To mark Disability History Month Curator of Oral History & Contemporary Collecting, Sarah Gudgin, revisits the memories she collected during the London 2012 Paralympic Games.
“2012 was a pivotal moment. 2012 was an opportunity to change the way people felt, and the way people looked at the Paralympics. And the wider implications that it would have for people with disabilities all over the UK and all over the world for years to come.” Ade Adapitan
For most people, the excitement surrounding the success of the London 2012 Games might have finished with the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games. For me, it was just beginning. As part of the Museum of London’s Collecting Strategy for the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games, I was involved in collecting material culture, costume, objects and new oral histories for inclusion in the Museum’s Oral History archive.
My interviews took me to new places including the Home Office, the House of Lords (which was a bit like being in a film set!) and the Olympic Village a rare opportunity to see the location where the athletes stayed during the Games – and I spoke to a wide range of people involved in many different aspects of the Games.
In addition to the 12 or so interviews which I carried out, I was also able to interview two former Paralympic medal winners, Dame Tanni Grey Thompson and Ade Adepitan who headed Channel 4’s Paralympics coverage with presenter Clare Balding.
Hearing the personal accounts of interviewees’ unique experiences of working on the Games was a fascinating insight into the organisation behind the scenes. Like most people who attended the Games or visited the Olympic Park, I had been impressed and captivated by the performance and dedication of the sportsmen and women and the spectacle of the Games. However, what I also came to appreciate though carrying out these interviews, was the intense planning, preparation, expertise and management which went into delivering the Games.
Many of the interviewees spoke about memorable sporting moments in the Olympics. However what also came through strongly during the interviews were responses to the Paralympic Games and the elite athletes who took part. Interviewees frequently spoke with great enthusiasm about watching Paralympic sport and about the impact that this had had on their perceptions of disability, and in many cases this was an unexpected response.
“It has been a rollercoaster of emotions, every single day, of every single event, challenging your perceptions, not of disabled people, but to what is possible as a human being. What is possible with a pure determination. It was fantastic, moving, inspiration and humbling.” Melba Palhazy
Some interviewees felt that the impact of the Paralympic Games would challenge the way we see disabled people, and they hoped this would have a lasting impact for future generations.
“We are not talking about people who are ill here, but people who’ve got phenomenal potential, who can contribute to society. The fact that they haven’t got a leg, or they sit in a wheelchair, or they are blind, does not mean that they are any less capable of contributing in their way to society. And that’s the power of the Paralympics”. Tony Sainsbury
Tim Jones describes the reaction of school children to meeting Paralympic athlete Richard Whitehead who has prosthetic legs. “It gave us a taste for how the public was going to react to the Paralympics and in particular how the younger generation was going to react to it, and they were going ‘Wow! We want to watch this!’”
With this years Disability History Month in mind, I returned to the Museum’s collections. It was challenging to find positive representations of disability without reinforcing negative perceptions, connected to the history of the freak-show, or viewing disability in coldly medical terms. Many objects or images collected were connected to war injury, asylum history, or viewed disability through the prism of philanthropy. Selected objects from the Museum’s collections relating to disability can be seen on the Reassessing what we collect website.
More work is needed in museums to develop new ways of representing the lives and experiences of disabled people. However through the new collecting which has taken place as part of the London 2012 Olympic Games and Paralympic Games project, we have, in a small way, been able to redress the balance. The objects, images, costume, ephemera and oral histories collected during the Games reflect the subject of disability more positively. These capture a snapshot of opinion informed and influenced by elite sport performance. The Olympics and Paralympics have created an opportunity to explore other ways of looking at difference, allowing us to ask difficult and searching questions, and perhaps to challenge forms of prejudice.