Training with the GB wheelchair basketball team, I have been on the receiving end of ridiculous skill that has left me shaking my head in disbelief. Take the outrageous half-court hook shot swished on the buzzer to win a match that would not have looked out of place on a viral trick shot video with millions of views. The frustrating thing is, however, that the unbelievable talent of my teammates does not go viral, and does not even get the attention from the national media and public that it deserves outside a Paralympic year.
Look no further than GB wheelchair basketball legend Terry Bywater, who in a title-deciding game earlier this year in the professional Spanish league, scored 35 points in 32 minutes, nailing six of 13 attempted three-pointers. Compare that to the three from seven three-pointers Klay Thompson averages, and he is one of the best shooters in NBA history.
Or check out Blake Leeper, an American double amputee, who clocked a time of 44.42 seconds over 400m in 2018 – fast enough for fourth at the World Championships in Doha last month and quicker than any able-bodied British sprinter has managed for over two decades.
With the World Para-Athletics Championships starting on Thursday, there will be opportunities for future household names to begin emerging, particularly with stars like Jonnie Peacock missing out due to injury. Four athletes will make their senior debuts in Dubai – Lydia Church, Owen Miller, Anna Nicholson and Hannah Taunton – while Libby Clegg will attempt to replicate Rio 2016 T11 100m and 200m golds just seven months after giving birth to her son by emergency caesarean section. In the year leading up to Tokyo 2020, the spotlight will again return to disabled athletes with an intensity only a Paralympic year can bring. The issue then becomes the way the sports are covered and if the public and media interest can stretch beyond the Games themselves.
Progress has undoubtedly been made with the coverage of disability sport in the UK but there is still some distance to go. The 120 hours of Paralympic sport broadcast live from Rio 2016 would have been unthinkable a decade ago and behind the steady increase of public interest has arguably been the Channel 4 campaign advertising athletes as “superhumans” .
Understandably, the Channel 4 team were searching for a unique selling point to market the Paralympics and it is difficult to criticise the reach and impact of the campaign. The superhuman label has become synonymous with the Paralympics, but perhaps in a way that has diverted attention from the skill and talent that disabled athletes possess.
There is an important balance to be struck here. Romanticising the reality of disability into a concept that can be conquered does not help the perception of a wider disabled population. Gordon Aikman, who was a motor neurone disease patient and campaigner before he died in 2017, pointed out that “all disabled people are forced to be superhuman – Paralympian or not – because of the inaccessible world and anti-disabled attitudes we must battle every day simply to exist.”
A quick glance back to early June this year demonstrates the point, when Paralympic bronze medallist Matt Byrne was left at Dublin airport after a pilot refused to let him board because the flight was running late – an indication of the unacceptable way the disabled population are still treated. To live with disability in any shape or form and fight daily against discrimination is a victory in itself.
The superhuman label also affects the Paralympic athletes themselves, who are cast as the freaks of sport, existing outside the perceived norm of able-bodied elite athletes. Too often what is highlighted about disabled athletes is the disability that sets them apart, instead of the supreme talent and dedication that makes them exceptional.
Sport can certainly play a role in the slow corrosion of disablist attitudes, although a different tact may be required. Wheelchair basketball player, Gregg Warburton, who won the most valuable player award when Britain took gold at the World Championships in 2018, says: “It’s definitely got better since I’ve been playing. Each Paralympics pushes us into the limelight more.”
This is revealing in itself and the coverage of the Paralympics must be commended for demanding more of the public attention. But where does it develop from here? Attitudes towards specific sports and athletes need to be addressed, as Gregg asserts: “We are athletes who happen to be disabled rather than athletes because we are disabled.” A lack of understanding about disability as a whole amplifies the issue and leads to condescending questions and comments.
The difficulty of gaining respect and admiration rather than sympathy is something the superhuman tag doesn’t go far enough in addressing. Lauren Rowles MBE, a Paralympic gold medal-winning rower, says: “I believe we need to move away from the idea that disabled people are inspirational and start moving towards the idea that hard work creates success and the reason you become a Paralympian is because you are willing to put in more hard work than anyone.”