Beyond Rio…Accessibility, Elitism and Sport Development

Editors’ note: This post is the first in a series focused on disability sport and the Paralympic Games. The second post, written by Dr. Josh R. Pate, will be published on February 20, 2017.

Laura Misener, Ph.D. – Western University

As a scholar in the realm of disability sport, I must confront my seemingly incongruent position of privilege as a white, able-bodied, former elite athlete with the critical discourses of disability which I interrogate. I was struck by that reality as I spent time in Rio, Brazil in the lead up to and during the 2016 Paralympic Games. I found my time in Rio both a pleasure as a sport fan, and problematic as a conscientious citizen and researcher.

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Dr. Laura Misener at the 2016 Paralympic Games in Rio.

The question remains, has this event changed anything about Rio or Brazil for the lives of persons with disabilities? This issue remains central to much of the ongoing research about so-called legacies or impacts of the hosting the Paralympic Games. I situate my own scholarly thinking about disability, on what Goodley (2013) and others argue is systemic discrimination based on ableist (i.e. able bodied as ideal) assumptions, institutions, and structures that disadvantage persons with a disability. Spaces of poverty and deprivation abound in Rio and throughout the urban landscapes of Brazil, which presented a stark contrast to the pristine, elite sporting venues of the Games. In terms of accessibility and understanding of disability, I witnessed how far Brazil must go to address some of the basic standards set forth by the UN Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The crumbled pavements, lack of curb cuts, no audible cues in traffic, and inaccessible transportation network are just some of the ongoing physical issues that were to be addressed through the hosting of the Paralympic Games. But the expectation that such an event can meet such a colossal challenge is insurmountable, particularly in the face of such economic and political turmoil. In many ways, my experience of being in and around venues only served to further highlight the inequalities experienced by many Brazilians with a disability.

On the other hand, I felt optimistic about the event being able to highlight inequities and potentially focus on shifting negative attitudes and stereotypes about disability. But as a spectator and fan of sport, they got it all wrong. As I listened to IPC President Sir Philip Craven’s speech during the Opening Ceremony, he framed disability around the problematic inspirational narrative (i.e. supercrip) and missing the mark on the social inequities that disability often produces. Further, the Paralympic flag was brought into the stadium by a group of severely disabled children who will never access the Paralympic movement, literally puppeteered by adults was further demonstrative of the distanced understanding of disability in the everyday life. Yet, the crowd of international elite Sport Managers, Policy Makers, and Dignitaries around me loved it! It is perhaps a call for me as a scholar to work harder from within and without to demonstrate the value and importance of our work.

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Photo courtesy of Dr. Laura Misener

My time at the events was brief, but it highlighted further the poor understanding and inequalities of disability sport in this country. At Athletics, I watched a T36 (visual impairment) athlete from Portugal miss his jump time because the crowd was too loud for him to hear the coach to know when to jump. Then, after protesting, he was allowed an additional attempt and foot-faulted – yet the crowd cheered loudly applauding his failed attempt. Certainly, we can chalk this up to different cultural contexts where Brazilian crowds are supportive of all sporting efforts, but athletes know and feel the difference between educated sport fans and piteous encouragement.

I still believe that these Games and similar types of events can be an opportunity for social change. I met volunteers and local citizens from Rio who saw the Paralympic Games as the highlight event. They believed that this was the opportunity to change the way people think, understand, and act towards disability. I am not convinced that sport managers have the solutions about how to appropriately manage sport, disability sport, or mega events but I do see that we have much space as scholars for interesting conversations and the real machinations of political will to see these as social change opportunities.