London 2012: Could the 2012 Paralympics erase the word 'disability'?

Sir Philip Craven playing basketball Sir Philip thinks the word "disabled" has negative connotations

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As International Paralympic Day takes place in London to celebrate next year's Games, Sir Philip Craven, the president of the International Paralympic Committee, has said he refuses to use the "D-word".

Sir Philip believes London 2012 will help to consign it to history.

Disabled himself, and a former wheelchair basketball player, he explains his dislike to BBC News: "It needs to be removed from the lexicon as it pertains to human beings.

"I mean, let's face it, if a machine gets disabled, it doesn't work. And that is the way that the word has influenced people's minds in the past.

"People say: 'Peter round the corner, he's disabled', before they even start to talk about what a wonderful guy he is, or what a not-so-nice guy he is. You immediately get to that differentiating point.

"If you're going to be talking about the positivity of human kind, why kick off with negativity?

"Someone said to me recently that [disability] is very much a political word for differentiation.

"I'm not getting into politics but if you think about it, it normally doesn't need to be used. What does ' you are disabled' mean?

"There's an incredible difference between a wheelchair user and someone who's blind, you know."

Though Sir Philip may dislike the term "disabled", many identify strongly with it and believe it is helpful.

Changing perceptions

Campaigner Clair Lewis sees it as a word that unifies the community.

"It's quite common for one group of disabled people to say to another that they don't want to be like them. Changing the word doesn't actually fix anything."

For 12 days next year, 4,200 athletes from 160 nations will be descending on the city of London. Although it is unlikely to significantly change the language, there are some tangible benefits that will be left behind as a result.

In its Olympic and Paralympic bid in 2005, London promised to create the most accessible Games ever.

Agencies such as Transport for London, the Olympic Park Legacy Company and the Department for Culture Media and Sport all have a role to play in keeping the promise during, and also after, the games.

TV cameraman films Oscar Pistorius at Beijing Paralympics In 2008, 90,000 people cheered on Oscar Pistorius to a Beijing win

The Olympic Park will see 8,000 new houses built on it after the games.

About nine per cent of these will be wheelchair accessible. And the sporting venues, some of which will be scaled back, were created with high accessibility standards and will remain.

The School Games project aims to build a lasting competitive sports structure in schools across the country.

Disability sport is part of this and specific inclusive events will be held at the Games next year.

Future disability sport opportunities are built into this plan and, for the first time, disabled children's participation in sport will be measured.

Maria Miller, minister for disabled people, said: "The Games offer a great opportunity to challenge outdated perceptions and help make further progress towards equality for disabled people in the UK.

"They will showcase the talents and sporting expertise of disabled people competing on a world stage and act as a catalyst for our sporting talents of the future.

Positive legacy

"I am really pleased by the initiatives under way to develop and strengthen disability sport and I hope we are left with a lasting positive legacy for disabled people and a positive experience for all in 2012."

How attitudes have changed

  • 1912: The first international eugenics conference was held in London, attended by Winston Churchill and other luminaries
  • 1914-18 and 1939-45: Two world wars took place with many war heroes returning disabled
  • 1948: Sir Ludwig Guttmann started The International Stoke Mandeville Games as therapy for those with spinal cord injuries - the precursor to the Paralympics
  • 1960: The first Paralympic games were held in Rome. 5,000 spectators cheered on 400 athletes at the opening
  • 1980: The Olympics were in Moscow but the USSR reportedly refused to admit they had disabled people in their country; the Paralympics were held in The Netherlands
  • 1988: 75,000 people watched the Paralympics opening ceremony in Seoul
  • 2008: 90,000 people cheered on Oscar Pistorius at the Bird's Nest stadium at the Beijing Paralympics
  • 2012: In the bidding process, the London 2012 team promised "the most accessible games ever"

It is worth looking back as well as forward.

In 1912, exactly 100 years before the London Paralympics, the city played host to an entirely different disability event.

The first international eugenics conference was held in the city, bringing together sympathisers and academics, including prime minister-in-waiting Winston Churchill, to discuss issues like sterilisation, selective breeding and marriage restriction.

For 2012, London has moved a long way from wanting to eradicate disabled people, preferring to celebrate their lives and achievements.

Perceptions have changed vastly across the last century. Sir Philip thinks that attitude is the key factor.

"You can pass laws and laws are necessary; we have the equality law now in Britain but laws are only there for me as a backstop.

"The thing that really makes a difference is the change in public perception and that's what the Paralympic games brings to a nation.

"And now that they're televised quite extensively, and will be more than ever in London - also on radio and internet and press - then that message gets out to the world. And this is what we want."


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  • rate this

    Comment number 12.

    @7 TheTomTyke

    I believe that the currently acceptable phrase (acceptable to the PC brigade that is) is "Differently Able".

  • rate this

    Comment number 11.

    further to my previous post due to limitations of number of characters - It is Society which Disables me - if it does not take into account that I have Access Requirements - If I am Blind, Partially Sighted, Deaf, Hearing Impaired, Living with a long term substantial illness including Mental Health issues, these are not the problem. The single biggest barrier Disabled People face is Attitude

  • rate this

    Comment number 10.

    @tom AKA TTT
    I agree largely with you. As a 'Disabled' Person myself this is an acceptable collective and is from the Social Model of Disability (See Prof Mike Oilver). It does not see me a the problem but sees Society as having a Collective responsibility tot he inclusion of all its citizens whilst being mindful and respective of an individual's Race Creed, Colour and Impairment.

  • rate this

    Comment number 9.

    My disability is such that I would never be able to compete in the Paralympics because I am not capable of training for an event; I cannot put in any sustained physical exertion. I also have difficulty with everyday tasks and can only work-part time at the age of 22. It makes me unable to do things others take for granted = an inability = a disability. Not pejorative, just fact.

  • rate this

    Comment number 8.

    I've often thought that when people attempt to prevent others from mentioning things like disability, race or sexism; their actions publicise any differences. Statements like the above from the PC brigade actually reinforce discrimination and are extending the length of time we have it in society.

  • rate this

    Comment number 7.

    Utter PC drivel and a silly argument about semantics. How are we to refer to disabled people? Handicapped? Special needs? There is absolutely no malice in using the term disabled, nor do I automatically think disabled people are incapable of doing things an able bodied person might. To imply that I do is offensive to me!

  • rate this

    Comment number 6.

    The amount of money expended on the "Olympic Games" and the facilities extended to participants is not the same as would occur in normal daily life.

    Just getting a wheelchair during a debilitating illness can prove frustrating.

  • rate this

    Comment number 5.

    Not calling me "disabled" won't take away my disabilities, and it won't make me as able to cope.

    Taking away the "label" might of course take away my blue badge and my allowances and the extra medical help I get, and I can see how useful that might be to the economy.

    When there is no need for special "Paraolympics", THEN remove the label.

  • rate this

    Comment number 4.

    I used to be fully able bodied until an accident some 5 years ago. I now have a problem with mobility in my right leg (can't run, or cycle, but I can walk).

    However I don't consider myself disabled. Nor would I suspect do many "paralympians".

    Too many labels, too much stigma.

  • rate this

    Comment number 3.

    Whilst its laudable to use the phrase/word paralympic for those who can or want take part in sport despite their disability that doesn't cross over to those in everyday life.If not disabled then what?This just sounds like another bout of political correctness with no thought given to those disabled and either unable or don't want to do sport.Why the need for subcategories?Why the need for labels?

  • rate this

    Comment number 2.

    Bob Marley running? This I have to see

  • rate this

    Comment number 1.

    I am able bodied and have always enjoyed the Paralympics and hope that it will be easier to get tickets than it has been for these games so far. Part of me was disappointed that we could not have been the first nation to run the Olympics and Paralympics concurrently. Why not hold the 100M finals for athletes with different abilities on the same day everyone's favourite Jamaican is running?


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