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What’s Going On With The Paralympics TikTok?

April 19, 2023

It’s not unusual to scroll through TikTok and see something that makes you ask: “Is that ok?”

And viral videos from one account have been dividing opinion over their portrayal of disabled people.

In one, with almost 40 million views, a single-leg cyclist can be seen pedalling to the finish line of a race.

The description of the video reads “LEFT…LEFT…LEFT…” – also the lyrics to the comedy song that plays over the clip.

So far, so TikTok.

But what has shocked some people is the source – it’s been posted by the official Paralympics account.

And it’s not the only one. There are dozens of similar clips on the feed, always with a novelty track on top.

Things like wheelchair basketballers falling over, people running on blades and blind footballers scrabbling to save a goal.

It’s provoked a strong reaction, and the comments are usually full of people wondering what’s going on.

Has the account been hacked? Is it really official? Why hasn’t the person in charge been sacked?

‘Edgy and unique’

BBC Newsbeat asked the International Paralympic Committee, which organises the games, what’s going on.

And no, the account hasn’t been hacked.

The committee says the person in charge is “a Paralympian who fully understands disability” who’s “created a strong following through edgy and unique content”.

It admits that “not everyone” will like the content, but the aim is to “educate an audience who might be less aware of Paralympic sport and the achievements of our athletes”.

And beyond the criticism and confusion, quite a lot of comments on the videos are positive, and some people agree they’re raising the profile of disability sports.

That’s what British Paralympic table tennis player Jack Hunter-Spivey thinks.

Jack, who won gold at the 2022 Commonwealth Games in Birmingham, is also a comedian and doesn’t have a problem with the TikToks.

“A lot of the videos that I’ve seen on TikTok of people complaining are from able-bodied people,” the 27-year-old says.

He says Paralympians are often portrayed as inspirational, “and in our own right we definitely are”.

“But we can also make jokes as well,” he tells Newsbeat.

“We can also make light of our situation and if I fall out my chair in front of my friends and I’m not injured, we would make fun of it and we would laugh.”

Jack accepts there’s a danger that the videos could make people more comfortable to poke fun at people with disabilities and lead to discrimination.

But he thinks “nasty people” will make those comments anyway, and the videos are “trying to move the Paralympic movement forward in different ways”.

“This is one great way to do it,” he says.

“I think it gets more eyes on Paralympics, where we’re getting on the trends and stuff like that on TikTok.

“I really like it because disability is a fragile thing.”

Jess Whyte plays wheelchair basketball for Loughborough Lightning and agrees that it’s important to show athletes as real people with a sense of humour.

“The Paralympics is a great opportunity to celebrate difference and if we’re going to celebrate the great things, we can also laugh at the funny things.

“It’s trying to normalise being comfortable around people with disabilities and normalising the differences.

“I think it’s a great way to get it out there and showcase it and people are watching it and they’re learning from it. And they’re seeing the differences and I think it’s great.

“I think doing these videos and getting people to view them is just basically getting us noticed and recognising it’s OK to have a disability and it’s fine, normalise it, feel comfortable around it and have a laugh with it.”

But not all of the athletes Newsbeat spoke to agree.

England Amputee footballer Sean Jackson, 22, thinks the account should focus on positive things the Paralympic athletes are doing.

He says it’s disappointing that the organisers aren’t using a platform with millions of followers to “promote incredible athletes”.

“They just choose to sort of mock them and turn them into memes and try and use their sport to entertain people from a comedic point of view,” he says.

“Looking through that whole account, I might have seen one or two [videos] where the athlete actually does something successfully.

“I think everything else is just sort of mocked and whether it’s a fall or whether it’s the way they run because they’re using the the blades or the way that they use a bike

“Anything that they’ve used I think it’s just used to try and make make fun of what disabled athletes have to do to participate in the sports that they love.”

Jack sees where Sean is coming from and thinks the account owner must take care about what they post.

“Every disability is different, every person with a disability can view things in different ways,” he says.

“So I can definitely see that it is a fine line being toed, and the videos do have to be careful to not stray into that territory of being offensive or upsetting people.

“But I think the intention is coming from a good place. And I think as a whole, it’s good for the movement.”

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