Person working out next to me: "…so, do you compete in the normal Olympics?"
Me: “No, I compete in the abnormal ones. “
These are the kinds of questions I field on a daily basis when working out at the local track or gym. Vocabulary matters because it exposes underlying attitudes and beliefs. To me, this answer is perfect, especially when I nail the delivery with a sweet and innocent smile:-). I call them out on their belief that it is strange for a disabled person to be athletic, and the result is a good laugh, at both of our expenses. I am never offended because I understand that their words don’t come from a malicious heart. It is from well meaning people who are genuinely curious, and simply have not had the opportunity to learn about the Paralympics. I can relate to them because for the first 16 years of my life, I was one of them, and shared many of the same thoughts about the Paralympics. I became involved in disabled sport after becoming an amputee and realized how far off I was from the truth.
So, with Paralympic sport increasing in popularity, I thought I would do the general public and journalists a favour by clarifying a couple of things and saving you from some potential awkwardness.
Here is a quick tutorial on the proper usage of the following terms: Paralympian, Paralympics, Olympian, Olympics, and Special Olympics
The term “Paralympian” is very specific: it refers ONLY to those who have attended a Paralympic games. The honour is downgraded when you start referring to all disabled athletes as Paralympians or Paralympic athletes. Secondly, the term “para” does not make any reference to paralysis. It is short for “parallel”, as in the Paralympics take place alongside the Olympics.
The Special Olympics and the Paralympics are not interchangeable terms. They are separate organizations with different mandates. The Special Olympics is an amazing organization that provides sporting opportunities for people with intellectual disabilities. They follow a participation model and their primary mandate is the betterment of the athletes and their local communities. The mandate of the Paralympics is to provide a competitive opportunity for elite athletes with physical disabilities. While Paralympic athletes strive to demonstrate the Paralympic values (inspiration, determination, courage, and equality), at the end of the day, the primary goal is to win.
The terms Olympian and Paralympian are also not interchangeable. Lately, I have noticed people referring to me as an Olympic athlete, or telling other friends that I am going to the Olympics, despite continued references to myself as a Paralympian. I think it is meant as a sign of respect because they are trying to convey the message that what I am trying to achieve as a Paralympian is on par with an Olympian. But the truth is, I am proud to be a Paralympian, and every time you refer to me as an Olympian, you are chipping away at the Paralympic movement and saying that it is not good enough to simply be a Paralympian. I am honoured to be a Paralympian. I see no shame in the term.
Besides, being normal is boring :-)