FEI Secretary General and President of the Association of Paralympics Sports Organisations (APSO) Sabrina Ibáñez - unable to be with athletes and colleagues in Tokyo due to an injury - shares an important message on accessibility and inclusivity in her latest blog post

A human being can never be broken

Like many of you, I’ve been eagerly awaiting the Paralympic Games. But as luck would have it, I now find myself immobilised following a pelvic fracture last week.

While I’m sorely disappointed that I will not to be joining my colleagues in Tokyo this year, I did have reason to celebrate following the launch of the WeThe15 campaign that aims to end discrimination towards persons with disabilities.

Over the next decade, the campaign aims to end discrimination towards persons with disabilities and act as a global movement publicly campaigning for disability visibility, accessibility, and inclusion. This will put disability right at the heart of the inclusion agenda, alongside ethnicity, gender and sexual orientation.

While great progress has been made to improve equality on the gender, race and sexual orientation fronts, persons with disabilities are one of the last groups to have their rights recognised.

Many disability advocates believe that people with disabilities are not disabled by their bodies, but by society, and I have to agree. In the few days that I’ve been dependent on crutches and a wheelchair, I’m getting firsthand experience of how poorly adapted our daily environment is to people with disabilities.  

Some time ago, I watched an interesting TedTalk by Dr Hugh Herr, an engineer and biophysicist, whose work on the next generation of bionic limbs has earned him international acclaim. As he stood on stage wearing the prosthetic legs he designed and developed after his own were amputated following an ice climbing accident, he said something that I will never forget: A human being can never be broken. Our built environment, our technologies, are broken and disabled.

It was a broken elevator that brought this point home to me a few months later.

I was out for dinner with some my colleagues of an IPC Taskforce, some of them Paralympians. When it was time to leave, we found out that the elevator to the parking was out of service. Since there were no other options, some of my colleagues were forced to literally crawl down the stairs. They took it in stride, but it was just one example of the many times they have been forced to adapt to a social environment that has been created for the able-bodied world.

A broken elevator maybe just an inconvenience to an able-bodied person, but is a real obstacle to people with disabilities who make up 15% of our world.

Although every disability is different, every person with a disability wants to contribute to society and belong. But as they go about their life, there are daily reminders that keep them marginalised. 

Since its creation in the 1940s the Paralympics have played a key role in dismantling stigma and increasing visibility for people with disabilities. But even these athletes know that outside of the amazing sporting feats they accomplish on the field-of-play, they still come up against many obstacles that stop them from actively participating in society.

It is clear that we need to change our physical and social environment to be more inclusive, but this will only happen when there is a fundamental change to people’s perceptions about disability. Many people have admitted to me that they feel uncomfortable when talking to people with a disability, as they fear saying the wrong thing or inadvertently coming across as patronising.

I understand where they’re coming from, but for change to take place, people need to talk openly about disability. The WeThe15 campaign is not just about changing physical structures, it’s also about pushing people outside of their limits and comfort zone.

For all of you currently in Tokyo, stay safe and well. Enjoy the sport, cheer on the athletes and take in everything this beautiful event has to offer.