How Paralympics prime time coverage can help ‘normalize’ persons with disabilities

2016 paralympics Paralympics Games 2016, basketball, USA vs. Turkey/ A.RICARDO/Shutterstock

A Catholic disability advocate praised an increase of television and media coverage for this year’s Paralympic Games, saying it will help normalize disability. 

“It is important that the presence of persons with disabilities is normalized in all aspects of society. Disability is an ordinary part of life,” said Julia Gilberto, the manager of programs and resource development at the National Catholic Partnership on Disability, in an interview with CNA. 

“Before this year, the Paralympics were in a sense, ‘in the shadows,’” Gilberto said. “There is no reason that the gifts, stories, and achievements of persons with disabilities should be in the shadows.” 

According to NBC, which broadcasts the Olympics and Paralympics in the United States, the 2020 Tokyo Paralympics will receive about 1,200 hours of programming on the network’s various broadcast and digital platforms. In contrast, NBC in 2016 had promised to air more than 70 hours of coverage of the Rio Paralympics. 

Gilberto told CNA that she was thrilled to hear the athletes would be given increased attention. 

“​​My initial thought was ‘finally!’ Adaptive sports are exciting to watch, and it seems odd that they were not given more attention before,” said Gilberto. “The skills of these athletes are incredible.”

Primetime coverage, she explained, “means that as a society, we are one step closer to normalizing the notion that both limitation and greatness are a part of every human being’s story.” 

“Both in the regular Olympics and the Paralympics, we see athletes that push their bodies and mental strength to new limits, and we see the ways in which our bodies are limited,” said Gilberto. “This is the case for every athlete, and every human being.”

The Paralympic Games, which were first held in 1960, feature athletes with physical disabilities. 

The games have changed dramatically in the 61 years since they were first held. At the first Paralympics, there were only 400 competitors from 23 countries. Now, at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games, 4,537 athletes representing 163 nations will compete in 22 sports - including, for the first time, taekwondo and badminton. 

Each sport has a different athlete classification system based on a competitor’s physical ability, to ensure a more even playing field. 

While all of the athletes at the first Paralympic Games had spinal cord injuries, the field has expanded to include athletes with limb deficiencies, movement disorders, short statures, and visual impairments. 

Gilberto pointed to the Paralympics as evidence that “persons who experience disability have incredible gifts that are worth paying attention to.” 

“This notion that we need to pay attention to the gifts of persons with disabilities is not a new idea, especially in the Church,” she said. “All human beings have gifts to contribute to the Church and to society.” 

While the Paralympics are receiving more mainstream coverage and recognition, Gilberto suggested that Catholics should take this time to think about their fellow Catholics who may be “in the shadows” due to accessibility issues at their parishes. 

Catholics should be asking themselves, “Are there gifts right in my community that are hidden because my parish is not accessible,” said Gilberto. “If this is the case, let’s get to work.” 

“All human beings are equal in dignity,” she said. “All human beings are capable of knowing and loving God.” 

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The 2020 Paralympic Games began on August 24 and will continue until September 5.

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