Paralympics on Channel 4: a grumble about the perception of disability

A bit off my normal topics today. After the excitement of the Olympics, which I have to say the BBC covered excellently from start to finish, I was looking forward to seeing what C4 would make of the Paralympics.

One of the things I loved about the BBC Olympics coverage was the programmes that were on before the games actually began. Excellent profiles of British athletes, like Tom Daley, Jessica Ennis, Victoria Pendleton enabled me to become a more-than-averagely-well-informed armchair pundit, and to know enough about their journeys, their demons and their sporting nemeses that I really really cared about them doing well in the Olympics. As someone who generally counts myself as a non-sports enthusiast, this was essential to getting me in the spirit early enough to really enjoy the games themselves. And I did.

So now we come to the Paralympics. I was looking forward to some decent coverage in the week before the games to get me in the spirit, tell me about the events up most importantly, make me care about the Paralympics athletes as athletes not as sideshow spectacles.

And so we come to Jon Snow’s Paralympics Show, which I can only describe as being like the One Show only dumbed down and more cringeworthy, if that were possible. We get to see Jon Snow chatting to the actor who played Dr Guttman (founder of the Paralympic Games) in “The Best of Men” (which was excellent by the way), and putting anodyne questions to Dr Guttman’s daughter and then not listening to the answers. There is a documentary section in which they explain the logistical issues around getting so many disabled people into the country by air, including – I kid you not – an interview with a baggage handler about transporting wheelchairs on aeroplanes.

There is some stuff about the Team GB athletes, but for the most part the athletics is taking a back seat. It’s mainly about the disability. Now I know people need to understand more about disability, but the focus is all wrong here. It feels like a show about disabled people who happen to be athletes, rather than about athletes who happen to be disabled. We hear nothing but the most cursory mention of their sporting achievements but lots about how they cope with their disability. Even the usually excellent Clare Balding doesn’t help, when she goes off horse riding with one of our top Paralympic equestrians, the whole purpose of which seems to be so that we can marvel at the fact that he’s better at horse riding than her, an able-bodied person, even though he’s (gasp!) disabled.

I’m frankly disappointed. I want to hear the Paralympic equivalent of how Victoria Pendleton became the most successful female track cyclist ever, the victory and the heartache of her Beijing games, and her long-term rivalry with her nemesis, Australia’s Anna Meares. This portrait drew me in and made the track cycling one of the highlights of the Olympics for me, even though I don’t ordinarily know my pedals from my peloton. But I know nothing of the people competing in this year’s Paralympics apart from how many limbs they are missing and the travel arrangements for their wheelchairs.

One of the things i hear disabled people saying again and again (even on this programme, funnily enough) is their frustration that people always define them by what they can’t do. I doubt Jessica Ennis can play the violin (sorry Jess if you can) but people don’t feel the need to constantly draw this to our attention. Disabled people are held back from their full potential in society, because their abilities are always obscured by their perceived shortcomings. This programme is making the same mistake in failing to present them as athletes first, and disabled people second.

I have stopped watching. Please someone tell me its going to get better than this.


About Mrs Markleham

Employment lawyer, discrimination lawyer, mildly peevish old woman.
This entry was posted in Disability, Miscellany and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

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