon