Parapan Am Games remind us of what is possible when barriers are removed

By Sara Arenson,
CBC News, Aug. 17, 2015

In July, Canadians were glued to television screens as Toronto hosted the 2015 Pan Am Games. But how many of us were aware of the sister event in August, the fifth ever Parapan Am Games?

An elite competition for athletes with disabilities, the Parapan Am Games challenges stereotypes. During the Toronto Games, the media showcased athletic excellence without glossing over athletes’ impairments or the difference between traditional and adapted sports.

‘Becoming disabled can be as easy as injuring your back at work, being involved in a car accident, or developing a chronic illness. No one is immune.’ – Sara Arenson

Athletics was taken seriously, to the benefit of the 1,608 competitors from 28 countries. However, an opportunity was missed: the chance to raise awareness of the barriers faced by an estimated 3.8 million Canadians with disabilities.

Sports for athletes with disabilities have existed for over 100 years. The first competition was held in 1948. What started as an archery contest for 16 injured veterans has now grown into the Paralympic Games, which take place in the same city as the Olympic Games.

The 2014 Sochi Paralympic Winter Games hosted 547 athletes from 45 countries. Ten of the 15 sports in the 2015 Toronto Parapan Am Games were qualifiers for the 2016 Rio Summer Paralympic games, including football, judo, wheelchair tennis, and sitting volleyball.

Challenging stereotypes

Katarina Roxon, from Kippens, competes in her gold-medal winning race in the women’s 100-metre breastsroke SB8 at the Parapan Am Games in Toronto on Tuesday. (Darren Calabrese/The Canadian Press)

Events like the Parapan Am Games can strongly challenge our stereotypes about athletes and people with disabilities.

Usually, we see athletes as the most “able” of our citizens, embodying the statuesque physiques of ancient Greek gods. They are sculpted, strong, with lithe and sturdy limbs, aesthetically pleasing in their proportions and erect posture. In other words, they’re powerful and beautiful.

We normally don’t think of people in wheelchairs, with prosthetic limbs, low vision, cerebral palsy, or intellectual impairments to name just some of the diversity present among Parapan Am athletes as embodying such excellence.

Social stereotypes define the disabled body and mind as deformed, even ugly. People with disabilities are seen as either objects of pity, living tragedies who need charity or inspirational stories to help people without disabilities feel better about their own lives. When a someone without a disability finishes university, for example, it is just considered normal, while the exact same accomplishment is regarded as “heroic” for someone with a disability.

Focal point

Media coverage of the Parapan Am Games avoided these stereotypes by focusing on the excitement of the sport and the athletes’ capabilities, drive, and reactions. It was also open about the participants’ impairments and how that changed the sport.

For example, the lead paragraph from a CBC article at the time:

“The Canadians entered the arena, most standing tall on prosthetic limbs. Before the game, those titanium and plastic legs were removed. The athletes then deftly hopped and crawled into position, taking their seats on the court to play two stunning games in this low-lying and intensely fast-paced version of volleyball.”

The Parapan Am Games showed just what is possible with a few adaptations to sports, like a lower volleyball net. These modifications remove barriers to competition and give disabled athletes an equal playing field where they can compete and achieve.

Systemic issues

Unfortunately, for too many Canadians with disabilities, barriers are not as easy to lower as is a volleyball net. The Parapan Am Games showcased what is possible for some, but failed to address the larger systemic problems of the disability community.

According to Statistics Canada, in 2011, only 47.1 per cent of working-age Canadians with disabilities were employed, compared to 73.8 per cent of Canadians without disabilities. Median incomes were $20,420 versus $31,160. Canadians with disabilities were half as likely as other Canadians to have a university certificate, diploma or bachelor’s degree.

Nowadays, organizations are moving from a biomedical model toward a social model of disability. Under this model, individuals have impairments, but it is not the impairment that produces the disability it is society’s barriers.

For example, a wheelchair user has a mobility impairment, but he or she is disabled because of a lack of wheelchair ramps or accessible housing. Barriers exist to transportation, education, housing, employment, and many more areas, in a society built for those considered normal.

No one is immune

With one-in-seven Canadians, or 3.8 million people, reporting a disability in 2011, most of us know someone in this situation. And, as we grow older, we are more and more likely to develop impairments ourselves.

Becoming disabled can be as easy as injuring your back at work, being involved in a car accident, or developing a chronic illness. No one is immune. Or, as disability activists say, most people are “temporarily abled.”

The Parapan Am Games reminds us of what is possible when barriers are removed. Now it is time to take this awareness beyond elite sports, into other arenas of life, and fight for full participation of Canadians with disabilities.

For those looking to get involved, there are several cross-disability organizations, including the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities (MLPD), the Society for Manitobans with Disabilities (SMD), the Council of Canadians with Disabilities, and DisAbled Women’s Network (DAWN), which has both national and provincial branches.

Sara Arenson is a Winnipeg-based freelance writer and radio broadcaster

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