Media portrayal of the Paralympics: the thin line between empowerment and voyeurism
The Paralympic Games are fantastic as they give value disabled but also to non-disabled persons. The Paralympics provide stories of hope, of perseverance and of overcoming difficulties. Stories that inspire both disabled and non-disabled people to get the best out of their life/lives, to live their life to the fullest. Such stories confront non-disabled people with bigger problems and help them to put their own troubles in perspective. As for the disabled people, the Paralympics are even more advantageous: it gives them a voice, their own platform and provides them with recognition and acceptance from the non-disabled world. This strengthens and empowers them.
However, the media sometimes undermine these qualities of the Paralympics, as they tend to focus more on the disabilities of the Paralympic athletes than on their achievements. Let’s take a look at the following example: “Marieke Vervoort took gold at the Paralympics in London for the 100 meters. Due to a rare disease, this 33 year old athlete got paralysed and ended up in a wheelchair.” Why are we, and hence the media, especially interested in the story behind the performance of Paralympic Athletes? And why is this interest far lower when it concerns the Olympic games? Of course their disability plays a big role in their achievement and giving information about their impairment makes it easier for outsiders to put the performance in the right perspective. But here’s the bottle neck: when does the background information on the Paralympic athletes touch or even cross the border of voyeurism ? When is it ‘just’ background information and when is it feeding the peeping Tom in each of us? Be honest, we secretly all want to know what the Paralympic athlete’s disability is and how he or she became disabled. Is it an inborn deficiency, was there an accident? How does he or she deal with it? Interest in other people is normal and even desirable for a good integration in society. But our interest in Paralympics athletes is far more concentrated on their personal life than on their performances, which is not the case for Olympic athletes .
By letting the personal story take the lead on the sports performance, the media portrayal of the Paralympic athletes seems to run counter to the empowerment the Paralympics should provide. When the human interest dominates in the announcements, it looks like we need to feel sorry for the athletes before we can fully appreciate their achievements. Reporters should find the right balance between pleasing our voyeuristic motivations and praising the athletes. The fact that this exercise is not a piece of cake is generally known. To help reporters, the British Paralympic Association even issued a ‘how-to’ guide stating what words to use and what words to avoid.
Still, the current media portrayal of the Paralympics does not entirely whip the floor with the achievements of the athletes. Recent research pointed out that the reporting about the Paralympics pays more attention to fairness, fair play and sportsmanship while the Olympics Games report more about negative topics like doping and manipulation. The Paralympics certainly have a positive impact on the general perception of disability. Also, the fact that people overcome their disability or rather learn to accept and live to the fullest with it, deserves some attention. Sometimes, however, this disability gets too much attention in order to please our peeping Tom. Maybe we should all just ignore him?
Mieke Van der Haegen
September! Going to school for the first time. Can you remember? What a tragedy! Weaping children and most of all… weaping parents. Much ado about nothing. Imagine, was it that bad after all? School happened to be the perfect place to learn and to grow to your full potential as an individual and ironically at the same time — in our western society — it helped you to evolve to a social human being.
Cultures usually develop from 'we' to 'I'. In cultures that are less materially wealthy, people depend on each other to meet their basic needs. Tourists visiting these countries are often astounded by the warmth and helpfulness of the local people, which seems to stand in stark contrast to the greed and individualism of the West. Are these people really so altruistic? The essential feature of the human race is that we do everything we can as individuals and also as a species to survive and enrich our lives.
This makes us emotionally and sometimes physically dependent on other people.In developing countries, the government provides hardly any social security at all. This causes a paradox of necessity. The tiny number of wealthy people who can afford to pay for everything do not need social security, but the vast majority cannot afford to make the contributions. As a result, people depend on each other, providing support to meet their basic needs. It is absolutely vital to maintain this social cohesion. This is not just philanthropy at work. It is all based on the principle of reciprocity: if an individual does not bother to help others in their time of need, when he meets with difficulties he should not expect any help either. He will even be reminded that his predicament is his own fault.
While carrying out research in the Philippines, we were assisted by a young Filipino man whom we had recruited and trained in Belgium. He was the only son and had five sisters. The rest of his family was quite poor and lived in Manila. One weekend his family invited me to a little party to celebrate their son's arrival after six years abroad. He did not enjoy it at all. All evening he was reminded of his responsibilities and told that he should have stayed in Manila to make a contribution there. He was unable even to mention the fact that while in Antwerp he had fallen in love with a woman and was bringing up a child, so strong was his fear of their disappointment.
|Would you like to be kept up to date?, Subscribe below to our newsletter.|