Paralympics: How Wheelchair Sports Became So Popular

How did wheelchair sports come to dominate the public perception of the Paralympics and disabled sports in general?
From wheelchair basketball to wheelchair rugby, few other events generate the same kind of excitement. Why is this, and how did it happen?
The answer is complicated, and incorporates a lot about what is both right and wrong in our society’s attitudes towards disability.

Image by: William Murphy
The BBC Hero
Ade Adepitan, the wheelchair basketball player from the old BBC idents, is an inspirational motivational speaker and a knowledgeable and skilled basketball player – he helped the British team win a Paralympic bronze in 2004, and a gold medal in 2005 at the Paralympic World Cup.
As a charismatic and talented ambassador for Paralympian events, he has achieved great success off and on the basketball court; consequently, he has brought his chosen sport into the limelight slightly more than some other events generally enjoy.
Team Spirit
One of the most exciting things about team sports is that they are more unpredictable than individual events and have more of a narrative.
The fact that a lot of wheelchair sports are team sports means papers are able to form stories about “a plucky team of underdogs”, or “play exciting basketball”, whilst solo events tend to be harder to sell to newspapers.
They Fit Our Expectations
One of the most frequent complaints I hear about the Paralympics from able-bodied friends is how confusing it is.
The number of events required for multiple different levels of disability is huge, and only really makes sense to most people if they’ve experienced disability first hand, or know someone who has.
So at one end of the spectrum, you could end up with people who have learning difficulties competing with no clearly visible ‘disability’, which doesn’t fit some people’s expectations of what a ‘disability’ really is.
Just take a look at parking spaces, and try explaining why you’ve taken a disabled bay if you have a mental illness or a condition that makes it hard but not impossible to walk – it’s a sad fact that many people are likely to be confused.
I mean, the picture in these parking spots is of a man in a wheelchair! If you don’t have any highly visible independent living aids, some people choose to decide that you’re not disabled at all.
It’s not right, but it happens, and this is one reason why wheelchair sports are so popular – the disability is clear, obvious, and is there to be ‘overcome’ by the disabled person.
So, in this case, it’s all about perception.
Is This A Good Thing or Not?
I’m not sure if wheelchair sports’ relative prominence is a good thing, but on the whole I tend to answer “yes.”
The popularity of wheelchair sports gives young disabled individuals role models to look up to, and brings disabled sports more squarely into the public eye, however simplified. Moreover, wheelchair sports are exciting to watch, and promote skill and teamwork.
On the other hand though, they also promote a certain view of what a disability looks like that is not necessarily accurate, and could be argued to push other sports from a spot in the lime-light.
What do you think?
James Duval writes for Mobility Aids Direct who sell a range of products to assist disabled people in achieving their goals with dignity and comfort.