The Blurry Line Between Olympians and Paralympians

A clever video from Egypt, which has more Paralympic than Olympic medals.

In September, a Rio de Janeiro stadium hosting the men’s 1,500-meter final erupted to historic results. Algeria’s Abdellatif Baka, a visually impaired middle-distance runner, set a world record at the Paralympic Games by finishing with a time of 3:48.29. In the same stadium during the Summer Olympics a few weeks earlier, American runner Matthew Centrowitz won the gold with a finish 1.71 seconds slower than Baka. Not only would Baka have won a gold medal in the Olympic contest, but so would all three of the runners who finished after him. The result brings into question what really separates Paralympic athletes from their Olympic peers.

That’s exactly what Mantis Films hopes to accomplish in the short film above, “Redefine Ability,” as part of a campaign to interrogate how we understand these differences. The short was shot in Egypt, a country with more Paralympic than Olympic medals. It features Egyptian superstars like armless table tennis champion Ibrahim Hamato and Aya Abbas, a 16-year-old swimmer who uses a wheelchair and was the youngest athlete to represent Egypt in the 2016 Paralympics. At home, the Paralympic athletes also coach students without disabilities, further blurring any “divide.”

“The goal is ultimately to get people to move away from looking at people’s disability and start thinking about ability,” said Tamer Shaaban, who co-directed the film and runs the campaign.*

The short reflects this by design with an aesthetic uniquely suited to the visually impaired and other viewers. “We wanted as many people as possible to be able to experience the campaign,” Shaaban said, “so we made cuts specifically designed so they could be experienced by visually impaired or even legally blind people. Everything from the website to the commercial was designed around those people first.”

For example, the film uses voiceover to describe the scenes as you watch them. For visually impaired viewers, the combination of sounds feels like a literal reading of how to process the visual experience. It made me wonder about the potential for more inclusive filmmaking and the artistic possibilities that could unlock.

For Shaaban and Mantis Films, this is just the beginning. “We’re definitely going to be looking to collaborate with other organizations and companies to push this mindset forward,” he said. “Really, it’s a movement, and anyone can join it.”

Correction, Dec. 9, 2016: This post originally misstated that Tamer Shaaban co-directed the Redefine Ability campaign. He runs the campaign and co-directed the short film.