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 52.

    What the BBC have actually done by P.C ing the whole issue is change the focus, & steal the thunder from very brave disabled people, who are striving AGAINST their disability and NOT from a `label'

  • rate this

    Comment number 51.

    It may be something you feel he should not be allowed to say, but the fact remains he is right.

    The paralympics is tedium to which nobody is allowed to object, for fear of appearing churlish.

    Bravo to carbonbase for having the nerve to say so.

  • rate this

    Comment number 50.

    If you posted your comment to get a rise from people then it worked, how uneducated you are about the popularity of the paralymics and how wrong you are about the athletes not being elite. About time you started living in todays world and not 30 years ago.

  • rate this

    Comment number 49.

    I would rather the paralympics events run at the same time and in the same stadium as the olympics.

    I want too see a para mens 100m final run after/ before the non-para 100m final.

    I think they need the respect they deserve.

  • rate this

    Comment number 48.

    'Disabled' is representative of 'unable'. 'Handicap' means there is some level of hindrance. Why did it change?


    I'm guessing its just fashion. For many years it was PC to use the term 'coloured' and offensive to use the word 'black' a situation which has reversed itself.

    Language is a funny,shifting thing, impossible to pin down or to stop meanings changing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 47.

    @45 Timbonanza
    The provenance of the distinction between disability and handicap was in the IDH classification;
    I= Impairment (e.g. spinal corfd injury)
    D= Disability (e.g therefore paraplegic)
    H= handicap (e.g. therefore cannot go to the bank)
    Thus, H depends on equipment, access, and other societal provisions.

  • rate this

    Comment number 46.

    Oscar Wilde once said that being 'not talked about' was worse than being talked about.
    Isn't Phil in danger of making disability something that is 'not talked about'?

  • rate this

    Comment number 45.

    I have worked in this sector for years and it has alway bemused me. I'm not one for PC this and PC that but I always wondered where the term came from. 'Disabled' is representative of 'unable'. 'Handicap' means there is some level of hindrance. Why did it change? Just seems logical to me that the word 'disabled' doesn't seem to fit with what it tries to represent! I can understand it being unliked

  • rate this

    Comment number 44.

    It is indeed instructive to refer the term "disabled" to an English thesaurus. First used in 1632 but if "disabled" now joins the raft of non PC terms the other options are; Lame, Impared, Paralyzed, Crippled, Incapacitated, Incapable, Immobile, Unsound, Challenged, Differently abled, Quadraplegic et al. Which of these OED classified alternatives would Sir Phillip like us to use if not Disabled?

  • rate this

    Comment number 43.

    What word should we use instead?

  • rate this

    Comment number 42.

    re: 40.carbonbasebloke

    Yes I thought that until I went to the games at Stoke Manderville many years ago. Can I suggest you give it a go? - I was dragged along by my girlfirend of the time who was a reporter on the Bucks Advertiser we were both suprised to find it was amazing.

  • rate this

    Comment number 41.

    What's all the fuss about the word disabled?
    I've been disabled for 43 years, after servicing, in all paces, Libya.
    I am certainly not ashamed of being called disabled. A person's character is mental, not physical.
    Also, I think all paralympians set a fine example to able-bodied people, who would do well to take a leaf out of their book.

  • rate this

    Comment number 40.

    Let's be honest, not many people want to watch the paralymics. I appreciate the athletes get a lot from sport, but they are not elite and this is just doffing the cap to the pc brigade. Sorry, but I think this is true.

  • rate this

    Comment number 39.

    You are either able bodied or amount of PC twaddle will change it.what a load of clap do I now describe myself?..or how do others describe me?

  • rate this

    Comment number 38.

    The new definition of disabled will be: doesn't meet the requirements to be excluded from paralympics.

    Cos if there are no disabled, there are no paralympics.

    However, I agree, the word "disabled" sucks and is not a helpful word in most of the places it is used. "Disability" is an inconsistently placed point on a wide spectrum of needs in many people, all who are worthy of consideration.

  • rate this

    Comment number 37.

    Daresay the thickness of "Sir" Phillip's wallet compared to that of most disabled and incapacitated people, may influence his pronouncements.....
    Not to mention a facilitative network of Establishment cronies.

  • rate this

    Comment number 36.

    I don't agree with Sir Philip. We should be glad we no longer have a society where someone can officially be a lunatic or an imbecile, but I have never thought of the word 'disabled' as an insult, whereas as 'special needs' and 'challenged' have been used as insults (remember an episode of 'The Office'?).

  • rate this

    Comment number 35.

    This is Phillip Cravens current opinion......I am sure that, as I write there are some (possibly him) rushing for their copies of 'Roget's' seeking out next years favoured, 'sensitive' term...... and the year after.....and the year after....God, give me strength!....Let's just celebrate the event can't we?

  • rate this

    Comment number 34.

    16. Mike from Brum
    Hi Mike, I am sorry that you misinterpreted my comment as my attitude. Whereas, like you I am a Disabled person who not only can but Does - I compete in half marathons and full marathons, swim in the open sea and have set a number of records by leading from the front and facilitate musical therapy for people living with Alzheimmer's Dementia, Brain Injury and Parkinson's Disease

  • rate this

    Comment number 33.

    Sticks and stones will break my bones, but words will never hurt me. Sir Philip, please don't start taking words out of the dictionary just because they hurt you. I have a disability and when someone uses "disabled" or "disability" I don't go off at the deep end. And of course "disabled" is negative - DIS - ABLED. Get it!


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