• Karissa Macleod

How Media Coverage Affects Perceptions of Disability in Sports

Updated: Apr 11, 2019

The historic lack of media coverage for disabled individuals in sports has negatively affected how society views disability. However, increasing media coverage and recognition of organizations such as the Special Olympics and Paralympics are changing this perspective. Disability in sports is changing in order to recognize these individuals for their perseverance through adversity, elite athletic ability, and equal place in society. Overall, the media has a lot of power in shaping public perception of disability.

A female athlete from Great Britian competes in the 2012 London Paralympic Games


In the past, disabled persons were predominantly viewed as having a disadvantage in many aspects of society, however this has changed over time to view disabled persons as equals.

The prevailing view of disability has long been one of medical disadvantage, where those individuals were seen as ill. Public perceptions of disability were also due to fear which caused a separation of those who were disabled from those who were “normal” and able-bodied.

This negative view of disability was challenging to overcome, and affected the ways in which disabled persons saw themselves and their roles in society, including involvement in sport. Due to societal norms and lack of media coverage there was little interest in the field of sport for disabled individuals.

However, in recent times there has been a movement to include disability in the sports field. This movement, lead by both disabled athletes and advocates, has shifted the perspective to a more social view on disability: that people with disabilities should be seen as equals, with equal access and opportunity.  

Lack of Disability in Media Coverage   

One of the largest challenges Parasports and disabled athletes have faced is the distinct lack of disability sports coverage within mainstream media. The achievements of disabled men and women in sports often goes unnoticed compared to that of non-disabled athletes. In commercial journalism only stories of elite, able bodied athletes are being told.

Paralympic athlete Sarah Storey from the UK wins a gold medal at the Rio Paralympic Games

A study conducted by the University of Melbourne, Australia showed that elite athletes with disability are less visible (15%) in the media reporting and broadcasting than their non-disabled counterparts (80%). In addition, female athletes received significantly less coverage than males in all forms of sport. This research has also shown that although there has been a new focus on athleticism of disabled persons, it is reported with a sympathetic narrative and a medicalized description of disability, and therefore not referring to disabled athletes as equals. Overall there has been a positive shift in the narrative around elite athletes with disability in media, however inaccurate representation and gender inequalities are present.

Changing the Norm

Recognizing this lack of media coverage, there has been a recent push to portray disabled athletes as equals, and to achieve more equal media coverage. In order for there to be more equal coverage and understanding, journalists and media outlets are changing to have a better understanding of the disability sector and pushing stories away from illness or dramatization to stories of inspiration and equality.

How is this Achieved?

1) Organization Recognition: There needs to be more widespread organization recognition on both a national and global scale. For example, marketing executive Paul Wiggins of the Special Olympics Australia Committee has stated a lack of global recognition has had consequences:

“Certainly one of the challenges we have is just recognition of exactly who we are and what we do before you even get in the door to talk about what your particular story is, so we spend a lot of our time trying to explain to people what differentiates us and exactly what makes us unique and what we do and that’s always a challenge.”

Paralympic broadcasting has grown significantly since 2004 (IPC)

2) Wider Scale of Media Coverage: How many people disabled sports media reaches has a societal impact and has wider effects on people’s perceptions of disability. For example, the 2016 Rio Paralympic Games were the most viewed in history, attracting a record cumulative audience of more than 4.1 billion people. Also, according to Nielsen Sports figures, Rio 2016 Paralympics saw the global cumulative TV audience increase by 7 per cent on the 3.8 billion people that watched London 2012. In addition, 154 countries showed broadcast the games for 5,110 hours in 2016, compared to only 115 countries and 2,683 hours in 2012. This shows that exposure to parasports is increasing at a rapid rate, however there needs to be long-term efforts to improve the media coverage between Paralympic Games to have a lasting impact for all disabled people in sport. While 2016 was a high profile year for disability sport, there is an opportunity to shape coverage beyond the Paralympics.

3) Journalism: Journalists and sports providers need more support and guidance on appropriate reporting. Reporting accurate and not overly dramatized stories of disability is key to the success of the movement. Also, it is important that the media and their coverage does not stop at the closing ceremony of the games and instead be continuous throughout the year. The EFDS (English Federation of Disability Sport) is already starting to bring the different sectors together to put disability sport in the media on a more regular basis, however there is still more that can be done.

The Paralympics logo, a symbol of equality in sports

“The news we consume can affect everyone’s perceptions of themselves as people and, for the talented few in sport, as athletes. This means that it is particularly important that these sports are positively covered if it is going to encourage disabled people to access opportunities and take part. That is why we all have an obligation to improve our reporting and articles about disabled people in sport.” Barry Horne, Chief Executive at EFDS

How Media has Helped to Change Perspectives

The increase in media coverage and recognition of large scale events such as the Special Olympics and Paralympics have worked to shift perception in how society views individuals with disabilities. Many stories have spread the narrative that disabled are worthy role models for others. As Paralympians achieve more success and are viewed by many people, including policy makers, they earn the reputation of strong individuals who have overcome adversity. Paralympic athletes are not only role models for other aspiring athletes, especially for those with a disability, but are also admired by society as a whole for their achievements.

There has also been a shift in disabled athletes using their positions for more political activism. In this way, many athletes are making strides in promoting social change through continuing to highlight the ongoing inequalities faced by people with disabilities.

Global competitions such as the Paralympic Games, showcase elite athletes with disabilities and serves as a reminder that sport at the highest level should be accessible to all people. This activism also goes beyond sports, and is changing the perception of people living with disabilities. For example, the 2012 London Paralympic games helped 1 in 3 people change their attitude towards disability, and helped more disabled individuals find jobs. Overall, the media coverage of disability in sports is creating a society that is more accepting of people regardless of their differences.


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