It’s complicated: Disability media and the Paralympic Games

Prof Katie Ellis  

Professor in Internet Studies and Director of the Centre for Culture and Technology at Curtin University. Her research is located at the intersection of media access and representation and engages with government, industry and community to ensure actual benefits for real people with disability. She has authored and edited 17 books and numerous articles on the topic of disability and the media, including most recently the monograph Disability and Digital Television Cultures (Routledge, 2019).

Australian sportsman Dylan Alcott’s profile on the Paralympics Australia website lists his goal as “to be a trailblazer for people with a disability in the media”. In addition to be a high profile wheelchair tennis player, Alcott has made a number of interventions in the disability media space space from exposing the lack of disability representation in Australian media in 2019 to highlighting the ways people with disability are continually medicalized in 2020.

During the 2021 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, Alcott commented to Tom Decent in the Sydney Morning Herald on the importance of both the Paralympic Games themselves and the opportunity they gave for disabled athletes to participate in media interviews:

I’ll tell you what I’m most proud of; all our athletes and what they’re saying in their interviews is unbelievable […] They are advocating for not only people with disabilities who play sport, for our whole community in general. Every single interview I watch I’m just hit for six. I’m so proud of our team and what they stand for and how they communicate.

As I argued in my 2016 book Disability and Popular Culture, The Paralympics have had a complicated relationship with the media. In 2021 we saw this relationship changing and a shift from the rehabilitative focus of previous games.

History of the Paralympics

The first Paralympic Games was held in 1948 at Stoke Mandeville Hospital where 26 British veterans undergoing rehabilitation following war injuries competed in wheelchair archery. The rehabilitative origins of the games have continued to shape media reporting of the event.

While Wikipedia describes the 1996 Paralympic Games as the first Paralympics to get mass media sponsorship, athletes have described the way the media did not stick around for the Paralympic Games following the conclusion of the Atlantic Olympic Games. Schell and Duncan’s 1999 analysis of the reporting that did take place identified an implication that athletes be ‘grateful for the Paralympic experience’. 

Broadcasters have traditionally shied away from the Paralympics fearing the classification system too complicated to explain to audiences and that the disabled body would elicit discomfort rather than appreciation. As I noted in my book, this began to change in 2012 when television rights for the Paralympic Games were sold on the Open Market in the UK for the first time. Channel 4 who won the rights embarked on a new era of disability sports with the aim of shifting broader perceptions of disability.

The SuperHumans and spectacularisation of Paralympic sports

Channel 4 embarked on an unapologetically commercial strategy advertising the Games via their Meet The Superhumans campaign. The campaign was an attempt to replace the ‘ahh bless’ approach taken to previous advertising with a cool factor. While the campaign without a doubt prompted a paradigm shift, unfortunately, the use of the term superhuman has long been criticised in disability studies.

In the successive Games following 2012, host countries and broadcasters have attempted to attract a larger audience via a process of spectacularisation. In the lead up to the 2021 Paralympic Games, the event was heavily advertised on Australian television and was broadcast in prime time in the US for the first time. The Games have gone beyond the initial stages of attracting an audience I wrote about in 2016.

Equal pay

Paralympic athletes were also paid comparably to their Olympic counterparts for the first time in both the US and Australia. While for US athletes this commitment was made prior to the Games itself, in Australia this commitment was not made until Paralympian Chad Perris raised the issue in a podcast. In an interview with ABC news two-time gold medallist Jodi Willis-Roberts added to the conversation:

We’re not a sideshow, we’re athletes out there doing it every bit as hard as every other athlete, and unfortunately we don’t get the same rewards.

The revelation prompted a social media campaign led by a number of high profile Australian athletes and fully embraced by Australians on social media. In response to this grassroots effort and high profile support the Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison announced in Parliament that Australian Paralympians would receive equal pay to their Olympic athletes. 

The binary opposition between Paralympic and Olympic athletes accepted as fact in previous years has broken down with athletes claiming disability including for example Michael Phelps whose ADHD diagnosis has been reframed as a strength in media reporting. However, like the superhuman campaign, reporting of previously hidden disability and impairment constructs athletes as superhuman or inspirational.

At the 2020 Olympics a number of athletes, notably Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka, revealed and prioritized their mental health struggles. This was a pivotal moment that blurred the distinction between ability and disability and broke down some boundaries between the Olympic and Paralympic Games.    


While the 2012 Paralympic Games is notable for its ‘Meet The Superhumans’ campaign initiated by Channel 4 in the UK and its influence in creating new audiences for the Paralympic Games, in 2021 the International Paralympic Committee launched a disability human rights campaign We the 15.

Pointing out that 15% of the population live with disability and experience social disadvantage as a result, this campaign aimed to break down boundaries between the disabled and not. The campaign has met with both praise and ambivalence. 

Held in the midst of a pandemic, the Tokyo Games were a defining moment for disability’s relationship with the media. In 2021 both Paralympians and Olympians brought attention to disability and the media via their commentary about disability issues and their own experiences of both impairment and social disadvantages such as unequal pay.