Since December 3, 1992, the world annually celebrates The International Day of Persons with Disabilities to promote awareness, knowledge, and support for critical problems related to the inclusion of persons with disabilities in society.
The United Nations (UN) General Assembly proclaimed 1981 as the International Year of Disabled Persons and from1983 to 1992 was the UN’s Decade of Disabled Persons.
According to the 2011 World Report on Disability, published by the World Health Organization and the World Bank Group, more than a billion people globally has some sort of disability, and 80 percent of them live in developing countries. One third of all out-of-school children have disabilities, and fewer than 2 percent of children with disabilities in developing countries are in school. More than 800 million individuals with physical and/or cognitive impairments live in poverty, 3.5 million of whom are refugees. Between 50-70 percent are unemployed.
The 2015 theme of the International Day of Persons with Disabilities was: Inclusion Matters: Access and Empowerment for People of All Abilities. There were also three sub-themes: Making Cities Inclusive and Accessible for All; Improving Disability Data and Statistics; and Including Persons with Invisible Disabilities in Society and Development.
The best platform to celebrate humanity’s abilities, instead of (dis)abilities is the Paralympic Movement. The term “Paralympic” comes from the Greek preposition “para” (beside or alongside) and the word “Olympic”: parallel Games to the Olympics, which demonstrates how the two movements work hand-in-hand. “Paralympics” has been the official title of the Games since 1988.
Since September 22, 1989, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) has been the global governing body of the movement responsible for organising the summer and winter Paralympic Games and developing sport opportunities for people with disabilities from the beginner to elite level worldwide. The IPC’s mission is “to enable para-athletes to achieve sporting excellence and inspire and excite the world.”
Sir Ludwig Guttmann’s Realisation
Sport for has existed since 1888 when the first sport clubs for the deaf existed in Berlin. It was not until after World War II however, that it was widely introduced to assist the large number of service personnel and civilians who had been injured during wartime. In 1944, the British Government requested Dr. Ludwig Guttmann open a spinal injuries center at the Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Great Britain. In time, rehabilitation sport evolved to recreational sport and then to competitive sport. On July 29, 1948, the day of the London 1948 Olympic Games Opening Ceremony, Dr. Guttmann organised the first archery competition for 16 injured servicemen and women in wheelchairs, which he named the Stoke Mandeville Games, a milestone in Paralympic history. In 1952, Dutch ex-servicemen joined the Movement and the International Stoke Mandeville Games were founded. These Games later morphed into the Paralympic Games which first took place in Rome, Italy in 1960 featuring 400 athletes from 23 countries. Since then they have taken place every four years. Sweden staged the first Paralympic Winter Games, and as with the Summer Games, have taken place every four years. Since the 1988 Seoul Games and the Albertville 1992 Winter Games, the Paralympics have also taken place in the same cities and venues as the Olympics as part of the IPC-IOC agreement.
Long before the Paralympics, a number of athletes took part in the Olympics. American amputee gymnast George Eyser competed at the 1904 Olympics, winning three gold medals, two silver and a bronze. Hungarian amputee Oliver Halassy won two gold medals and a silver in water polo, in 1928, 1932 and 1936. Karoly Takacs, also of Hungary, won gold in shooting at the 1948 Olympics. Danish equestrian athlete Lis Hartel, who contracted polio in 1943, won dressage silver at the 1952 and 1956 Olympics.
An eclectic group of athletes have competed in both the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games. New Zealander Neroli Fairhall was the first paraplegic competitor in the Olympic Games. After competing in the 1980 Paralympics, Fairhall won gold when archery was first introduced to the 1982 Commonwealth Games. She also competed in the 1984 Olympics. Natalia Partyka represented Poland in table tennis at both the 2008 and 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games. South Africans Natalie du Toit (swimming) and Oscar Pistorius (athletics), and Italian Assunta Legnante (athletics) have also competed in both Games.
London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games
The Games featured 20 sports and 4,237 athletes (Men: 2,736, Women: 1,501). For the third consecutive Games, China topped the medals table and 75 of the 164 competing countries won at least one medal. A record 2.7 million tickets were sold, making the Paralympics the world’s third biggest sporting event behind the Olympics and FIFA World Cup. TV pictures were broadcast to over 100 countries and territories reaching a cumulative global audience of 3.8 billion. London 2012 was the first social media Paralympics: #Paralympics was the world’s number one trending sport event on Twitter and 25 million people visited London 2012.com. The IPC's Facebook following increased by 350% and there were 82.1 million views of its pages.
The Sochi 2014 Paralympic Winter Games showed what people from 45 different countries and cultures are capable of when they are united by a single goal and an inspired dream. The 547 (Men: 418, Women: 129) athletes competed in five sports and Russia topped the medals table. Sochi 2014 attracted a record 316,200 spectators and the Games were broadcast to a cumulative global TV audience of nearly 2.1 billion people in more than 55 countries and territories. Through the theme of “Reaching the Impossible,” the Closing Ceremony illuminated how dreams can be achieved through strength and passion to change the perception of “impossible” to “I’m possible.”
One of the most remarkable social phenomena during both Games was the thousands of international volunteers – dubbed The GamesMakers - from all walks of life rightly who exemplified the best of humanity.
How the Paralympics make for a more inclusive society
The IPC aspires to make for a more inclusive society for people with an impairment through sport. Recent editions of the Paralympics have shown exactly why the Games are now widely regarded as the world’s number one sporting event for driving societal change.
In both China and Russia, new legislation was passed at the highest levels of Government ahead of the Beijing 2008 and Sochi 2014 Paralympics that focused on making for a more inclusive society for people with a disability.
Ahead of the Beijing 2008 Paralympics, the Chinese Government spent RMB 1 billion – the sum of the last 20 years’ investment – on making 14,000 facilities and venues, including the Great Wall of China, accessible ahead of the Games.
The barrier free environment created for the Sochi 2014 Winter Paralympics is now a blueprint for the rest of Russia. More than 200 cities are using what was created for the Games as a guide for furthering their own accessibility.
Research conducted by BDRC Continental and YouGov on behalf of Channel 4, the British broadcaster of London 2012, showed their coverage of the Games created seismic shifts in attitudes towards disability. Two thirds of its viewers felt the coverage of the Paralympics had a favorable impact on their perceptions towards people with disabilities.
London 2012’s own research conducted by Nielsen found that one in three British people, equivalent to 20 million of the population, changed their attitudes towards disability as a result of the Paralympic Games.
The Agitos Foundation
The Agitos Foundation is the IPC’s development arm and is the leading international organisation focused on the development of para-sport and adopted physical education on a global basis. Its mission is “to support the effective worldwide development of para-sport pathways from grassroots to Paralympic success and, in turn, fulfill the Paralympic Movement’s aspiration of an inclusive society.” The Agitos Foundation acts as a catalyst supporting the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
“I just believe I am not disabled. There are certain things I can’t do because of my impairment just like there are many things I can do with my impairment that others can’t do,” said Ugandan Charles Okwanga, who stepped on a landmine on his way to school in 1996 and took up wheelchair basketball thanks to the Agitos Foundation.
“People in my community look at me differently; they consider me special and important. Now I can go back to school and achieve my dream of becoming a social worker, to give back to my community.”
Sir Philip Craven’s IPC Dream Team
The IPC President Sir Philip Craven, an accomplished wheelchair basketball player, is in his fourth and final term. He yearns to play hoops against the President of the United States, Barack Obama, (who is an avid basketball player himself) at one of Washington DC’s rehabilitation centers. The pre- @Rio2016_en fever might be an amazing opportunity for both leaders to promote the game they love so much for the sake of those who have extraordinary ability. Perhaps even the @NBA if not the President of the World Bank Group, Jim Y. Kim, would lend a helping hand to put together such exhibition game to start using this untapped fuel for humanity?
Sir Philip Craven said: “Rio 2016, Latin America’s first Paralympic Games are a tremendous opportunity to transform the lives of the millions of people who have a disability in the Americas.”
“As we approach the Games, it would fantastic to play the US President at basketball in order to further support and develop the Paralympic Movement worldwide and within the USA.”
On this very special day, let’s always celebrate extraordinary talents of all people with all (dis)abilities to make anything possible in their quest for full societal inclusion!
Leszek J. Sibilski is a Professor of Sociology and longtime advocate for issues related to climate change, the environment, family, public policy, global poverty, youth, and role of women in contemporary society. He has served as a consultant for The World Bank Group and the United Nations and he has worked with several other major global organizations to improve the status and plight of athletes with disabilities in developing countries.
He is a former member of the Polish National Olympic Cycling Team and continues to serve as an active member of the International Pierre de Coubertin Committee. His interest and vast knowledge in the area of global sports led to an appointment as a member of the Education Committee for the International Paralympic Committee. In his work, he has also contributed critical examination and thought to issues related to minority participation in sport. For his service on behalf of athletes with disabilities, Dr. Sibilski received awards from the Mayors of New York City and the City of Boston as well as from the Chinese Federation of Persons with Disabilities.