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 32.

    I hope that no disabled people are flying in to London City to use the Olympic facility in Essex as it is impossible to change at Limehouse for the C2C line unless you can walk up stairs! Public Transport is not ready in so many ways.

  • rate this

    Comment number 31.

    Few words allowed per post, so here's my next comment: some of us are disabled people, but we need toilets that work, accessible parking spaces etc. Stop the stupid, inappropriate use of the word 'disabled' and start using language appropriately! Signage, as I said before, can enable me to get from A to B and back again, rather than collapsing halfway.

  • rate this

    Comment number 30.

    I have every respect for an alternative Olympics to cater for disabled athletes, but I won't be watching them. Artificial aids are strictly "out" so far as I am concerned.

  • rate this

    Comment number 29.

    If there was real equality there would only be one games anyone could enter and everyone would win a gold medal.

  • rate this

    Comment number 28.

    As a disabled person myself, I applaud the Paralympians who are able to compete next year. People say this shows disabled people can overcome "anything", but sadly that is not the case. I have a very painful neurological condition and I need morphine, strong injections and need to spend several hours a day hooked up to an O2 tank. Sadly, some disabilities are too difficult to overcome w/willpower.

  • rate this

    Comment number 27.

    My medical conditions are classified as disabilities under UK legislation. I walk (when I can) using a stick. So I suspect that I can speak for at least one disabled person, which is what I call myself when I'm not talking to other self-identifying crips. When will people realise that SIGNS help to make buildings accessible? Can I volunteer as National Commissioner for Decent Enabling Signage?

  • rate this

    Comment number 26.

    Taking this way of thinking through to it's logical conclusion would result in no Paralympics would it not?

  • rate this

    Comment number 25.

    As was stated before, "Disabled" is right - it's our socio-political status, not just our medical status. And don't get me started on non-disabled people who think they own the terminology that describes us. What do they think gives them the right to "own" us?

  • rate this

    Comment number 24.

    negative connotations will always exist.
    Whether its deserved is always open to debate, or pragmatic thought.

    Changing a word every other year to something different is stupid !!
    Childish !! oooh should I say childish ? i mean there ARE some clever children, oooh not that being clever is everything, ooh not that I am getting at academics

  • rate this

    Comment number 23.

    Sad old BBC.
    Know many disabled people, none of them MINDED being called disabled.
    I see some `arteeest ' was be taken to court for being a anti semanticist !!
    Rubbish P.C stuff.
    When no one is `special' we are ALL equal !
    Create `special' people & protected groups, and we AREN'T equal are we ?

  • rate this

    Comment number 22.

    We should not get rid of the word "disabled". Many people have varying degrees of impairments, but they are disabled by society - by the built environment, by service providers, by non-accessible web-sites and software such as PDF, and, yes, by attitude (excruciatingly demonstrated by 'Kelly' below). We need to keep it and remember what causes it.

  • rate this

    Comment number 21.

    No, it will be an irrelevance. Same way the OG's won't make any lasting difference to general fitness levels.

    The disabled are best served by being allowed and encouraged to integrate into society and the workplace where possible.

  • rate this

    Comment number 20.

    //The Flyer
    39 Minutes ago
    @7 TheTomTyke

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

    You are joking, right? Please, tell me you are...

  • rate this

    Comment number 19.

    One problem with using prettied up terminology is that you can't similarly pretty up a condition. If you are not accurate with words of description, injustices occur. For example, my son has learning difficulties. Learning difficulties? If I go to the library without my spec's, I have learning difficulties! Whereas, he is mentally handicapped; like it or not. He has no potential for independence.>

  • rate this

    Comment number 18.

    Why can't the paralympics be incorporated with the olympics into one Games? That way all athletes compete alongside each other, although in different events. It would give the profile these sportsmen deserve. The Olympics would go on for 4 weeks but what a fantastic celebration of elite sport across all physical abilities.

  • rate this

    Comment number 17.

    We can get far too hung up on labels so much so that people very often dont know what to say or fret over saying something wrong and in the end they arent themselves . In this world I see people regardless of able or disabled but if i use the word disabled i dont think its any disrespect . Personally I am bald and a little overweight , so if someone calls me fat or bald , well thats life . I am .

  • rate this

    Comment number 16.

    11.aindre reece-sheerin
    The single biggest barrier Disabled People face is Attitude
    It sounds to me like the biggest barrier you have is an attitude you should be treated differently to everyone else simply because you are disabled. You might do better if you start from a position of 'I can overcome anything that I find in my way'. That's what works best for me and my artificial limb.

  • rate this

    Comment number 15.

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

    Society Elitists are trying to push the assimilation of disabled persons into society. However, disabled persons can not always be employed without disregarding health and safety issues.

    Disability mobility providers excepted, business thrives on PROFIT and disabled persons cost more in time, support, and allowances.

  • rate this

    Comment number 14.

    Perhaps we should go back to using handicapped, after all you only handicap the strongest competitors in order to level things out. Seriously though how puerile and stupid it is people's attitudes and vision we need to change not their vocabulary.

  • rate this

    Comment number 13.

    To say they are not disabled is just PC twaddle. They are disabled. The difference being, they have learned to overcome those disabilities. That is where the courage is, that it where the heart is, and that's all that matters. Of course, this is easier said than done, and for a lot of "disabled" people it's a soul-destroying struggle to each day. Paralympians are very much the chosen few.


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