Paralympic medal count an indictment on USA social/disability services?

As a keen Australian viewer of the Paralympic games, I have been struck by the poor performance of the USA team. As of today, the medal count for the Paralympic games is as follows:

London Paralympics (Day nine) 2012
Rank country Gold Silver Bronze total
1 China 83 65 58 206
2 Great Britain 32 40 41 113
3 Russia 32 35 25 92
4 Ukraine 30 19 25 74
5 Australia 29 20 26 75
6 United States 27 25 33 85
7 Germany 18 23 19 60
8 Brazil 15 12 6 33
9 Poland 12 11 7 30
10 Netherlands 9 9 17 35

Compare this to the 2012 Olympics (able-bodied):

London (able bodied) Olympics 2012
Rank Nation Gold Silver Bronze Total
1 United States 46 29 29 104
2 China 38 27 22 87
3 Great Britain 29 17 19 65
4 Russia 24 25 33 82
5 South Korea 13 8 7 28
6 Germany 11 19 14 44
7 France 11 11 12 34
8 Italy 8 9 11 28
9 Hungary 8 4 5 17
10 Australia 7 16 12 35

The issue is not only the move from first to sixth place. There are around 23 million Aussies, compared to approximately 312,000,000 Americans. In this light, the fact that Australians are beating (or anywhere near) the Americans in the Paralympic medal count raises important questions that have to be asked by American people. Did you know, for example, that the Australian wheelchair basketball teams, both men and women, beat the American wheelchair basketballers – a sport in which (stupidly high paid able-bodied) Americans are unbeatable?

Now, to be honest, I could care less about sporting medals. The issue is not “gold”, but what the relative success/failure of the Paralympic teams says about the disability support services that ground the performance of each country.

The truth is that I know very little about American social/disability support services. From the outside, however, it seems to be the case that the USA does not provide the same level of support for disabled people as is provided in other Western nations (it is also worth noting the Chinese Paralympic success). Now it may be that my analysis is in some way incorrect or incomplete. But if a community (or country) is judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens, then this is it least suggestive of an issue that needs serious reflection.

Okay – bring on the hate mail!

About Author

Shane is an ethicist and theologian, Honorary Associate for the Centre of Disability Research and Policy, the University of Sydney, and Assistant Director, Policy, at the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect, and Exploitation against People with Disability. Shane is proudly disabled, and an occasional blogger on


  • David McAuley
    September 8, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    Hi Shane, funny enough I’ve been thinking similar thoughts. My one comment would be with regard to your comment ‘But if a community (or country) is judged by the way it treats its most vulnerable citizens, then this is it least suggestive of an issue that needs serious reflection.’ I see vulnerable people in the UK every day who suffer from social, physical or educational disability or difficulties and the medal table would suggest the UK deals well with this group or groups of people, not the case. They are isolated and face daily challenges and have to overcome these usually with little or no government help. All I would say is let’s keep this issue in the spotlight. Regards D

  • Peter Allen
    September 9, 2012 at 8:51 pm

    Interesting comment Shane. I wonder how many able bodied would have made that connection. Truth be told I hadn’t. I have been marvelling at the efforts of the Australian athletes without giving you a thought to the funding or public policy implications. I would not be at all surprised if your deductions are in fact well founded. My American friends tell me that the states is a great place to live if you are young and employed or older and rich. To be old and poor or disabled in America is to live in a cruel place. As for the hate mail, the almost complete lack of response to this post is a story in itself.

  • shirlmo (Shirley Mortara)
    September 10, 2012 at 1:29 pm

    An unfortunate fact about the US is that if you are unemployed, it means no health insurance. I guess no health insurance would equate to no financial aid or very little. If they care so little about their poor and disabled, why would they place importance or value on the Para -olympics?

    I have a friend in Texas, who is the recipient of a kidney trnasplant, he has been in chronic rejection for the last ten years and because he cannot work, there is no health insurance. He has to go to a “charity” hospital that treats the “poor” for free, three hours drive from his home, instead of the hospital 3 mins drive from his home. I don’t think Australians on the whole realise how fortunate we all are

    • Shane Clifton
      September 10, 2012 at 3:50 pm

      I had actually intended to make the link to the American health care system, but decided the best to stay out of things I didn’t know much about. But thanks to the observation.

  • Andrew
    September 10, 2012 at 2:23 pm

    Some statistical analysis has been done here if you like graphs;
    Interestingly, America does not do much worse than Australia with regards to ratio of attendees to medals. In contrast, China is an overachiever. The question then is why there are relatively low level of attendees from the US.
    This article points to lower levels of paralympic sporting support;
    Some further commentary:

    • Shane Clifton
      September 10, 2012 at 3:54 pm

      one of the observations was that there was virtually no television coverage given to the event. Again, this is indicative of the society that cares little about people with disability. This was another reason to be proud of Australia; it televise the whole event live.


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