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Tokyo 2020: “Don’t call Paralympians ‘superhuman’ just for being fit”

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Calling Paralympians “superhuman” isn’t the empowering sentiment you might think it is, argues writer Melissa Parker – many disabled people struggle to be seen as barely human.

This year’s Tokyo 2020 Summer Paralympics begin on 24 August. For many, it’s a chance to once again experience the excitement of sport – and the brilliance of Team GB’s athletes. For some disabled people like me, however, the Paralympics can be a difficult beast to get behind.

The current Channel 4 ad campaign for the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics has started to challenge how we discuss disabled athletes. It calls them ‘Super. Human’. 

If the Paralympics is about supermen and superwomen, does that mean that the rest of us in the disabled community are merely Clark Kent? We are not treated as heroes in our daily lives. In fact, according to new figures released by the disability equality charity Scope, more than a third of disabled people in the UK feel totally excluded from sport, citing barriers such as negative attitudes, inaccessible sporting venues and a lack of trained staff to support special needs.   

Why ‘superhuman’ is dehumanising

According to the founder of the Centre for Disability Studies, Professor Colin Barnes, the history of the superhuman is littered with stereotypes and disempowerment. In his paper on disabling imagery, he talks about “the disabled person as Super Cripple”, where “the disabled person is assigned superhuman, almost magical, abilities. Disabled communities almost exclusively make it into the media when their extraordinary talents are on show. “This triumph over tragedy approach,” he explains, “conveniently excludes the central point that disability is a social issue which cannot be addressed by misplaced sentimentality of individual impairments.”

This kind of narrative tells the rest of us to ignore our physical pain, the effect of discrimination, declining mental health and feelings of isolation, and the awkwardness others feel in our presence. We are those emotionless, unfeeling, unflinching creatures: the superhumans.   

When I was 16, I had multi-level surgery – 26 operations in one go. I had to rebuild my mind and body while living with continuous pain and muscle spasms that result from having cerebral palsy. I most definitely am not a superhuman and I don’t want my story to be stylised.

James Taylor, executive director of strategy at Scope, tells Stylist: “It’s great that this year’s bold campaign has been created with the athletes’ stories at its heart. It shows them as elite competitors, making huge personal sacrifices to compete at the top level of their sport, but also as disabled people who continue to face discrimination in their daily life.”

However, Taylor admits that “ultimately, we will not have true equality until all disabled people are represented across all areas of life. We believe the Paralympics and surrounding coverage can be a catalyst for that by sparking discussions about disability and bringing disabled people’s lives to the forefront.”   

Disabled people are still excluded from exercise

As Dr Emma Pullen, a lecturer and social scientist broadly interested in the relationship between sport, social inclusion, health and wellbeing points out, the Channel 4 campaign that plays on the idea of the ‘superhuman’ has undoubtedly been successful and positive in promoting Paralympic sport. However: “We must be mindful of the phrase ‘superhuman’ as it may promote a very singular idea or image of the experience of disability,” she explains.

“This may lead to marginalising the diversity of disability experience and disguise some of the more pressing structural issues that impact a large proportion of people who identify as disabled, such as everyday access and discrimination.”

Moreover, the real-world impact of this singular image of disability has been limited. According to Scope’s most recent research, 21% of disabled people felt excluded from exercise due to a lack of accessible sporting facilities. A further 17% said they felt excluded due to the negative attitudes of staff.

The Paralympics and surrounding coverage should be a catalyst for change – sparking discussions about disability and bringing disabled people’s lives to the forefront. For that to be the case, however, we need to place more focus on the humanity of disabled people.    

Paralympians as athletes first

Of course, our community isn’t homogenous and neither are our attitudes to campaigns such as this one. Andy Walker is a paralysed athlete who cycled 250 miles across Kenya using a motorised quad bike he steered with his chin. He states that the advert should inspire others to challenge themselves: “I think it is extremely powerful, motivational, hard-hitting and it makes me want to go and perform and challenge myself.”

He also believes that the adverts show the Paralympians as their authentic selves – as gritty, brave and accomplished athletes who have overcome incredible obstacles to achieve success. “The advert epitomises all of those characteristics of being a Paralympian,” he says.

Daneka, a 28-year-old who is disabled and neurodivergent, suggests that while the superhuman narrative is incredibly damaging, C4’s advert shows how society is evolving: a full stop now separates the ‘Super. Human’. “I’m really glad that this time around with the advertising for the Paralympics, they’re trying to undo what they did in the ‘We’re The Superhumans’ 2016 campaign, and doing a really considered campaign,” she says. 

Representation versus ‘inspiration porn’

Saying that, among the people I’ve spoken to, there’s a strong sense that we should be moving away from the term ‘superhuman’ altogether. Hannah, 27, lives with a range of conditions including fibromyalgia and ulcerative colitis. On one occasion, she had to leave a yoga class within 10 minutes because the instructor “kept touching me and repositioning me into extremely painful angles. It was so disheartening because I love working out, but I haven’t been to a workout class since.” Unfortunately, this is the reality for many disabled people who are not given enough support.

Hannah tells me that she “despises” the Paralympics advertising campaign as it plays “right into the hands of inspiration porn, which holds disabled people up to impossible standards and permits non-disabled people to judge disabled people who don’t meet those standards.”

It’s not just that this kind of language alienates disabled people; ascribing ‘superhuman’ status to athletes also puts them under considerable pressure to perform. Take Roxanne, for example. A former child para-athlete and Paralympic hopeful, she’s now an amateur boxer, and she believes that very little changed after the 2012 Paralympics.

“We have to face the facts the Paralympics are, for some, the only experience they will have of disabled people, and this can put a lot of pressure on disabled people who just want to be,” says Roxanne, who lives with cerebral palsy. “In society’s eyes, you’re underestimated or overestimated. Either you’re stuck in bed or winning a gold medal!”    

Accessibility is as important as aspiration and representation

Given that half of disabled people (51%) say that their mobility, dexterity or movement has worsened due to being less active and 91% want to be more active (according to that Scope study), it’s apparent that basic needs aren’t being met. “Some disabled people just want access to exercise, fitness, sport or a community without having to go pro.”

It’s clear that some disabled people – and many non-disabled people – are inspired by the Paralympics. I’d argue, however, that any admiration and inspiration happens in spite of campaigns that set us apart; we admire these people because they’re accomplished athletes – nothing more or less.

For me, exercise has become an integral part of my life. It has strengthened torn muscles, helped me rebuild the relationship between my body and mind, and has boosted my body confidence no end. Being fit isn’t about being superhuman and willfully ignoring the discomfort or distress; it’s about progress.

Without a commitment to making fitness more accessible to people like me, advertising campaigns and hashtags are meaningless. I’d like to see campaigns that educate my community into understanding how exercise can make a positive and meaningful change in our lives – and how to go about finding help and support to do it.

We need equality of access and a fundamental change in attitudes, not a tired cliché. We’re the mere mortals — the only humans.   

For more Olympic and Paralympic coverage, follow Strong Women on Instagram (@StrongWomenUK).

Images: Getty

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