Australia take on Canada at wheelchair rugby at the 2012 Paralympics. Picture: London 2012
Australia take on Canada at wheelchair rugby at the 2012 Paralympics. Picture: London 2012

Have the 2012 Paralympics really brought change for people with disabilities?

The London 2012 Paralympics attracted a cumulated worldwide audience of 3.4 billion people – a billion more than in Beijing 2008, and more than any other Games. But have the Games really changed attitudes to disability? Physical therapists and others involved in the Olympics believe they have: 2012 really could prove to have been a games changer.

Even during the Paralympics, those who were closely involved felt something significant was happening. Rachel Moore, WCPT’s Project Manager, was a Gamesmaker (volunteer) at the Paralympics. As an escort for presenters at medal ceremonies, it was clear to her that Paralympians from across the world were overwhelmed by the support they got from the public and spectators.

“The spectators were all there to see the world’s elite sports men and women, and certainly didn’t see the Paralympics as a lesser event,” she says. “At the Olympics the crowd were inspired by the achievements of the athletes, but at the Paralympics they were even more inspired, considering the additional challenges faced by athletes.”

“It’s clear to me that the Paralympics raised awareness of disabilities and made people feel much more comfortable discussing them.”

That mood was summed up at the end of the Games, when Sir Philip Craven, the International Paralympics Committee President, said they were the best games ever, and showed how far the paralympic movement had come in terms of global awareness. 

Subsequent research has indicated that the Games had a significant impact on British society, with one in three adults in the UK saying they had changed their attitude towards people with a disability and 81 per cent of British adults saying that the Paralympics have had a positive impact on the way people with disability are viewed by the public.

But the impact seems to go wider than the UK. The London 2012 Games were broadcast in over 115 countries and territories, more than ever before. In Australia, research has indicated that seven out of ten people followed the Paralympics, and nine out of ten Australians said they believed Paralympians are powerful role models.

Since the Games, registrations for the Australian Paralympic Committee’s talent search programme have increased five-fold and requests for disability classification have increased four-fold.

Keren Faulkner, an Australian Paralympic Committee physiotherapist and a senior physiotherapist at the Australian Institute of Sport, says there has definitely been increased awareness and positivity towards people with disability in the community. She was manager of physiotherapy for the Australian paralympic team.

“When I was in London I didn’t realise the impact the Paralympic Games were having in Australia,” she says. “It wasn’t until I returned home that I found the effect to be widespread and profound.  I realised that many of my clients who wouldn’t usually be interested in sport paid particular attention.”

“There was also a lot of interest in the types of disabilities of our athletes.  There were a lot of great interviews with Australian team members that helped people with limited exposure to people with disabilities to appreciate and understand some of these athletes as individuals.”

Australian athletes were happy to discuss the effect that disability had had on their lives in media coverage, she said.  “Most have found that resilience and persistence are key qualities they needed to develop early in life and then they discover later that these are beneficial qualities for high performance sport.” 

“In terms of tangible positive effects, I suspect that the increased awareness has had a longer term impact on inclusion and understanding of disability in schools, the workplace and the local community – though this is clearly difficult to measure.”

Nicola Phillips, who is Chair of the International Federation of Sports Physical Therapy, which is a WCPT subgroup, was team leader for the athlete’s polyclinic at the Olympic village in London. She says that London’s success in its Olympics bid was partly based on the legacy the Games would leave. And, based on the experiences of physical therapy support, this certainly seems to have been achieved with the Paralympics.

“A large number of PTs noted how much they had learned, and would be leaving with a vastly improved knowledge of the challenges and opportunities in disability sport,” she said.

The sports physical therapy special interest group in the UK, the Association of Chartered Physiotherapists in Sports Medicine, held a study day for all Gamesmaker physiotherapists to reflect on what had been learned and to encourage those who had volunteered to continue being involved in sport.

“Hosting the Olympic and Paralympic Games in our country has raised the awareness of the benefits of sport in general and especially in disability sport, while also raising the profile of the work of our profession in this area,” says Nicola Phillips.