London Olympics 2012 and Inclusion

The London Olympics impressed me with being inclusive for more participants and visitors. I was pleased to see the British signing choir and Evelyn Glennie, the deaf percussionist from Scotland, participating in the ceremonies as well as people with other disabilities.

Athletes and participants with disabilities showed the world that they can do anything and that the real disability is only in your mind:

  • Evelyn Glennie, the deaf lead percussionist for 100 drummers (!!!) at the opening ceremony, said that deafness is often misunderstood and that “hearing is a specialized form of touch that includes hearing sounds, feeling vibrations, and seeing items move and vibrate.”
  • Im Dong-hyun, a legally blind archer from South Korea, won a gold medal despite having difficulties seeing the bullseye – by relying on distinguishing between the bright colors of the target.
  • Natalia Partyka from Poland played table tennis with only one left arm (her right arm has no hand and forearm).

I can relate to them in many ways – not only in learning to live life to the fullest with disabilities, but especially in dealing with attitudinal barriers put by society.

Oscar Pistorius from South Africa made the history as the first double amputee to compete with able-bodied athletes in regular Olympics.

His road to the Olympics was not easy. Although Oscar won gold and broke records at Paralympic games and even competed in some races with able-bodied athletes (in one of which he won a second place), IAAF (International Association of Athletics Federations) decided to ban him from further able-bodied competitions after testing him in 2007 and determining that blades, known as Cheetahs, gave Oscar a competitive advantage over abled-bodied athletes. Oscar successfully appealed against the decision that was reversed by the CAS (The Court of Arbitration for Sport) to let him participate in Olympics.

As Brian Brown explains in the NBC Olympics article, “there is no scientific consensus that Oscar is at a competitive advantage” and he “is always playing catch-up against able-bodied runners”. If Oscar was that fast, he would have been a finalist in the 400-meter run. I think it is a good thing that he finished second to get into the semifinal – to prove that he can run fast – and finished last in the final – to show that he still has limitations with his blades.

Oscar may not have won a medal, but he won admiration of many people. Even Kirani James of Grenada, who was one of his competitors in the 400-meter run and finished first in the semifinals, asked him to exchange race bibs as a gesture of respect. James said of Oscar: “He’s very special to our sport. He’s a great individual – it’s time we see him like that and not anything else.”

Oscar Pistorius was not the first or only athlete with a disability from South Africa. Terence Parkin, a deaf swimmer from that country, competed in 2000 and 2004 Summer Olympics and won a silver in the 2000 Olympics and two golds in the 2005 Deaflympics. He said: “I am going to the Olympics to represent South Africa, but it’s so vitally important for me to go, to show that the deaf can do anything. They can’t hear, they can see everything. I would like to show the world that there’s opportunities for the deaf.”

Although Terence Parkin didn’t compete again in this year’s Olympics, there were also other deaf athletes in the London Olympics (to my knowledge three Americans):

There were more deaf athletes who competed in past Olympics. I’m waving hands (a Deaf version of applauding) to all deaf and hard of hearing athletes for their accomplishments in the Olympics. They have the same physical abilities as able-bodied athletes, so they do not participate in Paralympics. Though hearing devices are helpful, they are not necessary in competitions as you need to have good eye and hand coordination. Even some deaf athletes like Terrence Parkin say that it’s easier for them to focus without hearing aids. They may need sign language/oral interpreters and/or to lipread to communicate and a strobe light to signal for start at certain events like swimming and running.

There are also separate Deaflympics based on the shared communication. To qualify for the Deaflympics, “athletes must have a hearing loss of at least 55db in their ‘better ear’. Hearing aids, cochlear implants and the like are not allowed to be used in competition, to place all athletes on the same level.”

I’d like to share some more quotes. I am insipred by Oscar Pistorius’ motto:

“You’re not disabled by the disabilities you have, you are able by the abilities you have.”

I agree with him, but in order for people with disabilities to show the world they have abilities, the society needs to be aware of the physical and attitudinal barriers that it puts on them. So, my personal motto is:

“We are disabled not because of our disabilities, but because of barriers put by society.”

Oscar has the ability to run, but IAAF put a barrier to ban him against running with able-bodied athletes because of their false assumptions about his blades.

There’s another, even more powerful quote by Secretary Jesse Robredo:

“All of us have the moral duty to break barriers for people with disabilities. For societies to truly function, no one should be left behind.”

I would like to bring this last quote to everyone’s attention. Although the London Olympics had the impressive ceremonies and included participants and spectators with various abilities, there was some oversight.

For example, the organizers provided deaf and hard of hearing with sign language interpreters and hearing loops – which is great but those services do not benefit all of them.

Why captioning, the universal access, wasn’t included at ceremonies and venues?

Those events are so noisy that even many hearing people would benefit from captioning. If I were to visit London and watch the games, I would not benefit neither from sign language interpreters (I don’t know any BSL that is totally different from ASL) nor hearing loops (I rely more visually than aurally), but would have definitely benefited from captioning that could be shown not only on a large screen, but also on a portable device.

Danny Boyle, who was the mastermind of the impressive opening ceremony, and other organizers could have easily incorporated captioning along with those many amazing visual effects at the ceremonies and many other venues to make aural information accessible to many spectators.

Another example is that NBC Olympics showed captions only on TV, but failed to caption their online videos. Also, none of London Olympics YouTube videos are captioned.

Last, but not least, it was even more shocking to hear that some wheelchair users were told to sit separately from their kids at the Paralympics (!!!) games.

While I applaud the organizers of the London Olympics for making the Games “mostly” accessible, I still don’t feel they were accessible enough when it comes to providing captioning at all events and for all videos. The organizers still have a long way to make the Olympics fully accessible for everyone.

Hopefully, the upcoming Olympics will have full access via captioning and provide other accessible services for people with various disabilities as well as have more participants and spectators with disabilities. I wonder especially about the 2014 Sochi Winter Olympics in Russia, the country that unfortunately still treats people with disabilities as second class citizen and compares them as “invalids” (the word no longer used in the Western world) with “healthy” non-disabled people.

Meanwhile, below is a 2-minute video showing Evelyn Glennie, the deaf drummer, and the signing choir. Unfortunately, it is not captioned (Vimeo player does not support it and I could not find a good YouTube video – if there’s one, please let me know):