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2016 Paralympics: Media depictions of disabled athletes are improving, says U of T researcher

Brazilian and Canadian rugby players during a test event for the Rio 2016 Paralympics (Photo by Buda Mendes/Getty Images)

With the 2016 Paralympic Games starting next week in Rio de Janeiro, writer Alyson Musial sat down to chat with Nancy Quinn (below), a sport physiotherapist and University of Toronto Masters graduate who researches the intersection of sport, disability and media. Nancy is a veteran of six Paralympic Games and has received a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal for her contribution to the Paralympic movement in Canada. Alyson also spoke to Nancy’s advisor, Department of Physical Therapy Professor Karen Yoshida, about how Paralympic athletes are represented in the media.

Nancy, tell us why you are so passionate about the Paralympic Games.

Quinn: Where to start? I graduated in 1987 with a BScPT fully entrenched in the medical model of disability; patients with a disability had a problem that required fixing. I had spent 4 years learning the biology and pathology of impairment, and had been taught strategies and techniques to repair, modify and at the very least, limit the progress of impairment. Upon reflection, I received little if any exposure to people outside of the acute care setting who lived with physical difference. In four years of university I met no one who worked outside the home, had a family, played sport, dated, and lived with a disability.

And so began my illustrious career of fixing people who I really knew nothing about.

A series of fortunate circumstances placed me on the medical team of Team Canada at the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia. Here I met a community of people with diverse physical impairments, who were highly athletic, and were passionate about elite sport and competition.  These same people travelled, danced, dined out, had children, married and divorced (not necessarily in that order), worked, and lived with a disability. These people also faced a variety of societal challenges.

Post Atlanta, I was hooked. I had discovered a sporting community where physical difference did not preclude athletic excellence. I returned home to central Ontario brimming with stories and enthusiasm to discover that there had been no media coverage of these Games whatsoever.


Nothing in The Globe and Mail, our national newspaper, and no television coverage. My friends and family congratulated my volunteerism with these Games, using language of charity and benevolence. How good it was of me to help those people out! I found this very frustrating. Six Paralympic Games later and I am a proud and passionate advocate for the Canadian Paralympic movement and a disability scholar in the making. 

How are disabled athletes represented in the Canadian media?

Yoshida: Sport journalism has traditionally featured athletes with disability far less often than able-bodied athletes. When athletes with a disability do receive coverage, their disability is framed as a tragedy, and that sport offers the athlete the opportunity to recover from, or transcend, this tragedy to achieve a more “normal”, able-bodied life. This framework celebrates their athletic achievement, but only as a triumph over the personal tragedy of impairment. Also, female Paralympic athletes are represented less often than their male counterparts. Male athletes who use wheelchairs, who are white and identify as heterosexual receive more frequent, diverse coverage than other athletes with disability.

Our research also shows that Paralympic athletes are faced with a complex dilemma:  when the sport media choose to represent a Paralympian as an elite athlete by minimizing their physical difference, the athlete becomes more relatable to a non-disabled viewing audience. Yet conversely, embracing physical difference establishes credibility for athletes within their disabled community. The tension between minimizing difference for non-disabled audiences, and highlighting difference for audiences with a disability, is a very interesting and challenging reality for the Paralympic community and makers of media.

How do conversations around disability, sport and the media affect rehabilitation?

Yoshida: It’s no mystery that media plays an influential role in our lives. Rehabilitation professionals need to work diligently to think critically about disability, which can be challenging given most clinicians are educated and socialized professionally in the biomedical model of disability, wherein disability equates to incapacity. Discussions of athleticism, and therefore ability, challenge assumptions of the biomedical model and encourage new ways of thinking about rehabilitation, which is great! As media continues to construct more alternative, positive cultural representations of athletes and ability, the language and practice around physical difference will evolve within the field of rehabilitation.

Are media representations of para-sport evolving?

Quinn: The good news is, things are improving. Working with Karen while doing my Masters, I looked at CBC’s coverage of the 2004 Paralympic Games.  CBC did a great job of representing our Canadian Paralympic athletes as athlete first. This was a truly positive step. Since the early 2000s, there is evidence to support that media representations of female and male Paralympic athletes have been growing, in quantity and quality. Slowly, the media is embracing more multi-dimensional representations of Paralympic.

It’s 2016 and my inbox is full of great media regarding para-sport in Canada and the pending Rio Paralympic Games, informed by person first/athlete first language. I find videos on YouTube of people with physical difference dancing, giving advice on dating or how to prepare for a job interview, and playing sport. 

But it’s 2016 and I still see people with mobility difference unable to move through the snow on a city sidewalk that has not been cleared. I hear able bodied people in my clinic waiting room speaking overly loud to others who have obvious physical difference. I see big budget films at the theater with story lines that reinforce the tragedy of disability.

It’s 2016 and media representation of para-sport, Paralympians and disability has evolved and continues to evolve. We’ve come a long way, but we have a long way to go.