It’s a good bet the September 7–18 Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro will inspire many to train and compete themselves.

That’s what happened to Pedro Pablo de Vinatea of Peru when he saw the London Paralympics in 2012, where more than 4,000 top athletes from all over the world
competed in 20 sports such as football, wheelchair rugby, volleyball and weightlifting.

De Vinatea decided then — 11 years after losing his leg to cancer at the age of 14 — that he would start training. Now 29, he has his sights set on competing in badminton in the 2020 Paralympic Games in Tokyo, the first time the game will be offered.

In the United States, many athletes, including 11-time Paralympic track medalist Tatyana McFadden, credit the Americans with Disabilities Act (ADA) with helping them get the access they needed to train and qualify for competitive sports. That 1990 civil rights law made sweeping changes to daily lives, including those of sports participants.

Under the law, organizations that sponsor sports must provide a person who has an intellectual, developmental, physical or other disability an equal opportunity to try out for and compete on teams. They must make reasonable accommodations for competitors with disabilities, such as using a visual starting signal instead of a starting gun for a runner who is deaf or waiving the two-hand touch rule for a swimmer with one arm.

Before that law was passed, people didn’t have much information about how to include disabled people in sports facilities, said Jim Pecht of the U.S. Access Board, a federal agency that promotes equality through accessible design.

Pecht recalled the story of a family taking their son to a local pool. “And the place said, ‘Well, yeah, he can go in, but he has to wear a helmet.’ And they thought that was silly.” A helmet was completely unnecessary for their son’s disability. They filed a complaint with the U.S. Department of Justice. The verdict, Pecht said, was essentially, “‘Yeah, you’re right, that’s silly.'”

Paralympics change perceptions

Ann Cody, a three-time Paralympian, says she sees a stunning increase in the popularity of Paralympic sports compared to the time she competed in wheelchair basketball in 1984 and medaled in track in 1988 and 1992.

The London Paralympic Games, for example, shattered previous ratings records, with a combined audience of 3.4 billion viewers outside of the United Kingdom, the host country.

“In all the wheelchair and Paralympic sports, there’s been a marked improvement, or a development of excellence across all the Paralympic sports and, more broadly, from across more countries,” said Cody, who became paralyzed as the result of an illness when she was 16 years old.

“Sport is a great convening mechanism for bringing people together,” said Cody, who works in sports diplomacy at the U.S. Department of State.

Cody and de Vinatea made their comments during an August 4 webchat featuring Paralympians #WithoutLimits from Peru, Canada and the United States. More information about sports inclusion and the ADA is available online in the hourlong chat.

The diversity and talents of more than 140 athletes, musicians and others are on full display in this trailer for the U.K.-based Channel 4’s coverage of the 2016 Paralympics in Rio.

Check your local broadcasters to find Paralympics coverage in your area! The games will run from September 7 to 18. 

Banner reading "Learn more about the athletes" with the Paralympic symbol (State Dept./ S. Wilkinson)