SUMMARY: Informing Future Paralympic Media Approaches: The Perspective of Canadian Paralympic Athletes

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June 8, 2022

This article summarizes the research article "Informing Future Paralympic Media Approaches: The Perspective of Canadian Paralympic Athletes" by Erin Pearson and Laura Misener.

What's The Big Deal?

Media coverage of the Paralympic Games affects the public perception of para-athletes. While researchers have looked into how Paralympic athletes are represented by the media, there is little research on how Paralympic athletes perceive these representations of themselves. Addressing this gap brings light to the voice of those with lived experience of impairment who have been historically absent from research.

"Nothing about us without us" - James Charlton, disability activist.

Charlton's slogan describes how no decision should be decided without the full and direct participation of the group affected by the decision. This study encapsulates this slogan by generating knowledge that offers media personnel an understanding of how Paralympic athletes understand the representation of disability and para-sport in media.

About The Study

This study examines how Paralympic athletes make meaning of discourses of disability within Paralympic media coverage. 8 Canadian Paralympic athletes were involved in semi-structured photo-elicitation interviews. A portfolio was created for each participant, which included a minimum of 3 online media articles written about the participant from one or more of Canada's three major national media companies - CBC, the Globe and Mail, and the National Post. Participants were emailed their portfolios a week prior to the interviews for reflection.
Each participant attended an online interview about how they felt about their own representations, general discussion about Paralympic coverage, desired direction for future coverage, and broader perceptions of Paralympic discourses in media.
A reflexive thematic analysis (RTA) was used to analyze the data. This analysis was guided by Foucault's notions of discourse, power, and technologies of the self.

What Was Found?

Two overarching themes were developed to represent the findings.

(Mis)understanding of Discourses of Disability
This theme describes how Paralympic athletes made meaning of dominant discourses in media.

  • Para-athletes drew from their lived and media experiences to make meaning of the Paralympic media coverage. The more media experience a participant had, the more likely they were to draw out inconsistencies between their lived experience and the media's discourses of disability.
  • Dominant discourses of disability (e.g. supercrip narrative) were rejected by experienced Paralympic athletes. These participants expressed the need to move away from medicalized and ableist discourses of disability. These athletes wanted the media to focus on their sporting proficiency.

"I have no problem talking a little bit about how I got started in the sport or whatever. I just don't want that to be the primary focus of the article. I don't want it to be focused on my disability. I want it to be focused on my ability." - Participant

  • Participants felt that including their impairment makes their story unique as it is part of their identity. Participants expressed that the articles that included both a Paralympic athlete's athletic achievements and backstory were more enjoyable to read.
  • Some participants touched on the importance of language. Participants recommended that media personnel be educated on the type of language they use to describe disability.

Power Relations with Media
Media personnel's use of dominant discourses of disability affects the broader understanding of what bodies are believed to belong in sport.

  • Participants expressed that most media campaigns reinforced the stereotypical understanding of ability.
  • Action shots were expressed as the participants' preferred type of visual representation as they reinforced how they felt about their bodies and their desire to be celebrated for their sporting achievements
  • All participants expressed that their perspective of Paralympic media coverage has changed from a negative to mostly positive perception in the past decade
  • Media who understand disability in terms of dominant discourses had lower expectations and values of covering disability sport
    • Reflected through participants' examples of unprepared personnel or personnel who chose images that depicted dominant discourses
    • Key concern that media who cover Paralympic sport are not adequately trained or educated
  • There is a need of representing more sports events than just the Paralympic Games, and to provide more coverage comparative to able-bodied sport
    • Shift away from the cycle of re-introducing the media as it takes away from the diversity and depth of the Paralympic athlete experience
  • Some participants would actively disrupt the power dynamic that perpetuates dominant discourses
    • Actively resist media personnel's dominant understandings of disability
  • Overall, participants believed that the power lies in the media. Media personnel need to recognize the relations of power between themselves and Paralympic athletes.

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