Have the Paralympics changed perceptions?

Following the opening of the Rio games Dan Lynn explores how far we’ve come with the public’s perceptions of disability.
Dan Lynn, YMCA Club Director
A.Ricardo / Shutterstock.com

As the fireworks exploded above Rio’s Maracana Stadium, the 2016 Paralympics announced it’s arrival with a bang on Wednesday.

“These Paralympians will show that the world has no limitations and endless possibility,” said Sir Philip Craven, President of the International Paralympic Committee – and it certainly seemed that way when extreme wheelchair athlete Aaron 'Wheelz' Fotheringham zoomed down a six-storey high ramp and through a hoop to delight of the 78,000-seat stadium.

Whether that is the case, still remains to be seen. The build up to these games has been the worst in it 56-year history. But it’s hoped that now the athletics can start competing, the magic will return. The 2012 London Paralympics were a hit and there was much talk about the positive inroads they made in improving the public’s perception of disability. But are we there yet?

Anthony Bryan is one of our health and fitness advisors at YMCA Club, our London gym where we’ve worked hard to make our facilities truly accessible to everyone. When Anthony was six he was diagnosed with a brain tumour. His treatment was an operation which left him paralysed on one side. But this hasn’t stopped him realising his ambitions to become an athlete. He wears a prosthetic on his leg to help him run and trains “every day except Monday”. (Go online and you’ll find at least one YouTube video that documents the intense regime he puts his body through.) It looks like it’s working. Anthony competes internationally in the 800 and 1500 meters and last year he won a double gold at the Cerebral Palsy International Sports and Recreation Association World games.
I asked him if the Paralympics had succeed in changing public perceptions. “A little bit,” he replied. “Some people are more aware but they are still not 100% sure. It still needs to improve a bit more. It will be interesting to see how many people will watch it this year because it’s on Channel 4 and not BBC1, say.”

One thing that has made a difference to Anthony is technology. He uses Nike+ Run Club app on long distances. “It does help because it’s more specific. Before I would have to guess how far I’d gone and what my times were.” He also uses video. “You can slow it down and see what I am doing when I run – what part of the body I am using. When you’re aware of your weak points you can strengthen them.”

At Central YMCA we hope seeing disabled people in gyms and fitness facilities will become increasingly common.

To push the dial in the right direction our training operation, YMCAfit, offers an Exercise and Disability course which trains fitness professionals to deliver safe, effective and fun exercise programmes for a range of people with disabilities. That means more PTs that are confident to train clients with differing disabilities, and hopefully more people with disabilities feeling confident to work out.

We’ve also partnered with Aspire, a leading national charity supporting people with spinal cord injuries, to create the award-winning InstructAbility. This project aims to increase the numbers of disabled people becoming fitness instructors. Of course, not everyone has to take the specialist route; Anthony got his Advanced Level 3 Personal Training qualification through a standard YMCAfit course, which is great and something I hope we see more of in the industry. 

As a society there is clearly much more to be done to improve the integration of disabled people. So let’s hope the Paralympics provides another boost in the right direction. With more than 4300 athletes from 159 nations, plus two refugees in an independent team, it’s the biggest yet. We’ll certainly be taking inspiration.

YMCAfit and YMCA Club are all Central YMCA's operations. Read more about Central YMCA and its four operations.

Dan Lynn

YMCA Club Director