The Paralympics and what it means to be disabled in Romania

While the Paralympics are meant to be a worldwide celebration of inclusion and tolerance, the fate of the Romanian team only highlights the country's poor record when it comes to disability and fighting discrimination.

Luke Dale-Harris
28 August 2012
Paralympics. Demotix/Julio Etchart. All rights reserved.

 Demotix/Julio Etchart. All rights reserved.

As the 2012 Olympics slip into the past, the pride and exaltation generated by such a display of human excellence sits uncomfortably with the lingering knowledge that we, the viewers, have been swindled; our allegiance to our athletes bought up and exchanged for an allegiance to the brands that lay behind them. It's a familiar feeling, and one that will only be amplified when the Paralympics begin this week and we see the same brands feeding off not only our emotional response to the games, but also off the ethical battle for a more 'equitable society' that the Paralympics officially represent.

In fact, the sponsors have gone further than this. They've stolen the show. The Paralympics, it seems, do not exist because we live in a more tolerant time when we wish to see disabled athletes compete along their able bodied counterparts. It exists because corporate sponsors have made it so. As Coca Cola boldly claims in their Paralympics advert, 'If you've had a Coke in the last 80 years, you've had a hand in making every Olympic dream come true'.  Apparently it is us buying into their values, not the other way around.

But the advert is confused. What they should say is 'If you have expressed any interest in the Paralympics in the last 80 years, you've had a hand in making every Olympic dream come true.' Coca Cola, along with all the other sponsors, has responded to a demand in the market, and that demand is that we want the Paralympics. Despite their rhetoric, when that demand isn't there, they probably couldn't care less about athletics or disability.

This is being made brutally clear in Romania, where the Paralympic team has been refused funding by almost every one of the same corporate sponsors who have both publicly proclaimed their dedication to fighting discrimination against the disabled through sport in other countries, and poured money into Romania's able bodied Olympic team. The lack of corporate interest appears to have nothing to do with the quality of the team, which is the largest and strongest Romania has ever had and is expected to return home with medals in cycling and swimming. Instead it reflects the persistent prejudice that still mars Romania's relationship with its disabled population. In a country where the disabled are traditionally thought of as a hindrance to society, it would be a foolish company that allowed their brand to be associated with them.

Discrimination against people with disabilities is rooted in both Romanian philosophy and past politics. Andreia Moraru, of ANED (the Academic Network of European Disability experts) thinks that the primary cause comes from the Romanian Orthodox Church, which preaches that disability is the result of sins or weakness within the family. As 89 percent of the country's 19 million population belong to the church, this has led to widespread castigation of both the disabled and their families. Because of this, she says, disabled people and their families are usually not present in communities.

Under Ceausescu's communist regime, this philosophy became institutionalized. Disability was fundamentally at odds with the vision of the 'New Man' society, which placed the individual as the manifestation of the communist ideology and admitted no imperfections. Children born with severe disabilities were taken away at birth and hidden in homes, not to reappear until after the revolution in 1989. Those with less severe disabilities and people who developed disabilities later in life were deemed 'irrecoverable' and cast to the sidelines of society, with thousands living in the sewers of Bucharest, city parks and the beaches of the Black Sea in the 1980s.

Things have been getting better gradually since 1989, and quicker since Romania's accession into the EU in 2007. But this is a problem that has been normalized for so long that any legislation introduced under the EU is not enough to change it. Disability rights are still low on the agenda for most Romanians and, in this time of austerity when health care and education have been cut in half across the country, they are also low on the list of priorities.

The key to finding a solution, as so many marginalized groups in the west realized in the 1980s and 90s, starts in cultural representation. Until disabled people cease to be defined by their disabilities and start to be accepted as valid members of society by their peers, neither government nor private institutions have any incentive to work towards changing the labour, education and social benefit disparities that characterize their marginalization. To this end, there is no more powerful tool than the Paralympics.

This is what Sally Wood Lamont, a Scottish expat living in Cluj Napoca, the capital of Transylvania, realized when she started running a small sports club for disabled Romanians in 1996. Since then she has created what has become a 25 person strong Paralympic team that regularly comes home with medals from international competitions. 'I believe sport for disabled people is the key to integration' she says. 'Through that they can be admired and respected.' First though, Romanians need to be made aware of it. 'Many people in Romania aren't really aware the Paralympics even exist and, if they are, they see it is as a kind of charity, just handicapped people playing at sport. We need to make them see that this is sport, just like the Olympics, and that these are sportsmen.'

The difficulty in achieving this is in the financing. The team's state budget is one of the lowest in all Paralympic federations in the world. They receive 25,000 euros a year, not enough to get the whole team to a single one of the countless qualifying tournaments needed in order to attend the Paralympics. Further, the state broadcaster TVR will not put forward the funds to cover the event, so necessary if the games are to have the desired impact back home. The responsibility, unwanted by the state, has been privatized.

With almost no funds available from sponsorship, Wood Lamont herself has had to put forward much of the money needed to get the team to the games, while Vodafone came forward at the last minute with enough money to pay for TVR to attend. Yet the money isn't sufficient, and they have had to send just six of the twelve athletes they intended to go and cut short their training. Wood Lamont hopes that even so, the event will have a significant impact on the way disability is viewed in Romania.

As social services are being increasingly privatized across Europe, this situation in Romania poses worrying questions about the ability of private business to act as a vehicle for positive change and to protect human rights. Prejudice needs to be challenged from the top, yet all the market is able to do is to reflect it. For the next two weeks we'll be told loudly and consistently otherwise, but corporate social responsibility does not pave the path to equity. Where they are most needed, corporate sponsors are quietly looking away.

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