The Paralympic Games have been a powerful vehicle in stimulating progressive social change toward greater inclusion of disabled people within sport and wider cultural life. The Paralympic movement has established itself as a forerunner in the pursuit of a more inclusive world. Its impact has raised awareness of disability rights, advocated for equal opportunity, promoted the use of assistive technologies (AT) and challenged ableist assumptions that have contributed to the cultural stigma around disability.
However, Paralympic sport has yet to reach many low to middle income countries across the Global South, where stigma associated with disability continues to reinforce social exclusion, marginalisation, and a lack of investment in infrastructure for disability sport. Indeed, there is somewhat of a global divide when it comes to equal access of Para sport.
Despite over 160 countries competing in the Paralympic Games, only around 60 countries have Paralympic sport embedded in their sports systems. This global disparity in equality and access has been recognised by intergovernmental organisations, disability rights groups, and scholars and practitioners working within the field. It also presents the single biggest challenge for the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), who aim to bring the Paralympic Games – starting with Tokyo 2020 – to Sub-Saharan Africa.
It is this challenge that has led to a partnership between Loughborough University, IPC and the University of Malawi, Chancellor College on a project entitled, ‘Para Sport against Stigma’. The project aims to develop the reach and impact of Paralympic sport across sub-Saharan Africa by harnessing the communicative and socially transformative power of Paralympic sport as a vehicle for challenging disability stigma.
It is part of AT2030, a programme funded by UK Aid and led by the Global Disability Innovation Hub (GDIH) that aims to test ‘what works’ to improve access to Assistive Technology. Over the next four years (2020-24), the project will coordinate interdisciplinary action research within Gambia, Malawi and Zambia, working closely with local community groups, stakeholders, Universities, media organisations and National Paralympic Committees (NPC). It is a research approach that has collaboration with local communities and organisations at its core, to enable better understanding and perspective on how Paralympic sport can be localised and have effective, relevant and sustainable impact.
The research is built upon 3 pillars of activity that connect Paralympic broadcasting and media with community engagement and the development of Paralympic sport pathways. Some key activities include, for example: working with national broadcasters and the IPC to localise and adapt highlights of the Tokyo Paralympic Games to suit community radio – an important, accessible and trusted media source that spans social class and urban/rural divides – and the inclusion of Paralympic stories from national athletes. Community education and theatre, as important sites of knowledge reproduction, will bring these stories to life and help challenge dominant disability narratives. In addition, the IPC will work to support NPC’s with development toolkits, designed to establish and maintain effective pathways towards international competition for grassroots athletes and coaches.
The project is an important platform for the growth of para sport in parts of the Global South. It is, however, not without its challenges. Disability concerns differences in ability, and we must recognise the varying perspectives and reservations held by those that live with these differences as we work to combat the stigma that has been identified.
The provision and quality of AT fluctuates across the urban and rural landscape and this must be addressed effectively through the adaption of Paralympic media content. In particular, stigma at the intersection of gender and disability requires consideration, and this project offers an important opportunity to better understand the complex socio-economic inequalities and relations that underpin the lives of many disabled women in Sub-Saharan Africa. Using the power of para sport, this project hopes to establish yet more foundations, upon which we can build a fairer and more prosperous world for those with a disability.
Dr Emma Pullen is a lecturer in the School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences at Loughborough University. Her main research interests include disability, gender, culture, and media.
Sam Ruddock is a two-time Paralympian that debuted for Great Britain in track and field athletics at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. After Rio 2016, he is now focusing on track cycling for Tokyo 2020. Alongside his preparations for Japan, he is a physical education and school sport coordinator in primary/elementary education.
Jennie Wong is a sport practitioner with expertise designing and managing inclusive sport programmes on a global scale. She is currently the project manager for Para Sport Against Stigma at Loughborough University London.