#WeThe15 was misguided in using the Tokyo Paralympic Games to launch a disability inclusion revolution

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<span class="caption">Canada's Zak Madell (right) and France's Jonathan Hivernat (left) compete during a semifinal wheelchair rugby match at the Tokyo Paralympic Games.</span> <span class="attribution"><span class="source">(AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)</span></span>
Canada's Zak Madell (right) and France's Jonathan Hivernat (left) compete during a semifinal wheelchair rugby match at the Tokyo Paralympic Games. (AP Photo/Kiichiro Sato)

When the Tokyo Paralympic started, more than 125 landmarks across the globe, including the CN Tower and Niagara Falls, were bathed in purple in support of the campaign #WeThe15. This new campaign aims to use sport to break down barriers and end discrimination faced by 15 per cent of the world’s population who experience disability.

According to #WeThe15, people who experience disability are still waiting for equitable opportunities to be seen as “active and contributing members of global society.” Supported by organizations such as UNESCO, the International Paralympic Committee, the Special Olympics, the Deaflympics and the Invictus Games, the campaign hopes to create long-lasting change by “bringing together the biggest coalition ever of international organizations from the world of sport, human rights, policy, communications, business, arts and entertainment.”

Relying on the power of branding, imagery and social media to shape public perception and promote inclusive actions, #WeThe15 was launched with a 90-second video featuring people with disabilities talking about stereotypes, from inspiration to pity to “specialness.” The video aired during the Paralympic Games opening ceremony, which reached an estimated global audience of 250 million.

“Only when you see us as one of you, wonderfully ordinary, wonderfully human … only then can we all break down these barriers that keep us apart,” was their message. While we as researchers commend the emphasis on dismantling the divide between disabled and non-disabled lives, we question the use of the Paralympic Games as an appropriate starting point for the #WeThe15 movement.

We study health and physical cultures, including Paralympic sport. David is a former member of the Canadian Paralympic Team with a lifelong personal experience of disability. Carla has over 15 years of practical experience in and around disability sport culture.

Exclusionary by nature

Eager to benefit from the global reach of the Paralympic Games, the #WeThe15 visionaries overlooked the exclusionary nature of the Paralympics. The Games are exclusionary because they are meant to be so — only certain bodies that experience disability are eligible to compete. Of these, only the most physically talented are selected to represent their country.

Even Paralympic athletes have even begun to question the exclusionary nature of the Paralympics. In a recent BBC article, Paralympic archery champion Danielle Brown said the Paralympics are “becoming an exclusive rather than an inclusive event.” Brown, who has complex regional pain syndrome, competed in the Beijing and London Paralympics, but was told in 2013 that she was no longer eligible to compete after the international para-archery classification procedure changed.

Athletes inspect their archery targets in the distance
Team members check their target after a session of the men’s individual recurve-open ranking round of the archery event at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. (AP Photo/Shuji Kajiyama)

In the midst of the Games being used as a vehicle to expand disability sport participation, the Tokyo Paralympics are a current example of exclusion — not only because of eligibility issues, but also because more impaired athletes are seen as detrimental to the commercial appeal of the Games and are often left out of Paralympic media and marketing.

Because of the elite nature of the Paralympic Games and the bodies that engage in it, it is extremely difficult to see Paralympians as a fair representative of #WeThe15.

A better way forward

We are not writing to condemn the #WeThe15 movement, but to argue that a better step for disability activism, is what we call the social empowerment of difference. Instead of advocating that “everyone is human,” we believe we should move beyond that messaging and centre the celebration of difference. In addition, the social empowerment of difference is designed to enhance not just the social emancipation of #WeThe15, but all marginalized groups.

Quite simply, inclusion should not require marginalized people to wave a flag that proves their humanity. Instead, we should all take a step back and celebrate differences. #WeThe15 should be careful to not get caught up in grand gestures of political activism or the media spectacle of the Tokyo Paralympic Games, and instead demonstrate an openness towards difference, which in turn will extend beyond the boundaries of sport and permeate all dimensions of social life.

This article is republished from The Conversation, a nonprofit news site dedicated to sharing ideas from academic experts. It was written by: P. David Howe, Western University and Carla Filomena Duarte da Silva, Western University.

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The authors do not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organisation that would benefit from this article, and have disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

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