Disability in sports

Written by: Sierra Porter | Staff Writer     Robin Winn | Freelancer

Sports, as a whole, is an extremely significant part of many individuals’ lives — inspiring unity, patriotism and a sense of community. Unfortunately, not everyone has been fairly represented in sports and those in disabled communities have had to fight for equal rights and opportunities in all areas, particularly in sports. The history of activism and the Disability Rights Movement dates far back to the 1800s, when meetings and events were conducted demanding civil rights for disabled individuals. 

The 1973 Rehabilitation Act provided many elements that inspired the Disability Rights Movement, specifically Section 504 which prohibits discrimination against individuals with disabilities in the workplace. This was written, but not implemented — frustrating supporters of the movement. This dismissal also encouraged the American Coalition of Citizens with Disabilities, ACCD, to conduct sit-ins in different government buildings, finally forcing President Nixon to sign all regulations. 

The first step made towards raising representation of disabled athletes, besides the obvious rights movements, was the Deaflympics. The first game took place at the 1924 Paris International Silent Game, where nine European Nations participated — making it a first for any group of people with disabilities. 

The games were organized by the International Committee of Sports for the Deaf, CISS, which eventually established the Deaflympics, the longest multi-sport event since the Olympics. At a time when society viewed the deaf as intellectually inferior, this was a huge step in paving the way for accurate representation of disabled individuals. 

This inspired German neurologist and father of the Paralympic Movement, Ludwig Guttmann to continue disability activism. Guttmann believed that sports could be used as a method of rehabilitation for disabled individuals coming back from WWII and opened the Spinal Injuries Unit at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. Refusing to believe that paraplegia was a death sentence, his work revolutionized the field and changed the way many view disability as a whole. 

Building on his belief, Guttmann organized a sports festival for retired servicemen in wheelchairs called the Stoke Mandeville Games — named after the hospital where it took place. On the opening day of the London Olympic Games, Dr. Guttman made a statement by running a concurrent event where disabled individuals could participate in wheelchair archery not only as part of their rehabilitation but also as a way to showcase their abilities. This eventually grew into an international event now known as the Paralympics. This event allowed those participating to no longer be just patients, but athletes as well. 

Dr. Guttmann made tremendous progress when it came to the inclusion and representation of disability in sports, but unfortunately, there were still obstacles that disabled athletes would have to overcome. During the 1960 Rome Games, over 400 athletes with disabilities lined up to participate, but were met with issues like lack of accessibility to facilities and funding. 

After a long fight, the International Olympic Committee and the International Paralympic Committee reached an agreement to host both events at the same time, with the first official Paralympics held alongside the 1988 Seoul Summer Olympics.

Currently, there has been major progress made in terms of disability in athletics. The NCAA, or National Collegiate Athletic Association, is currently committed to supporting college athletes with disabilities and providing guidelines that best accommodate their needs. Many colleges have adaptive and inclusive sports programs directly focused on disabilities, including two schools here in Oregon. Oregon State University has a club wheelchair basketball program and Portland State University has an Inclusive Recreation program including wheelchair basketball tournaments, adaptive climbing, swimming, goalball and an adapted gym.

While school athletics, particularly K-12, still fall short of providing a fully inclusive environment or fall back on the “inspiration p–n” trope, many improvements and advancements are being made every day.

Many organizations also focus on providing opportunities and resources to disabled athletes across Oregon, such as Oregon Adaptive Sports. Across the country, organizations such as Athletes Without Limits and the Northwest Association of Deaf Basketball or NWABD, and organizations from across the world, including a nonprofit focused on helping athletes with disabilities receive equipment and aids to help them play their sport, are all working to create an inclusive space for disabled athletes. 

Meanwhile, the Paralympics is still ongoing, with the next games taking place in Paris starting Aug. 28. A similar organization, the Deaflympics, which includes a variety of sports, is currently holding its Winter Games in Turkey from March 2–12. Special Olympics Australia, a year-round organization focused on supporting athletes with disabilities by providing resources and a welcoming community, recently held a fundraising event called SPLASH.

The impact of the Paralympics is nothing short of huge, and it has successfully integrated itself into mainstream sports — raising awareness for inclusion. During the 1960 Rome Games, China refused to participate in the Paralympics as they stated, “Disability simply doesn’t exist here.” Now there is an established Chinese Sports Association for Disabled Athletes, and in 2021, China sent 250 athletes to participate in the Paralympic Games. Though there are still debates about issues amongst the misrepresentation of disabled individuals and the games like the 2000 Paralympic cheating scandal, there is no doubt the Paralympics has helped foster the spirit of inclusion and has opened the door for disabled individuals everywhere.  

Contact the author at howlstaffwriter@wou.edu

Contact the author at rwinn19@mail.wou.edu