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“Disabled Femininities” in Paralympic Sport: Exploring the Narratives of Brazilian Female Paralympians*



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Gender in sport is deeply contradictory and complex: women are oppressed by men in sport; both women and men are oppressed in sport; and women and men experience freedom in sport. But definitions of oppression and freedom are not straightforward – they relate to the values which people hold and the context which they are in, which, in turn, affects what they do.
(Hargreaves, 1990, p.302).

The international Paralympic Games have evidenced a history of unequal representation of the male and female athletes.  Although the number of female Paralympians has increased significantly during the last two decades, as the International Paralympic Committee’s (IPG) data show in the table below, there still was a substantial participation gap between males and female athletes at the most recent Paralympics in Rio de Janeiro in 2016.

Table 1. Female athletes at Paralympic Games

Event Sydney 2000 Athens 2004 Beijing 2008 London 2012 Rio de Janeiro 2016
Women 990 1,165 1,383 1,501 1,671
Total number of athletes 3,879 3,808 3,951 4,237 4,238
Percentage of Female Participants 25.5 30.6 35 35.4 39.4

Sources: IPC (n.d. a; b; c; d; e)

This discrepancy has historically characterized Brazilian Paralympic delegations as well. During the Paralympic Games in Sydney, Australia in 2000, for example, Brazil was represented by 11 women on its Paralympic team of 64 athletes (Wikipedia, n.d.). At the event in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil competed with its largest Paralympic delegation since its first participation in the games. Of the nation’s 287 Paralympians in 2016, 102 were women, or about 35.5 percent of the total delegation CPB, 2016),

The reasons a large discrepancy between male and female Paralympic participation exists are highly complex and the topic is under researched (DePauw, 1997; Hardin, 2007; Hargreaves, 2000; Olenik, 1998). As DePauw (1999) has argued, sport, as a social institution, has been transformed by the presence of women, individuals with disabilities and female athletes with disabilities. Nevertheless, ableist ideologies, gendered relations of power, social and cultural barriers and women’s personal choices have all shaped a relative lack of representation of women in disability sport (Hargreaves, 2000, p.211).

More than 45 million Brazilians live with impairments and they experience a variety of physical and social barriers that prevent them from participating in sports. For example, their access to sporting opportunities is constrained by inaccessible infrastructure, as well as transportation and attitudinal barriers (DataSenado, 2010; Pereira et al. 2013). Although prejudice against people with disabilities has decreased in recent years in Brazilian society, many such Brazilians remain the target of preconceptions that they are incapable of participating in sports activity (DataSenado, 2010; Ferreira and Miranda, 2013). Furthermore, Brazilian women in general and women with impairments in particular, have not enjoyed the support of policies and programs aimed at increasing their participation in organized sports (Miragaya and DaCosta, 2007). These reasons, among others, have led to the fact that half of Brazilians with disabilities do not participate in sports (SAGE/COPPE/UFRJ Research Team, 2014, p.115).

This short essay seeks to illuminate the issues and experiences of Brazil’s female parathletes in order to highlight the inequities and barriers such women now confront in disability sport in the country. Following this brief introduction, we sketch the sociopolitical context of Paralympic sport in Brazil and then examine more closely the experiences of women participating in it.. That section offers the reflections and observations of four Brazilian female athletes who competed in the 2016 Summer Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro.

Paralympic sport in Brazil

Involving people with impairments in sports began at Stoke Mandeville Hospital in Salisbury, England in the 1940s, with the goal of assisting the rehabilitation of WWII veterans with disabilities. Sir Ludwig Guttmann, director of Salisbury’s Spinal Injuries Centre, organized the First Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralyzed in 1948 for 26 British veterans (including three women) who competed in archery (DePauw, 2012). In 1960, Rome hosted 400 athletes from 23 countries in the first international Paralympics, and in 2016, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil, hosted 4,350 athletes from 170 countries in a Latin American nation’s first-ever hosting of the Paralympic Games (Craven, 2016).

Although disability sport initiatives began in Brazil in the late 1950s with wheelchair basketball clubs in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paulo, Brazil’s formal participation in the Paralympic Games began almost two decades later in Toronto, Canada, in 1976 (Junior, 2012). The Brazilian Paralympic Committee,  created in 1995, which propelled the development of high performance Paralympic sport in Brazil (Marquez and Gutierrez, 2014). Thereafter, national congressional enactment of the Agnelo/Piva Law in 2001 was crucial for sustaining the Paralympic movement in the country. The statute mandated that two percent of federal lottery funds be set aside for the Brazilian Olympic and Paralympic Committees, distributed in a proportion of 85 percent and 15 percent, respectively. In 2015, the nation’s Senate changed the Agnelo/Piva Law’s proportion of lottery revenues designated for the Olympics from 2 percent to 2.7 percent, as well as the percentage of revenue assigned to Paralympic sports within that sum from 15 percent to 37.04 percent (Fontenelle, 2016).

This shift has allowed the Brazilian Paralympic Committee (CPB) to establish a national sports team, members of which receive financial support, including bonuses for medals won, for the duration of the Paralympic cycle (Mauerberg-deCastro et al., 2016). However, many of those we interviewed for a forthcoming book noted that this financial support has been unstable, resulting in some Brazilian parathletes having to work full-time during the day and train in the evenings and on weekends.

Although the federal and state governments in Brazil have been investing in adequate training facilities and coaches for Paralympic sport, access to these is still  limited to large urban centers, where most such professionals and infrastructure is located. This fact requires many athletes to relocate for professional training and rehabilitation services, which implies a long-term commitment and dependence on sponsorships and state support (Mauerberg-deCastro, et al., 2016). One way to demonstrate regional disparities in opportunities to participate in Paralympic sport in Brazil is to chart the number of medals won per state in the 2016 Paralympics: a little more than 40%, or 56 of 135 medals were attained by athletes from just two states—Sao Paulo and Rio de Janeiro (Passos, 2016).

Although Paralympic sport in Brazil has grown significantly in recent decades, it still confronts major challenges including, inadequate infrastructure of sports clubs, spotty sporting facility accessibility, insufficient equipment and materials, lack of public awareness of disability sport and an insufficient number of qualified coaches and other professionals (Marques and Gutierrez, 2014). Additionally, disability sports organizations are often led by volunteers without impairments (Mauerberg-deCastro et al., 2016). Withal, despite the advances of the Paralympic movement in Brazil, women, particularly, participating in Paralympic sport in the nation still face major impediments and inequities.

Women in the Paralympic sport

Although gender inequity has been identified in previous work within the world of mainstream conventional sport, Olenik et al. have rightly pointed out that making generalizations from able-bodied sport to disability sport ignores, denies or erases the significance of women’s experiences within the latter, as it ignores the historical and political context of those experiences (1995, p.54). Recruitment of female Paralympians remains a significant challenge in many world regions. At an elite level, in comparison to the Olympic Games, the proportion of female athlete participation in the Paralympic Games lags by approximately ten percent. Blauwet has attributed this difference to a lack of access to sport rather than an insufficient number of potential participants (2015, p.126).

Available research suggests that women with impairments who aspire to participate in high-level sport competitions may indeed face the greatest discrimination of all. There are individual differences in whether the disability is congenital or acquired later in life, how long they have been living with their impairment(s) or unique manifestations of loss or reduction of functional ability, as well as differences in age, social class, education, race, ethnicity, etc. However, insufficient research makes it difficult to develop an accurate picture of the specific reasons why so few disabled women participate in sport and the obstacles they face if they do participate. The interviews and personal conversations we have conducted with 2016 Brazilian female parathletes have confirmed some of the challenges treated in the available literature, including, lack of awareness of opportunities to become involved in sports, lack of financial means, high opportunity cost of engaging in disability sports compared to other activities, lack of financial incentives to become involved in disability sport, high cost of sporting equipment, lack of adequate transportation and public safety, inaccessibility of many athletic facilities and attitudinal barriers.

The complex and contradictory position that sportswomen with and without impairments find themselves is illustrated in this statement by a Brazilian goalball player, when discussing maternity:

In sport, women face prejudice and difficulties with the issue of maternity and child-rearing. The sporting milieu is not ready to accommodate a mother athlete. She would have to take time off if she wants to breastfeed and spend more time with her child. I think there is a possibility to work out strategies that would allow a woman to exercise her professional activity in sport and spend time with her child, if there was more sensitivity to this issue (Individual interview conducted on June 7, 2017).

Participation of women with impairments in the world of elite sports is often accompanied by other barriers, as suggested by this sitting volleyball player:

I do not know how it is in other sports, but in sitting volleyball, our team was clearly disadvantaged. But we overcame it with much struggle and dedication. For example, we did not have the opportunity to train at the Olympic Stadium, we had to find another venue to train before the Paralympics. We only trained once on the official court, while the male team trained there regularly. We had the opportunity to train with the Japanese team in Volta Redonda [a city two hours away from Rio de Janeiro], which in the end helped us gain more experience. We also had several scrimmages with the Chinese team, and we made the most of our experiences (Individual interview conducted on May 22, 2017).

Another female sitting volleyball player commented on the different marketing and promotion treatment that Brazil’s male and female sitting volleyball teams received during the Rio Paralympics:

I feel the difference in the promotion and in the opportunities between female and male sport [of sitting volleyball]. During the Rio Paralympics, there was a banner promoting men’s sitting volleyball team on the Rio-Niteroi bridge [that connects the city of Rio de Janeiro to the rest of the state]. In case of the female team, we only had an image of one of the players on a subway car on Line 2… We also needed to be treated as someone who had conditions to be among the best in the world … Our medal was the first in team female sport that Brazil has ever won, but it did not bring an increased return to us in terms of media attention, sponsorship or promotion (Individual interview conducted on May 23, 2017).

A female shooting parathlete noted that she has confronted similar challenges in recognition and expectations during her sporting career:

Shooting is a male-dominated sport, and I have always felt that. It was not explicit, but I always felt that I had to prove that I was better, that I was capable of achieving more. I felt this pressure because I am a woman. If I win in a mixed competition [with male and female participants competing together], men usually joke about the one who lost, ‘wow, aren’t you ashamed, you lost to a woman!’ (Individual interview conducted on March 22, 2017).

Overall, women participate less than men in disability sport for a complex array of reasons that affect those who wish to become involved and those already engaged in elite Paralympic sport alike, as exemplified by one female goalball player we interviewed:

I had some competitions canceled because of insufficient number of active women in goalball. It is a larger issue, as there is a greater number of national male goalball teams around the world than national female teams. In Brazil, we also have more male than female goalball teams. And because of this, sometimes we do not have the same number of competitions among the female teams as the male teams do. There are social factors at the basis of this, such as, for example, the difficulty of women accessing sport and often higher vulnerability of blind women in social settings. She may leave home less frequently, practice less sport and sometimes end up in a more over-protected situation by her family (Individual interview conducted on June 7, 2017).

This essay has outlined some of the obstacles that Brazilian female Paralympians face in obtaining recognition for their achievements, especially those who compete in less popular or male-dominated sports. Issues such as insensitivity to the maternity and child-rearing needs of sportswomen, unequal recognition in comparison to their male counterparts and fewer competitive opportunities because of the lack of female athletes with impairments involved in elite sports, all contribute to the unequal representation of women in such activities. As Hargreaves (2000) has argued, we lack full understanding of the particular problems that women face because of insufficient research. However, “the increasing visibility of sportswomen with disabilities helps to transcend the idea that the body is a burden and encourages other disabled women to focus on their sporting abilities” (Hargreaves, 2000, p.198). In keeping with this contention, the women we interviewed suggested that their experiences as participants in Paralympic sport have made them more resilient. As Seal has observed, “rather than operating as a ‘double disadvantage,’ gender and disability dynamically combine to offer them a different set of opportunities” (2014, p.191). Although this is a positive conclusion, these possibilities are not available to all women with impairments aiming to compete in elite athletic events due to socioeconomic, cultural, political and ideological barriers.


(*) We borrow the term “disabled femininities” from Emma-Louise Seal’s study of the intersection between gendered and disabled identities of elite female athletes in disability sport. Her idea of “disabled femininities” denoted the complexity underlying how these individuals desired to be seen as strong and tough, while at the same time maintaining their sense of embodied femininity (Seal, 2014, p.205).


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Lyusyena Kirakosyan

Lyusyena Kirakosyan currently serves as a Senior Project Associate at the Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance and a governance and development consultant for nongovernmental organizations. Her research interests focus on critical disability studies, particularly in the context of Paralympic Games and Paralympics legacy. Since January 2016, she has been a research member of the Brazilian Paralympic Academy that focusses on inquiry into paralympic sports in Brazil and is formally a part of the Brazilian Paralympic Committee. She earned her Ph.D. in Social, Political, Ethical, and Cultural Thought (ASPECT) from Virginia Tech in 2013, her master’s degree in Management from the Hult International Business School in Boston, Massachusetts in 2001, and her bachelor’s degree in Economics from Yerevan State University in Armenia in 1997. She is the co-editor with Max Stephenson Jr. of the forthcoming edited book, RE: Reflections and Explorations: A Forum for Deliberative Dialogue, Virginia Tech Institute for Policy and Governance, 2017, Paper and ebook formats.

Sam Geijer

As a sports manager and social scientist, Sam Geijer is passionate about the power of sports and is dedicated to research the effects of sports on excluded groups. As such, he intends to pursue his doctoral research at the University of Amsterdam where his research will focuse on social inclusion of people with a disability as part of the legacy of the Paralympic Games in Rio de Janeiro in 2016. Sam received his Bachelor’s degree in 2011 in Sport, Management and Business from the University of Applied Sciences in Amsterdam and concluded his pre-Master’s program in 2014 in Latin American and Caribbean Studies at the Utrecht University, the Netherlands. Sam has recently authored and published the first volume of the Paralympic Stars Magazine that focused on adapted sports in Brazil:

Publication Date

October 26, 2017