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Paralympic Preview: Exploring Disability Studies Ahead of the 2020 Paralympic Games

Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games


May 1, 2019

World-leading athletes, incredible feats of human performance and plenty of heart: the 2020 Summer Paralympic Games will be a cause for both celebration and scholarship. At a Dean’s Seminar on May 22, Drexel experts from the College of Arts and Sciences, Athletics, and the College of Nursing and Health Professions will come together for a panel discussion on the history of the Paralympic Games, sharing perspectives on disability, mobility and inclusion in society. Amy Slaton, PhD, professor of history, and Scott Knowles, PhD, department head of history and panel moderator, gave us a primer on the games ahead of the Dean’s Seminar.

Paralympics By the Numbers


First Official Paralympic Games Held in Rome


16th Summer Paralympic Games to be Held in Tokyo


Paralympic Sports in Summer Games


Disability Categories for Qualified Athletes


Athletes Competed in the 2016 Summer Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro


National Paralympic Committees Globally, Responsible for Entrance, Management and Team Prep

What are the Paralympic Games? How are they related to the Olympic Games?

The Paralympic Games got their start in 1948, with a wheelchair competition organized by a group of British war veterans; the international event has grown steadily since that time. Since 1988, the Paralympics have closely followed both summer and winter Olympic Games, and now involve thousands of athletes with a wide range of disabilities, participating in dozens of sporting events.

Can you tell us about their significance as a social and cultural moment?

In many respects, the Paralympic Games represent social and cultural events quite similar to the Olympic Games: global gatherings celebrating extraordinary athletic achievement and peaceful international collaboration. While it is not uncommon to find disabled people participating in sports, the Paralympics represent one of the few instances when disabled athletes receive focused, extended media attention.

In more recent years, the hosting of the Paralympics just following the Olympic Games has brought great exposure to athletes and sports that were unknown to broader publics before. It’s fair to say now that Paralympians are household names among those who follow sports, and that the Paralympic sports are not seen as somehow exotic or second-rate, but are exciting to watch and represent the best of athletic achievement.

Any surprising facts or common misconceptions about the Paralympics?

Ideas about Paralympic athletes have changed over the years. As was the case for decades, Paralympic athletes are depicted today by the media as especially “heroic” or “inspiring” among accomplished athletes because they have overcome physical limitations. However, many disabled people and activists now counter that claim by noting that a physical disability is only as limiting as environmental factors (including the built environment, laws or policies, and public perception) make it. Disabled people do not “overcome” but rather celebrate and enjoy their bodies. Thus, it is suggested that the achievements of Paralympic athletes are best celebrated like those of nondisabled athletes: as no more, but of course no less, heroic and inspiring.

Tell us about disability studies as a discipline — what does it encompass?

Disability studies, a wide-ranging discipline that emerged in the 1980s, examines the experiences of disabled people and societal conceptions regarding those experiences, in both historical and contemporary contexts. Its explorations may focus on legal or policy issues; on education and medicine; on design, the arts and media; or other cultural areas. As a critical humanities and social science discipline, it seeks to confront stereotypes and other inequitable conditions surrounding disability, including, for example, medicalized ideas about physical and intellectual disability that disregard the role played by environmental factors.

What opportunities are there for students to learn more about disability studies at Drexel?

Drexel offers many classes at the undergraduate and graduate level that engage with disabilities studies, including in the College of Arts and Sciences, the College of Nursing and Health Professions, and the College of Engineering. Visiting speakers, design experiences, and other events are also offered. Upcoming programming for academic year 2019-2020 at Drexel will culminate in a travel course taking students to the 2020 Summer Paralympics in Japan.

Join us for the Dean’s Seminar, “The 2020 Paralympics: Disability and Sport in Context,” on Wednesday, May 22 at 3:30 p.m., located in the Sky View Room of MacAlister Hall.