Representation matters: how Paralympic coverage can change attitudes towards disability

Every four years as the Paralympics take place, the eyes of the world turn to disabled sport.

The extensive coverage celebrates the achievements of Paralympic athletes, bringing disabled bodies onto our television screens and into the public consciousness.

Paralympic runner

Researchers at Bournemouth University have been part of a project exploring how disabled bodies are represented during these major sporting events and the impact it has on public attitudes towards disability.

Looking at both the London 2012 and the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games, the team worked closely with broadcaster Channel 4, which holds the UK broadcast rights for Paralympic coverage, to analyse coverage and gain audience insights.

“The Paralympics and these mega sporting events are the platform where more people see disability compared to in any other single media event,” said Professor of Media and Communication Dan Jackson, who was part of the project team.

“So the representation of disabled bodies is really important, with Channel 4 leading the way in terms of the amount of coverage, the amount of disabled people contributing to that – both in front of and behind the camera – and the narrative frames they have used, which are deliberately challenging many of the existing stereotypes.”

The team found that the Paralympic Games can play an important role in shaping people’s perceptions, attitudes and understanding of disability.

bodyparts exhibition - tragic brave artwork

They were seen to ‘destigmatise’ disability through increasing the visibility of disability on television and challenging non-disabled audiences’ understanding of what disabled people can do.

In a nationally representative survey, 54% of UK citizens said that the Paralympics challenged their attitudes about disabled people while 85% agreed that the Paralympics have had a positive impact on the lives of disabled people.

But the research also found certain types of disability or disabled sport were often under-represented, with a focus on sports and bodies that were more familiar to audiences.

“While there has been a massive increase in the visibility of disabled people in the media and specifically in the Paralympics, our research showed how some disabled bodies were more visible than others and certain sports got a lot more airtime than others,” said Professor Jackson.

“These were typically sports involving wheelchairs and prosthetic technology, so those that you might say most approximate ableist norms, whereas other sports that were perceived as perhaps less fast, less exciting, and therefore less telegenic were often pushed to the sidelines and given less airtime.” 

The findings were compiled into a report and a set of key recommendations that were shared with Channel 4, UK Sport and Paralympics GB.

The team also worked with disabled artists to bring the findings to life through art and mixed media pieces based on their interpretation of the report.

The research helped to shape Channel 4’s coverage of the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics Games, watched by over 20 million viewers in the UK. 

The project showed that getting representation right during these high-profile events can make a real difference to attitudes and awareness of disability.

“There’s no doubt that there’s been a huge change since Channel 4 took the Paralympics in terms of its visibility and I would argue the progress it has made for disabled people more broadly,” said Professor Jackson.

“Representation matters in short, and the work of Channel 4 goes to show that if you can change the storyline around disability, you can take society with you and change attitudes.”

Find out more about the project