Last week my friend’s 12-year-old son asked her if she’d seen the amazing opening ceremony in Rio and he wasn’t talking about the Olympics: he was talking about extreme wheelchair athlete Aaron Fotheringham’s spectacular stunt jump through exploding fireworks.
Like thousands of other New Zealanders, my friend’s son was able to tune into the 2016 Paralympics in Rio because for the first time it was aired on our free-air-channels. In the past, those of us wanting to watch the Paralympics were forced to watch poor quality recordings on dodgy streaming websites, but this changed forever these past few weeks. Now on mainstream TV we see today’s successful disabled athletes being interviewed by real experts.
Accessibility is a key focus for us who work in disability rights and accessibility must also include media coverage so that the rest of New Zealanders can understand and get behind some of our very talented, elite athletes.
Nearly one in four New Zealanders identify as having a disability – we are not that small a minority. And if you count our friends and families, most Kiwis will have someone in their network with a disability. Those few weeks in Rio is only part of the Paralympians' journey: sprinter Liam Malone has won Gold in Rio, but he had to crowdfund to purchase the $20,000 carbon fibre running blades that got him there. How cool it would be if we saw more stories about our disabled athletes.
Instead of the Paralympics coverage being a once-every-four-years gesture, I hope our media can keep up the momentum. I hope they can keep producing stories that celebrate the achievements of people with disabilities while recognising the challenges we face and the barriers that can be broken down through great media work.
Being invisible in our mainstream media is an ongoing challenge for disabled New Zealanders. Recently my colleague has publicly highlighted issues she’s faced in her everyday life as a wheelchair user and her story struck a chord with many people. Strangers have come up to her on the street and said it made them really think about accessibility and fairness.
All of this was made possible because various media outlets chose to make her and the barriers she’s faced visible. They haven’t portrayed her as a victim but as a person who should be able to ring for a taxi and not have to wait two days before one arrives.
Dispelling the victimhood mentality is an important part of the spirit of the Paralympics. Gold medallist Sophie Pascoe doesn’t see her own disability as a tragedy to overcome but as an opportunity to make the most of.
I hope the media continue to celebrate disabled people’s sporting successes. I hope the great work extends to the world of hard news, to make visible the physical, social, political and attitudinal barriers. As well as investigating and holding to account those who make decisions which are important in disabled people’s lives.
My hope is that our mainstream media’s coverage of the exploits of New Zealanders with disabilities doesn’t just tail off after the Paralympics. The we become more visible.