Paralympics 2012: Is it OK to call the athletes brave?

Paralympian Aled Davies

Before the Paralympic Games started, the media earnestly discussed the words that should and shouldn't be used. It can be a curious area.

One thing that tends to draw disabled people together is the subject of what people do and don't want to be called.

At the Paralympics stadiums and arenas, the commentators you hear on the public address system refer only to the technical terms, sounding a bit like playing a game of battleships: T54, C3, S6.

The first letter of this refers to the event - like T for track, C for cycling or S for swimming. The number refers to the level of impairment where usually the lower numbers are most disabled, and higher numbers least. I've yet to hear an official shouting something like "she's got spina bifida".

Earlier this year, the British Paralympic Association (BPA) put out a Paralympics language guide and media organisations covering the Games have had meetings and have drafted documents about it to make sure they get it right when reporting.

Reporting guidelines

The British Paralympic Association has issued a guide on reporting the Paralympics. In it, they advise journalists to ensure that some words and phrases are totally avoided. In particular:

  • "suffers from"
  • "sufferer"
  • "victim of"
  • "normal"/ "abnormal"

The report notes that these terms are still commonly used when they should not be.

Mostly this is about Paralympic etiquette - apparently we shouldn't refer to someone as a "former Paralympian" for instance. If they've been a Paralympian they're always a Paralympian. But much of it is about respect for people and their achievements.

In the park on Saturday, I wandered around asking people what words they would use to describe the athletes. Jacqui and John Voyce, from Winchester, had brought their nine-year-old twins along.

Between them they agreed that the athletes were both brave and inspirational. John hesitated though.

"I don't want to say inspiring," he says. "I'm in the forces and a lot of the paralympic athletes are also ex-forces. They say they don't want to be referred to as inspiring because they are what they are and they're just doing it."

The sensitivity around these words is particularly interesting around Paralympics time.

Start Quote

Actor Jamie Beddard

Most epithets are used to separate us [the disabled] from them [the non-disabled]”

End Quote

This week we're seeing elite disabled athletes running, swimming, shooting arrows, playing tennis and more. They are certainly inspiring - as are all athletes, but decades of low expectations about disabled people means that they have often been classed as heroic just for going down the shop to buy a pint of milk.

In some circles, words that patronisingly elevate disabled people to a superhuman level they don't really deserve are seen as more damaging and life-limiting than good old-fashioned playground taunts.

Actor Jamie Beddard, who was lead artist in Breathe, a mixed ability performance on Weymouth beach which opened the Olympic venue in July, says: "Most epithets such as inspirational, brave, etc, are used as a means of separating us [the disabled] from them [the non-disabled] and have all kind of 'there but for the grace of God go I' notions."

Perhaps overly aware of the issues of language, while listening to BBC Radio 5 live, I heard a sports presenter refer to a swimmer as having had a "brave" performance.

Did he mean braver than average, brave to have got in the pool, or was there something about the swimmer's performance that really was wrenchingly physical and tough to achieve? I was left believing he meant the latter and wasn't being at all condescending.

Paralympics classifications

Paralympic athlete with running blades
  • Paralympic athletes compete in different classes according to type and/or severity of disability
  • Athletics: T and F designate track or field with number for type of disability, eg: F54 = wheelchair track athlete with full arm and hand function
  • Football: Five-a-side for athletes with visual impairment, seven for those with cerebral palsy
  • Swimming: 1-10 indicate physical disability, with lower numbers for severer disabilities

Quentin Hull is a sports commentator for ABC, Australia's official Paralympic broadcaster, doing his second Games.

"Those phrases that we're probably told to hold back on like inspirational, all those words just drip off your tongue during a paralympic Games because of the human achievement mixed in with the athletic achievement," he says.

"There's a bit more of a purity to the fact that the human race battles to succeed no matter what the cost because it's a bit more visible and easy for someone to fathom the effort put in when they see Oscar Pistorius with two prosthetic legs.

"If you see eight guys running in a race at the Olympics, all with two arms and two legs running fast, it's very hard to work out their achievement story because the timepiece only shows you the athletic achievement, it doesn't show the human achievement."

But interestingly the athletes don't necessarily know the language rules. After a match, one GB athlete said: "The crowd went mental."

With over 6,000 people cheering her on, you can perhaps appreciate why she reached for the word "mental", especially as it's so often used in a casual manner away from the arena of mania and schizophrenia.

But it's one of the disability words that I choose to avoid using in that way, like its linguistic friend "psycho". Life experiences tend to dictate your own personal dictionary.

On Sunday night, Channel 4's dressage commentary referred to Sophie Christiansen's "involuntary movements".

Sophie Christiansen A commentator referred to Sophie Christiansen's "involuntary movements"

How do we feel about commentary on cerebral palsy spasming? The British Paralympic Association would rather you didn't dwell on people's disability but, if it's visible on your TV screen and could be seen by the audience as potentially destroying those nice clean body lines or whatever it is that dressage experts might talk about, is it OK as a bit of analysis?

I'm not sure that debate has ever properly happened without a room full of fearful television executives nodding as they scribble notes and try hard to get their heads around it.

The fear factor is high and, in my long experience of these things, can sometimes stop programmes going out or disabled contributors being used on air because some people just really badly don't want to get it wrong.

Ex-RAF serviceman Jon-Allan Butterworth competing at the velodrome Paralympic cyclist Jon-Allan Butterworth is a former RAF serviceman

People needlessly go red and start apologising if they say the word "walk" in front of a wheelchair user on your average day in Britain. And this all occurred shortly before GB's man David Weir won the 5000m in such an impressive style that his name started trending round the world on Twitter and he was "mentioned" by Olympic runner Usain Bolt.

If disabled people previously only found common ground on negative things - like hating being called special - perhaps these widely covered, jaw-dropping Games will present some collective positives to latch on to.

Here is a selection of your comments.

Of course, paralympians are "brave" and "inspirational". And so are all Olympians. Both categories of athletes have met exceptionally high international qualifying (open or disabled) standards prior to competing in London 2012. That achievement alone distinguishes them from 99.99% of their fellow countrymen and women. They are all "heroes" or "heroines" in my book with or without disabilities. It is not wrong for commentators to refer to a particular athlete's disability - these competitions are "handicap" events in the truest sense of the word and we spectators are watching at 4am on TV because these Paralympians are putting in, relatively speaking, "superhuman" performances.

Robert Sum, Wellington

I use the words "inspirational" and "superhuman" for both Paralympians and Olympians, it has nothing to do with anyone's disability - simply the fact that they inspire me to do all that I can in my life and their achievements seem beyond what any human is capable of, especially when breaking world records. I have no issue with describing Usain Bolt or David Weir as superhuman, David admitted that after his first gold medal he only had a couple of hours sleep before competing in and winning his heat the following morning, I personally find it difficult to have a sensible conversation after a couple of hours sleep, never mind competing in a race. I can understand that disabled people and Paralympians do not want to be described as superhuman etc if it is used as another means of differentiating between them and non-disabled people but I don't differentiate between the achievements of any sportsperson whether they are disabled or not, I just think they are all amazing.

Rachel Evans, Birmingham

If you subscribe to the Social Model of Disability, you don't see people by disability - you identify them as people. Your language is that that you would apply to any other person - regardless of how they may have mobility or capability. It's not wrong to say a "brave effort" when it comes to a swim - putting forth a valiant attempt to gain a medal. I will go for a walk - even though my wheelchair is my choice in mobility. Remarking on the observations of how much effort may be required for uphill parks of that walk is perfectly normal. Telling every person how I came to be in the wheelchair though is not. Its when the Social leaves and it becomes Medical - more focus on the disability than on the person.

Dominic , Clacton

I went to the Paralympics with a friend and was among the crowd screaming and cheering when three world records were broken in the women's powerlifting. I didn't think about acting any differently, so was surprised when my friend said she felt it was wrong to give a standing ovation to someone who couldn't walk. I thought, "yes, but we clap for someone with one arm - what should we do, not clap? Not stand for someone deserving a standing ovation?" I agree, patronising language like "brave" is far too easy to fling about, and a degree of forethought and sensitivity is important... but perhaps if we all stopped thinking about it SO much we could go on reacting like we would for any other athlete in any other competition, as it should be.

Clare, London

As the rest of the world watched the opening ceremony for the Paralympic Games, I sat at my fiances bedside, waiting for him to be taken to surgery to have his left leg amputated below the knee. Inspiring is EXACTLY the right word for these athletes, as far as I am concerned. In the last seven days, they have inspired me, and my fiance to keep fighting, be strong and be brave. They have inspired us to aspire to have the same life we had a fortnight ago, albeit with a prosthetic leg and maybe a wheelchair in the picture too. And yes, we are taking it one STEP at a time, even though he actually cannot walk! I doubt any Paralympian would be offended knowing how much they have inspired us this week.

Sandii Chilvers, Cleethorpes

"The British Paralympic Association would rather you didn't dwell on people's disability... " Really? Surely, having the Paralympics IS doing just that. Are we supposed to pretend that everyone is exactly the same? If so, why are we having the Paralympics at all? The very existence of such games highlights the disabilities of the competitors.

Trevor Goring, Selby

Some of the words or phrases that have been explained as being offensive to disabled people I genuinely don't understand. I'm still puzzling over how "the disabled" instead of "the disabled people" is any worse than saying "the French" or "the workers" instead of, say, "the French people". I just don't understand it, the two phrases are interchangeable in my head, they have the same meaning to me, so why wouldn't I use one or the other? In cases like this, I'd like to think someone would assume the best of me and would either explain it to me or just keep having a chat and gloss over it as one of the English language's quirks. English is a massively flexible language and it strikes me more and more often recently that different people have different interpretations of it, even within fluent speakers. One person's put down is another person's standard phrase or joke etc. Just seems sensible to assume the best of everyone's speech until either it's clear that common sense and courtesy has completely left them and their phrasing, or it's blatantly obvious they were intentionally being insulting!

Laura, UK

These are the Paralympics. The one thing that all these athletes have in common is that they each have some sort of "disability". It is ridiculous that commentators should be afraid to tell the viewer what that "disability" is - especially, as in the case of Sophie Christiansen, as mentioned in the article - the "disability" isn't immediately visually obvious (as with amputees, for example). Plain descriptive words should NEVER be out of bounds.

Elliot, London

My five-year-old son, who we took to the Olympics and is very into watching the Paralympics, refers to the athletes from each as the usuals and the unusuals. I think this is rather appropriate.

Perdita Barran, Edinburgh

During the Olympics I heard numerous athletes being described as 'inspiring' and their performances as being 'brave' so why can't we use those words in the Paralympics? Whether or not an athlete is disabled, if they are capable of a world-class performance that is something that will inspire people, and people will respect the amount of effort they put into being at the top of their sport. Similarly I'm sure I've heard athletes returning from injury described as being courageous for competing again. No one wants to be crass and use terms which may offend, but it's not much better to avoid all reference to an athlete's disability, or any turn of phrase which might even hint at it. If I were an athlete competing in the Paralympics I would want to be accepted as I am, disability and all.

Clare Hearty, Liverpool

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