Debunking 10 Common Myths About The Paralympics

By Stuart Lieberman | Jan. 11, 2017, 12:58 p.m. (ET)

Danelle Umstead, pictured with her husband and guide Rob Umstead, have won three Paralympic medals in alpine skiing.

More than 4,000 athletes competed at the Rio 2016 Paralympic Games last summer, and close to 700 are expected to compete at next year’s PyeongChang 2018 Paralympic Winter Games. But while the Paralympics are the world’s second largest multi-sport event, and numerous world and regional championship events take place in non-Paralympic years across 30 sports, the general American public often misperceives the Paralympic Movement unknowingly.

To start off your year in the know, let us debunk 10 common myths in the United States about the Paralympic Movement, with insight from wheelchair rugby’s Chuck Aoki, cycling’s Jamie Whitmore and alpine skiing’s Danelle Umstead.


Myth: The Paralympic Games and the Special Olympics are one in the same.

This is arguably the biggest misconception about the Paralympics in the United States, one of the few countries where more people have heard more about the latter than the former. Aoki put the difference best, saying: “The Special Olympics are framed as more of an inclusive event for everyone with cognitive disabilities, as opposed to a highly competitive event for athletes with mostly physical and visual disabilities.”

But while the confusion may be a tough pill to swallow for many Paralympians, they are also courteous enough to never be critical. “You never want to offend someone that’s asking and truly doesn’t know,” Whitmore said. “They’re not trying to be disrespectful, so I’m very careful about choosing my words on that question.”

Visit USParalympics.org for more information on which sports are offered to athletes with physical, visual and intellectual impairments.


Myth: The Paralympics are the same as the Paraolympics, Para Olympics and Pair Olympics.

There’s only one way to spell Paralympics. The other words do not exist.


Myth: The Paralympics are named after people with paraplegia.

The word “Paralympic” derives from the Greek preposition “para,” which means beside or alongside, as well as the word “Olympic.” Its meaning is that the Paralympic Games are parallel to the Olympic Games and illustrates how the two movements exist side-by-side.


Myth: To be a Paralympian, you have to have a visible disability.

A lot of people get confused when they see a Paralympian without a clearly identifiable disability, such as a prosthetic leg or a wheelchair.

Whitmore, for example, has both her legs, but she has a paralysis of one leg and walks with a limp. This leads many people to assume she just has a temporary injury. Umstead, meanwhile, skis with a guide, but in everyday life it’s not readily apparent she’s visually impaired. “People are always asking me, ‘Wait, you’re blind?’ I don’t get it. What does blind look like? What should I be doing, wearing sunglasses?”


Myth: All of the classifications are confusing, and it’s too complicated to understand what’s going on in Paralympic sport.

Paralympic athletes are placed in categories for competition based on the severity of their impairment — a process similar to grouping athletes by age, gender or weight. The purpose of classification is to minimize the impact of impairment on sport performance, and thus classification is specific to each individual sport and discipline.

“It just comes down to education,” Whitmore said of understanding the classification system. “Anyone who can be educated on why somebody is disabled can learn it.”

Visit USParalympics.org to learn more about classification.


Myth: You don’t have to be an elite athlete to be a Paralympian.

As previously mentioned, the Paralympic Games parallel the Olympic Games, with athletes having to qualify and always prove themselves as the best of the best. Thus, by no means is every person with a disability who plays a sport a Paralympian.

“That’s kind of absurd, quite frankly,” Aoki said. “It’s a little bit of an insult to us.”

Aoki is justified in saying that, as Paralympians, from the most severely to the least severely impaired, train every day, just as hard as Olympians. And you certainly don’t go around calling every able-bodied person who plays a sport an Olympian, do you?


Myth: The goal of every Paralympians is to inspire the world.

This is potentially the most controversial myth within the Paralympic Movement. A lot of Paralympians are bothered by the word “inspiring,” while others love to adhere to it.

Aoki put everything into perspective nicely:

“The goal of the Paralympics and the Paralympic Movement is to inspire the world,” he said. “The goal of Paralympians is to be the best at what we do — to be the best athletes we can be by representing our country at the highest level. And if inspiring people comes along with that, then sure, that’s great. I really want kids with disabilities to not have to say, ‘I want to be like LeBron James or I want to be like Russell Wilson.’ No. I want to hear them say, ‘I want to be like Tatyana McFadden or I want to be like Steve Serio.’”

Most Paralympians can agree that if they’re inspiring someone, then they want to be inspiring the right person for the right reasons. They want to inspire the next generation of athletes, to inspire people with a disability to get involved with sport and to inspire people by sharing stories they can learn or grow from.


Myth: A Paralympian and Olympian are the same thing.

While Paralympians and Olympians are all elite athletes who train at the same level and compete in the same sports in the same venues, there is a slight difference in that Paralympians have a disability and Olympians do not. The Paralympic Games are also overseen by the International Paralympic Committee (IPC), a governing body separate from the International Olympic Committee (IOC), although the two have a longstanding partnership.

Aoki said he embraces that slight difference, as that’s what makes Paralympians so unique. He pushes back when someone accidentally refers to him as an Olympian in order to promote the Paralympic values and brand instead. Without athletes like Aoki, the Paralympic Movement wouldn't grow as rapidly as it has been. 


Myth: Every Paralympian is a military veteran.

Whitmore said people often assume that because she’s a Paralympian, she’s also a military veteran. But that’s not the case. While a sizeable number of U.S. Paralympians have military ties, the majority of Paralympic athletes were either born with their disability or came into it later in their life because of an accident or development.


Myth: If you don’t know how to refer to an athlete with a disability, you should just not talk about them at all.

No Paralympian has the same exact disability or degree of disability. Many Paralympians of both backgrounds, though, prefer to have someone ask questions rather than stay silent or make assumptions. Their disability is a part of who they are.

A lot of Paralympians even have a sense of humor about their disability and enjoy lightening up conversations that might otherwise be awkward. 

“I like to laugh and I like to make fun of myself, so I think it’s funny when people don’t know to say something properly,” Umstead said. “I make it easy for them by cracking a joke and making them comfortable. I think we should all talk to each other whether we’re disabled or not. Don’t be scared to talk to each other and ask questions. How else would we know or learn?”

Stuart Lieberman covered Paralympic sports for three years at the International Paralympic Committee, including at the London 2012 and Sochi 2014 Games. He is a freelance contributor to TeamUSA.org on behalf of Red Line Editorial, Inc.