Image: Monica Munga, a Para athlete from Zambia
Unlocking the potential of the Paralympics: Para Sport Against Stigma
The countdown is on, not only for the Tokyo 2021 Paralympic Games, but also for the most extensive ever free-to-air broadcast of the Paralympic Games to Sub-Saharan African countries. This step towards global engagement in the Paralympics is worthy of celebration, but as always, on closer inspection, the story on the ground is more complex.
In Malawi, for example, TV is an ‘elite media’, requiring not just the TV set and subscription for satellite, but also that a person has access to an electricity supply as well! Let’s also not forget that you also need a roof is strong enough for mounting a satellite dish.
Maybe it’s not surprising then that, only 12% of Malawian households have access to a TV, and in rural areas where the majority of people live, that percentage decreases to 5.4%.
And it is not just poor rural households who may miss out on engaging with the Paralympics.
In urban Ghana where traditional TV ownership is relatively high, TV broadcasters are competing for viewership with apps and alternative web media. Social media, and media content by bloggers, influencers and media houses, is quickly becoming a significant media practice especially among urban youth.
Young people pay more attention to on-demand platforms like YouTube and Netflix, viewers tend to tune to traditional TV to watch specific content rather than to discover new content.
Additionally, since broadcasters – whether national or commercial broadcasters – are driven by business incentives, if high numbers of people tuning in, the broadcasts may be aired at a time that suits the broadcaster rather than at prime time.
A deep understanding of local media habits and ways of communication, together with localised engagement processes, is important to getting the Games to be successful in local contexts - maximising meaningful engagement and unlocking the potential of the Games to make a long-term difference to disabled people.
At a recent Para Sports Against Stigma project Knowledge Exchange (KX) Forum discussions centred around an ‘arc’ of Community Engagement activities around the Games cycle, beginning with ‘softening the ground’ before the Games, ‘grounding’ and interpretating the content during the Games itself, and ‘legacy and advocacy’ to maintain the momentum after the Games.
'Softening the ground’
For the broadcasting of the Games to translate to viewers, ‘softening of the ground’ to bring awareness, anticipation and understanding of Para sport needs to be built before the Games to prepare audiences and build interest for the Paralympic Games. In contexts with both high levels of TV and internet access, such as Ghana, Facebook and Instagram are likely to be important for reaching audiences and build momentum before airing. However, there are risks with flooding the internet with paid ads, where viewers may rush to skip ads or not pay any attention. During the KX some Para athletes shared stories of how their YouTube videos have reached and inspired new audiences. Other new approaches discussed included engaging internet influencers, ‘micro’ or ‘internet celebrities’ with a strong social media presence as innovative ways to reach large audiences, known as “followers”. They could come from beyond sport, for example from comedy, music, fashion and similar sectors.
This strategy focuses on reaching new audiences, important to avoid ‘preaching to the choir’. National Paralympic Committees (NPCs) in Sub-Saharan Africa shared how they are developing their social media following, which is hugely positive. However, what should be kept in mind that these followers are people who already understand Para sport. If the Para Sports Against Stigma project is to achieve its purpose of tackling stigma, much wider audiences need to be engaged.
‘Grounding the Games’
The Paralympic Games itself of course could be the peak of the Community Engagement ‘arc’. In contexts with low TV ownership, the Para Sport Against Stigma project will explore community screenings of the daily highlights packages in communities. During the KX the NPC in Zambia shared ideas on how roadshows and screenings bring communities together to watch screenings with music, food and other activities. In Malawi, Theatre for Development activities will take place alongside the community mobile screening of the Paralympic daily highlights as a way of collectively interpreting what happened. Theatre for Development has a long history in Malawi and it remains a cornerstone of community engagement activity. It is an entertainment and adult education practice that taps into traditional dance, song, and drama practices to engage communities in dialogue around issues to mobilize for community action.
The Para Sport Against Stigma project will conduct research into how we can share content via platforms and spaces appropriate to local communities, with complementary activities that interpret the content in local contexts, whether through Theatre for Developement, music performances, or via bloggers and influencers. This will be key to enabling the powerful Paralympic content to achieve social engagement and impact.
Legacy and Advocacy
The Paralympic Games and the affecting narratives of achievement and pride it generates can create incredible momentum and excitement, but it is imperative to consider how that momentum and engagement can be extended and channelled for real change. This was discussed as planning for the ‘legacy’ of the Games, and the UN Convention for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) can be a useful focus point for advocacy. Stakeholder engagement is critical as part of this process including with schools, government ministries, religious groups, and community chiefs.
The Paralympic Games, a showcase of the achievements of people with disabilities, can help to challenge ‘charity mindsets’ among key groups such as government ministries. It can provide a springboard for advocating for a recognition that assistive technology, access to education, and employment are not gifts that people with disabilities should be grateful for, but entitlements that everybody has a right to under the UNCRPD, and additionally, that they are enablers of people with disability to live full lives.
During the KX a teacher from Zambia talked about how the I’mPOSSIBLE education package is being used to engage schools and teachers, including an adaptation of an indigenous sport to be an inclusive Para sport. The NPCs in Malawi and Ghana also shared their experiences and plans for implementing I’mPOSSIBLE. Malawian NGOs shared their extensive experience of working with communities, including schools, religious leaders, and others for inclusive education, and via radio and radio dramas. There was also a future potential strategic partnership identified with engaging with corporates for sponsorship, which could send a powerful signal of inclusion and disability pride to audiences.
Community engagement is indispensable to realising the potential impact of the Paralympic Games in different African contexts. The Para Sport Against Stigma project is using action research with partners to try out different approaches in practice to develop a knowledge pool for the kinds of community engagement processes that could ground the Paralympics in diverse contexts across the ‘arc’ of the Games cycle: the lead up, the main event, and the legacy of this year’s Tokyo 2021 Paralympic Games.
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Para Sport against Stigma is an AT2030 sub-programme brought together by Global Disability Innovation Hub and delivered by Loughborough University London, International Paralympic Committee (IPC), and University of Malawi, with pro bono support from the global law firm Hogan Lovells.