Later today the Winter Paralympics opening ceremony will begin in Sochi, Russia. 

It follows what was Team GB’s most successful Winter Olympic Games for ninety years with Britain’s athletes winning four medals in snowboarding, skeleton and curling.  Expectations for our Paralympic team are equally high with the 15 strong team hoping to bring home two medals in para-alpine skiing and wheelchair curling.

The 2012 Paralympics saw unprecedented coverage of disability sport across all sections of the news and for weeks it was impossible to open a newspaper without reading about the achievements of disabled athletes.  Hopes were high among many disabled people that this could lead to a change in the way that other people treat them, with surveys showing that 62% of disabled people believed that the Games had the power to change the way that they were treated and viewed by society.

A year on from the Paralympics, United Response carried out research to find out whether the legacy of the Games had made any impact on the way that disabled people are perceived.  A survey of over 1,000 people in the UK revealed that although 87% thought that the Paralympics had made disabled people more visible than ever before, 9 out of 10 respondents believed that most people don’t know enough about the day to day reality of living with a disability.

More often than not, stories in the news tend to portray disabled people as either benefit scroungers or as inspirational characters – both of which can be disempowering for disabled people and make it harder to understand the realities of people’s lives.  The latest report from our Campaigns Panel, Superhumans or Scroungers, found that many Panel members thought that stereotyping could distract from the real issues which disabled people face such as discrimination, barriers to independence, bullying or lack of job opportunities.  Lesley, a member of the Panel, told us that “fictional programmes seem to sentimentalise disabled people and the news tends to be about negative stories, for example, Winterbourne View.”  She went on to say that “it is sad that [disabled people] are so often portrayed as being ‘other’ rather than full members of society.”

The overwhelming message from the members of the Campaigns Panel was that they wanted to see more TV programmes and news coverage to “treat disabled people as normal.” Cecily, another Panel member, said that it is important that disabled people are  included in TV, radio and press as ordinary people…not focusing on [their] disability, physical or mental health.”  As Shairaz, a member of the Campaigns Panel says, “I would just like to see us portrayed more as ordinary people.  It would be good to see television just concentrating on who we are and what matters to us…that would give everyone a chance to learn from different experiences and that might help everyone to stop generalising.”

The coverage of the Winter Paralympics is undoubtedly going to focus on the competitor’s disabilities as much as their athletic achievements, but it does create an opportunity to reopen the debate about how disabled people are portrayed in public life.  If disabled people are to reach true equality in the media, they need opportunities to speak out on any issue which is important to them and not just on topics related to disability.  If, like our Campaigns Panel, you have something you want the world to know, why not head over to our Postcards from the Edges website and get creative.

Rachel Bowen, Campaigns Officer