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 92.

    Daniel -
    Naa - once a cripple always a cripple.
    Along with everything else if you've got time to worry about labels you should get a hobby !
    C5/C6 spinal complete.

  • Comment number 91.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 90.

    79. albert_farqwitte
    Ian Dury had it right
    Sex and Drugs and R'n'R? Yes, spot on!

  • rate this

    Comment number 89.

    86. Eric Von Turpitz

    A few years back I found I was disabled...For a moment there was a real sense of relief that I wouldn't be able to work any more and could sit it out happily on the dole... now am flogging my guts out working to pay for those "so-called" disabled people to have an easy life...
    Good for you! Your epiphany is a lesson to all of us who'd rather be disabled on the dole!

  • rate this

    Comment number 88.

    'Mencap' works for 'mentally handicapped' so I suggest 'Physcapped' or possibly a more trendy, modern spelling 'Fizzcapped'.

    On second thoughts the latter looks like an ad for lemonade, so 'Physcapped' might be better..?

    No, I think we should stick with 'disabled'. Everyone knows what it means in general terms and it can be modified with adjectives such as 'severely' or 'slightly'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 87.

    Bob Bounds
    That is one of the best ideas I have heard for a long time. The very fact that the Paralympic Games are held separately sets the athletes apart from 'normal' people.
    Your idea ought to be put before the Olympic authorities for serious consideration of combining the Games into one event.
    Excellent thinking on your part.

  • Comment number 86.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 85.

    As a Disabled person, the games only reinforce a negative image. just like the freak shows in times past, But there will be people will will support the games,

  • rate this

    Comment number 84.

    The paralympics is the most visible public setting for disabled people, and it can be forgotten that most of us will never be involved, and they cannot speak for all of us.

    Recently a bigwig in the US said something offensive, I think used the word "retard", then apologised to someone who organises the paralympics. Many of the rest of us wondered why not apologise to all disabled people?

  • rate this

    Comment number 83.

    I am disabled, whatever anyone says. My take on PC language is that the words often do not offend me but rude and arrogant dictators who presume to speak for me without asking my opinion are a different matter. Context matters more but PC ignores this.

  • rate this

    Comment number 82.

    I visited a toilet in a cafe recently and on return remarked to the owner 'your notice refers to the toilets being disabled but they seem to me to be working fine'.

  • rate this

    Comment number 81.

    I think it's wonderful that paralympians have this major outlet for their athletic talents.One aspect of recent topicality spoils the ethics of the paralympian movement for me. The use of non human aids, especially the blades used by Oscar Pretorius, is a concern. I simply do not believe that such devices do not add to performance. Those who argue this do so because of monetary greed.

  • rate this

    Comment number 80.

    Sir Philip's argument is fallacious as words inherently have no meaning and is left to us to interpret the significance of vocalization through consensus. A "Bird" could easily define a member of the Avian species just as much as the Bovine (Or our own if you're from a certain geographical area) if we all agreed it could.

  • rate this

    Comment number 79.

    Ian Dury had it right

  • rate this

    Comment number 78.


    The term used doesn't matter so much as keeping ahead of the abuse of the term. It wasn't long after care in the community came into being that I heard a group of teenagers teasing each other by calling each other "care in the community cases". I was shocked that a neutralish term became an insult so quickly, once applied to people with certain kinds of disabiilties.

  • rate this

    Comment number 77.


    I guess when it happens there's no choice. I commented on another BBC article something along the lines of that since at the present level of medical science I can't live without my disabilities, I better get on with living with them. If that's where it's at, that's where it's at! No sympathy or admiration required, I have a life and I'm living it, like most disabled people.

  • rate this

    Comment number 76.

    I do hope that the paralympics will continue what I see as a general trend that is more accepting of folk regardless of their given abilities. We do seem to be better today than we were ten years ago and whilst there is still a long way to go, positive coverage of the paralympics can only serve to help get there.

  • Comment number 75.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 74.

    parttimestudent No you have missed my point.
    My comment reflects how I would feel if I were in their position.
    I see them as `brave' as I rather think it would crush me, & no, its NOT compulsory to strive, just get on with your life.
    I see were you are coming from with your comment, the Media especially the BBC DO seem to make it seem compulsory

  • rate this

    Comment number 73.



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