The false start of the Paralympics’ WeThe15 campaign

As the Paralympics get underway in Tokyo, a new campaign titled ‘WeThe15’ looks to tackle some of the misconceptions and discriminatory attitudes which will no doubt surface during the sporting event. Yet, despite the project’s ambitious launch last week, I remain unconvinced of its potential to generate meaningful change.

I’m cautious not to lean into many sporting cliches in this article, but ‘WeThe15’ has well and truly fallen at the first hurdle. Unveiled not long before the beginning of the Tokyo Paralympics on Tuesday, the movement (backed by the International Paralympics Committee (IPC), UNESCO, the European Commission, the Invictus Games and more) looks to “end discrimination” for 1.2 billion disabled people worldwide – which is 15 per cent of the global population, hence the name.

At first glance, there’s a lot to be optimistic about with regards to this new initiative. Its international reach thanks to the handful of influential organisations behind it is not to be sniffed at. To launch it with a powerful, punchy campaign video, ahead of the biggest international sporting event for disabled people, is not too shabby, either.

Yet WeThe15 has suffered a crisis in communication. It’s understandable that many disabled people – myself included – are weary of initiatives which emerge out of the blue, aim to promote awareness and pledge to remove the barriers faced by our community. Many have done the same, with varying levels of success. Some have sought to appease non-disabled people (looking at you, It’s Everyone’s Journey), some paint us as superhuman or inspirations (see the late Stella Young’s excellent TEDx talk on this issue), and others have allowed for their campaigns to be used by corporations and their capitalist aims.

Speaking of aims, it’s probably worth mentioning the six objectives to which WeThe15 commits itself. The initiative pledges to:

  1. Put persons with disabilities at the heart of the diversity and inclusion agenda
  2. Implement a range of activities targeting governments, businesses and the public over the next decade to drive social inclusion for persons with disabilities
  3. Break down societal and systemic barriers that are preventing persons with disabilities from fulfilling their potential and being active members of society
  4. Ensure greater awareness, visibility, and representation of persons with disabilities
  5. Provide education on the social model of disability to dispel global societal and cultural misconceptions and explain that disability is created by societal and systemic barriers rather than an individual’s impairment
  6. Promote the role of assistive technology as a vehicle to driving social inclusion

I want to quickly address each of them in turn, but first and foremost, there is a glaring contradiction, and it’s one which is made in the promotional video for this campaign, also.

If you want to “provide education on the social model of disability” – that is, a model which says we are disabled by attitudes and environments in society, rather than our own conditions or ‘impairments’, and therefore advocates for the term ‘disabled person’ – then you really shouldn’t be using the medical model, person-first phrasing of ‘persons with disabilities’ in four out of six of your objectives, and in the aforementioned launch video.

Pledges from WeThe15’s founders to “put persons with disabilities at the heart of the diversity and inclusion agenda” come despite the IPC having a criteria for involvement in its games which have been criticised by disabled people. The European Commission, meanwhile, has committed itself to a disability strategy for 2021-2030 which includes creating a “European Disability Card” by 2023 – a project which, the more I read about it, just makes one feel a tad uncomfortable for some reason. Both of these issues don’t really scream ‘inclusion’.

Then it’s onto “[breaking] down societal and systemic barriers that are preventing persons with disabilities from fulfilling their potential and being active members of society”, for which the aforementioned criteria from the IPC does not help. Not only that, but this is quite the surface level commitment. We want clear, detailed actions with specific timeframes and organisations mentioned. Without clear objectives or pressure placed on individuals, promising to tackle societal barriers is far too vague a pledge. It could apply to anyone, and without any metrics to measure success, there’s no way for WeThe15’s impact to be accurately measured.

Perhaps it is unfair of me to demand this of a campaign which is still in its infancy, but far too many get caught up in the issue of awareness, that they forget that that is only the first step towards acceptance, inclusion and allyship. There is, for want of a better word, a distinct lack of a roadmap.

Not only that, but the day after I reported on WeThe15’s launch, I was sent a press release on behalf of Facebook, who were working on the initiative too. Y’know, the company which owns Instagram, a site which still hasn’t turned its suggested hashtags into Camel Case or offered captions on grid posts, and represses marginalised creators on the platform? Disability campaigns should never be a platform used to promote businesses when a lot of them are part of the problem. Your capitalism gets in the way of our activism, Facebook.

Also on the “breaking down barriers” point: it’s been revealed that WeThe15’s website, at present, does not meet the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (or WCAG, for short). Twitter accounts which have expressed their support for the campaign have posted images without alt text for blind and visually impaired folk, too. For some, WeThe15 has probably unearthed more of the same when it comes to a lack of understanding about disability. It’s exhausting, and we really need to get past the point of awareness. So few campaigns go beyond that.

And I’m sorry, but we could really do with fewer initiatives which involve lighting up buildings to raise awareness. It’s an empty gesture and does little to change minds. In fact, I’d go so far to argue that we’re past the point of awareness when it comes to disability. Non-disabled are aware of us, that’s why we’re still disabled by ableism, for they’d need to be aware of our presence and disabilities in order to discriminate against us. If you’re talking about making non-disabled aware of the barriers that we face, then that’s education, and that’s further down the line on the way towards acceptance. WeThe15’s only just got off the starting blocks, and turning The Gherkin into an aubergine for one night only is not going to help matters at all.

Lastly, when I look at their commitment around assistive technology, I think we have to be careful around the role that it plays in conversations around accessibility. Tech, after all, is not for everyone – hearing aids and cochlear implants are a fine example of that. They can certainly help us navigate society’s barriers, but they don’t remove them.

So it’s one thing educating non-disabled people on the barriers that we face; it’s another encouraging them to work with us to dismantle them. When fellow disabled journalist Rachel Charlton-Dailey asked people on Twitter for their thoughts on WeThe15, my response was to the point: “I can’t take a campaign seriously when it pledges to educate people on the social model, yet uses person first language in its launch; lights up buildings in purple as a meaningless gesture; has [organisations] posting promotional images without alt text and focusses more on awareness.” This, I feel, summarises my issues with the campaign in its entirety.

I – and I’m sure, many other disabled people – don’t like being this cynical and critical about a project which has likely been created with the best of intentions, but we’ve been in this position before, where it feels as though awareness campaigns do more good for those running them than the disabled people it concerns. The Olympics are over; we really don’t need to be going around in circles anymore.

Photo: WeThe15.org.

Note: This article expands upon comments made in a recent issue of my free All-Inclusive Newsletter. To read past editions and sign up for future emails, please sign up via my Revue profile.

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