Sport for people with disability is a relatively recent concept, and even more so is the participation of disabled athletes in a Paralympic Games, which started in 1960 in Rome. However, individuals with impairments have always been present in society and attitudes towards them have varied across time and from one culture to another. As asserted in previous chapters, the Olympic Movement is an inseparable part of the world we live in and sport and society are mutually constructive. This implies that a better understanding of the Paralympic Games can be obtained if attention is given to wider environmental factors affecting their constitution.
The participation of people with disability in sport is depicted by a variety of terms: ‘special needs sport’, ‘wheelchair sport’, ‘handicapped sport’, ‘disabled sport’ or ‘adopted sport’ are amongst the most prevalent terms. The use of different terms reflects the specificity of both the individuals involved and the activity practised. Furthermore, this variety is indicative of the existence of a range of specialised sports-governing bodies at local, national and international levels and the diverse issues they have to deal with.
Historically, the typical perception of individuals with disability has been one of difference and ‘otherness’. The firm divide between able-bodied and disabled had been originally established on biological and physiological grounds. In many early societies for example the survival of the family unit was critical and infanticide (the demise of newly born with impairments) had been a regular occurrence. The Greeks and the Romans had similar practices but these were ‘justified’ by concerns about the safety and protection of the state from enemies. After all—physically unfit individuals did not make good soldiers.
Gradually, the increased value placed on human life put a stop to the purposeful dismissal of the disabled. They also introduced a range of policies and institutions to regulate the participation of this category of people in society. The nineteenth century saw the first steps beyond the ‘separation and isolation’ attitude towards disabled individuals. The pioneering work of Jean Mark Itard in this area demonstrated that people with impairments are not doomed and they can be taught, treated and their conditions improved.