Paralympics: It’s Not about Disability, It’s About Ability

BCCJ Paralympics Event 1
British Chamber of Commerce Japan panel discussion: “What About the Paralympics”.

Rina Akiyama is totally blind in both eyes, but that didn’t stop her from learning how to swim and eventually becoming a champion swimmer.

Hisano Tezuka is deaf, but that didn’t stop her from becoming a skiier, determined to compete at the highest levels in the Deaflympics.

Daisuke Uehara does not have the use of his legs, and was turned off by people encouraging him to take up wheelchair basketball, and gladly took up the sport of ice sledge hockey, helping Japan to Paralympic silver at the Vancouver Games in 2010.

On March 25, I had the honor of listening to the stories and views of these retired athletes, who were asked by the British Chamber of Commerce in Japan to join a panel discussion entitled, “What About the Paralympics”, an event with the aim of raising awareness of Paralympic sports in Japan. In my research on the Olympics, I have spent little time on the Paralympics, an event that started with a competition for war veterans with spinal cord injuries at the same time as the 1948 London Games. The first official Paralympic Games were held in conjunction with the Rome Summer Games in 1960, and have continued ever since, growing consistently in popularity and significance.

Rina Akiyama
Rina Akiyama, gold medal winner of the 100-meter backstroke at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London_Getty Images

What I learned is that the Paralympic Games is not about disabled athletes, but about athletes with tremendous ability. If Japan (or any society) values diversity and strives to be more inclusive, then a mind shift needs to take place. The BCCJ, like elements in the public sector, the private sector and NPOs, believe people need to stop making the so-called disability of a person the number one characteristic of a person, and need to start understanding the abilities of that person that allow growth and avenues for that person to achieve his or her potential.

In the case of Paralympic participants, these people are athletes, some of them as intense and brilliant as their so-called able-bodied colleagues.

Akiyama began swimming at 3. At 10, she read a book about the Paralympics, and from that point on aspired to win gold at the Paralympics. She swam in the 100-meter backstroke as a 16-year-old at the Athens Games in 2004 and took silver. But it wasn’t gold. She participated at the 2008 Games in Beijing, but unfortunately, they did not offer her favorite event, and chose instead a free-style swimming competition that landed her 8th in the world. But at the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, the 100-meter backstroke was back, and Akiyama won the finals and grabbed the gold medal. “I worked hard over many years and I finally got the gold medal,” she said. “Dreams do come true.”

Tezuka developed into a strong skiier and was determined to become internationally competitive. She finished third in slalom and 4th in parallel slalom in a deaf skiing competition in Italy. But the ultimate event is the Deaflympics, an IOC-sanctioned competition. Tezuka trained hard and was ready to do well a the 2011 Deaflympics in Slovakia, but the organizers cancelled the Games, disheartening hundreds of competitors. The next opportunity was 2015 in Russia. But just before the Deaflympics in Russia rolled around, Tezuka had a skiing accident and suffered serious injuries to the face and shoulder. In fact, her right shoulder was essentially paralyzed. But she said she would not be denied. “I could close my eyes and see the faces of all my supporters. I knew I had an obligation to all the people who came before me, and those junior to me who had their hopes. I endured great pain, and worked very hard, so I could compete in the 2011 Deaflympics.” Tezuka finished eighth, or as she put it, in the top ten.

<> on March 18, 2010 in Vancouver, Canada.
Daisuke Uehara (32) shooting the puck in a semi-final match against Canada at the 2010 Vancouver Paralympic Games_Getty Images

The accomplishments of these athletes are great. But from the perspective of those who are not disabled, their accomplishments are astounding. Uehara though thinks the mindset of people who are not disabled is the issue, and needs to change. “People have to stop saying, ‘you’re blind, you’re deaf, or you’re in a wheelchair so you can’t do this or do that.’ Instead, people need to respect our views, how we may see the world differently. For one, we don’t focus on our disabilities, but instead, on our abilities.”

Uehara went on to say that it will also be important that the societal change of mindset extend Paralympic athletes, who get a lot of media focus. “The Paralympic group is just a small part of the entire disabled populace. Society and the media needs to focus on all disabled people.”

Akiyama added by stating media in particular has to develop a more sophisticated understanding of disabled people. Her view was that the media will only tell a story about a disabled person if there is a dramatic angle about that person, and that there is a story about overcoming huge barriers. She felt that the identify of disabled people should not be the disability and overcoming barriers, but about what they can do.

Yasushi Yamawaki, a governing board member of the International Paralympic Committee, kicked off the event with a message about the need to remove the linkage between disabled people and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), which tends to reinforce the view (perhaps subconsciously) that disabled people need charity.

To understand that view, here’s a great explanation by Stella Young, who delivered this fantastic Ted Talk, “I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much.”