Watching the Paralympics through a different lens

As the Tokyo Paralympics begin, Jason Diederich, General Manager of APM Communities and former Paralympian, shares his thoughts on the positive power of sport and how we should really think about the achievements of people with disability.

An unlikely set of circumstances have made 2021 an Olympic and Paralympic year while much of the country remains in lockdown.

Just a few short weeks ago, the world was uplifted by the drama and excitement of the Tokyo Olympic Games.

It was a welcome distraction for many Aussies and the performance of our national team gave our spirits a much needed boost.

We celebrated a range of sports, and we admired the performance and dedication of our athletes.

The good news is there's more to come with the Tokyo Paralympic Games underway from August 24.

For the many Australians still in lockdown, and sport lovers everywhere, it’s a chance to see more elite sport, to cheer the green and gold and lift those spirits again.

But it’s time to start watching the Paralympics through a different lens.

How our experiences influence our perspective

As an amputee, I started competitive swimming against other athletes with a disability when I was a teenager.

I remember at the time hearing my grandmother say she couldn’t come to watch my races, as she found the sight of so many people with disability too distressing.

She was a gorgeous, compassionate woman, and she just felt so sorry for all these “poor” people. It just broke her heart to think about the barriers they would face in their lives.

I didn’t realise it at the time, but it was representative of the views many people still have, even today.

As much as I loved my grandmother, I can see now this kind of compassion is not always helpful for people with disability.

When we see people with disability as objects of compassion, or as people deserving our pity, we make negative assumptions about their world, about their happiness, and about the limits they face.

It means we go in with low expectations of what we think they can manage in their day to day lives, and so we find ourselves so inspired by people with disability, even if they are only doing ordinary things.

Celebrating achievement

This sentiment was best summed up by the late comedian and disability advocate, Stella Young.

In her talk at TEDxSydney, aptly titled 'I’m not your inspiration, thank you very much', she tells the story of being nominated for an award as a teenager.

When Stella was 15 years old she was nominated by her local community for an achievement award - when, as she tells it, her biggest achievement was watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer after school.

“I wasn’t doing anything that could be considered an achievement if you took disability out of the equation” she said.

With Stella’s words in mind, we can watch and enjoy the Paralympics and take disability out of the equation.

When you are cheering on athletes like Ahmed Kelly in the pool, or Sara Walsh in the long jump, or Melissa Tapper in the table tennis, don’t watch with pity.

The Paralympics are the world’s third-largest international sporting event, they come with numerous highlights and intense sporting moments.

Celebrate the drama, the winning, the losing, the effort, the dedication, the agility, the speed, the accuracy, the power, the elation and the heartbreak - there are some great Australian athletes to watch out for.

How we can challenge and change our ways of thinking

As you watch the Tokyo Paralympics be inspired by the genuine sporting achievements before you, not by the disabilities that the athletes have.

Then once you have celebrated Australia’s latest gold medal, start challenging your assumptions about the lives of people with disability in your own community.

You will know if you have changed your perspective for the better the next time you see a person with disability in the supermarket carrying a heavy case of soft drink.

Instead of thinking “oh wow, good on them for doing their shopping on their own”, the only thing that will come to your mind is “Who would drink that brand of cola?”

As Stella Young said:

“Disability doesn’t make you exceptional but questioning what you think you know about it does.”

The Tokyo Paralympics runs from Tuesday 24 August to Sunday 5 September – view the full schedule here.

Jason became an amputee at the age of 10 after being born without muscles below his knee in his right leg. He won silver medals in swimming at the Seoul and Barcelona Paralympics.

As well as General Manager of APM Communities, Jason is a board member and peer support volunteer with Limbs4Life, a community group that supports amputees.