Disability World
A bimonthly web-zine of international disability news and views, Issue no. 7 March-April 2001


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Role Models for the 21st Century: Highlights of Year 2000 Paralympics

By Barbara Duncan (bjdnycla@aol.com)

On the heels of its highly successful international broadcasts last October of the Sydney Paralympics on both television and via streaming video on the web, We Media produced a two-hour summary of highlights that was broadcast on U.S. network television on December 31, 2000.

Called "Role Models for the 21st Century," this well-paced and packaged program lives up to its title and managed to earn excellent ratings as well, reaching an estimated 10 million viewers. Although weighted towards the U.S. competitors, the program also manages to capture the glitter of the Sydney event organized on the edge of the sea, the poignancy of Cambodia's team comprised mostly of landmine survivors, the pride of the small group of sportsmen from newly-independent East Timor who came with little more than a change of clothes, and the excitement generated by the unprecedented turnout of more than a million onlookers.

(A brief digression: none of the U.S. commentators compared the Sydney turnout with the 1996 Atlanta Paralympics, but of course the British ones gleefully did. One BBC writer, Peter White, said that in Atlanta, "the audiences were depressingly threadbare," and complimented the Australian government for subsidizing the attendance of at least 50,000 schoolchildren as the culmination of a massive disability awareness campaign.)

The many recapitulations of some of the closest races and the most heralded rivalries make for exciting footage, but I was more intrigued by the interviews and profiles of some of the athletes from around the world.

The vignettes about particular athletes far surpass the usual sports homilies and reveal how these elite competitive events provide a venue for testing, proving or reinventing oneself, as well as just the sheer exhilaration of becoming number one in the world at something.

Role Models
Every effort was taken to get past the "superstar" stereotypes and expose the milieu or mindset of the individual. One segment follows a young, post-polio Thai back to his home near the Cambodian border where his proud village turned out in celebration of his two unexpected gold medals. A young, blind girl from Hungary, seemingly as taken by the host country as the event itself, said, "People here are more accepting of me, they don't step back when they see me." One could imagine reverberations of the Sydney event long into the future as they both struggle to hold onto their newfound confidence after returning home.

The producers also spent time with some of the long-established international stars, such as veteran wheelchair-racers Louise Sauvage of Australia and Jean Driscoll of the USA. Australia's complete backing of the Paralympics was exemplified by its choice of Sauvage to light the torch for both the Olympics and Paralympics. Both racers give humble, earnest interviews about how hard and how long they had to work to become first-class athletes.

Trischa Zorn of the USA, a swimmer who earned 41 gold medals during her career, introduces the "theme-song" of this program when she stresses she had by no means overcome her disability, rather she overcame the limitations society had placed on her as a disabled person.

The only false note was one loose, rambling segment that seemed to be about a Moose Mascot that had been stolen from the devastated Canadian team. It is almost required that upcoming U.S. film producers prove they are hip by inserting a few sneers about our supposedly provincial cousins to the North-maybe that's what this was aboot.

Public Education Spots
As this program was produced for U.S. television, every few segments were interspersed with commercials. But kudos again to the WeMedia staff that produced short spots featuring a variety of U.S. disability leaders or role models, inserted at each interval. We are first treated to the sonorous tones of the preeminent leader, Justin Dart, who fixes us with an unflinching stare beneath his signature cowboy hat, while he succinctly explains in his in-vogue-again Texas twang that disability activists must be prepared to "take rights," not wait for them to be given.

That sets the tone for a series of about 10 of these spots that feature a mixture of athletes, representatives of U.S. disability organizations, and, the probable role models of the future. The younger spokespersons were also the most powerfully eloquent: Kyle Glozier, the teenager who addressed the Democrats' Convention in 2000, uses his computer-assisted speech to remind us that "Everyone needs to talk because everyone has something to say," Claudia Gordon proudly introduces herself as America's first deaf, Black woman lawyer, and Jane E. Smith, a self-advocate, recounts how liberating it is to have her own apartment and checking account.

These individuals were apparently carefully worked with by the production team to hone their presentations and messages down to something engaging, short and easily understandable to the largest possible number of viewers. In most cases, it works well and overall these public service ads strengthen and deepen the message of "Role Models for the 21st Century."

Linkage between Sports and Advocacy
In many countries, organizations of disabled athletes are the first to earn official backing and, as such, become incubators for future disability advocates. Particularly in developing countries, participation in a sports organization may be the only opportunity for disabled people to travel and learn about progress in other countries. A recent study on the history of independent living showed that many Japanese disability advocates date the beginning of their contemporary movement from the second Paralympics, held in Tokyo in 1964. They learned from talking to competitors from other countries that those athletes did not live primarily in institutions as many of the disabled Japanese still did.

WeMedia should be encouraged to offer this program for sale or rent internationally as it would be an excellent introduction to disability issues and sports, especially in countries where the Paralympics were not broadcast. To contact them: www.wemedia.com


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