Monday, 27 August 2012

2012 Paralympics - Enabling times?


Talking with Pamela Mungroo (Freelance producer, presenter, podcaster) earlier this week, our conversation turned to the Paralympics. Not only were we both looking forward to the events, we thought these games would be a major turning point in public perception and attitudes to …

And there we already hit a problem. Our very use of language reflects the centuries of prevalent attitudes towards “the disabled”. Most of the descriptive terms have a negative, diminishing or even derogatory connotation.

Pamela had in fact written an interesting Master's thesis (“How the historical attitudes, both artistic and cultural, continue to influence today’s visual imagery of the deformed body” )  which I read later that evening. It illustrated how a separation into “them” and “us” had existed through the ages and been reflected and reinterpreted in the current philosophies of the day, using the visual media as an example. It was quite an eye opener to see how imagery was used to portray a certain message, even by organisations looking for funding to improve or prevent the plight of “the disabled”.


It prompted me to see if there was an underlying biological basis to the creation of these attitudes in scientific publications – perhaps in terms of visual appearance and even mate selection. Yes, there seemed to be a trend for the preference for facial symmetry, for example (Rhodes et al 1998, “Facial symmetry and the perception of beauty” http://www.springerlink.com/content/eq4178xr00474432/).

However, when you looked at body perception, there was a clear cultural bias, with people's attitudes shifting to those of the culture they were moving into. More telling was the prevalence of research into perceptions of female beauty in results of searches – cultural bias was even affecting the nature of certain types of research and answers sought.

In Britain, attitudes towards women, race and sexuality have gradually shifted over the past century alone. These elements of our society have been absorbed within the current accepted norm. Pamela and I thought that with the Paralympics in London, we were seeing a broadening of the perception of what the norm of our population actually was – to include “the disabled”, rather than see them as “other”.

You can already see the shift in attitude by the way the media are portraying paralympians and the upcoming Paralympics. Photography and filming alone are done in a much more sympathetic way, looking to convey more about the person themselves or the ideals they stand for. Trawling through Channel 4's website, the official Paralympics TV channel, the articles were also remarkably free of phrases or terms with hidden negative connotations.

For me, the best article reflecting the change in attitudes was the tongue-in-cheek and racy blog “How many condoms will be used in the athlete's village at the Paralympics”  http://www.springerlink.com/content/eq4178xr00474432/. Fun, controversial and talking about people with a unique set of opportunities and physical challenges in the Athletes Village.

But look at the photos of the Channel 4 presenters for the games and you see that the harsh competitive nature of advertising prevails; no obvious “disability” on view here. This will require more time.

I'm looking forward to a great series of sporting events. I am excited about going to see the athletics in the Olympic Stadium in person. Where Beijing had brought paralympics to the wider consciousness, I hope London will bring a lasting change towards inclusion and respect for a previously neglected part of our society.

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