My Voice

Mar 8, 2017 | 0 comments

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.