Unlike physical disabilities, intellectual disabilities are invisible. That makes it more difficult for them to be classified at the Paralympics and more complicated to ensure a level playing field among the competitors. Recent changes to the eligibility rules at the Paralympics attempted to address these issues and allowed for the intellectually disabled to compete in the 2012 London games.
At the 1996 Paralympic Games in Atlanta, athletes with intellectual disabilities were allowed to compete for the first time after the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) added “intellectual impairment” to its disability categories. However, an audacious cheating scandal at the 2000 Games in Sydney eliminated that category for 12 years. The Spanish basketball team had won gold in the intellectually disabled category until an undercover journalist revealed that 10 out of its 12 members were only pretending to have a mental disability. They went as far as growing beards and wearing bobble hats off court to conceal their identities and mask the deception. Since then, the IPC and the INAS (International Federation for Sport for Para-athletes with an Intellectual Disability) have worked on tightening up the eligibility process so that this could not happen again.
The assessments for inclusion in the 1996 and 2000 Games were simply a review of the medical information (which included a statement from a psychologist, special school and medical doctor all confirming the intellectual handicap). By 2009, a rigorous and reliable process was approved and the category was reinstated in time for the 2012 Paralympics in London. The category of ‘intellectual impairment’ was only granted for 3 sports:
- Athletics= long jump, shot put, 1500m (sport class T/F20)
- Swimming=200m freestyle, 100m breaststroke, 100mbackstroke (sport class 14)
- Table tennis (sport class 11)
It was made clear that all competitors in these sport classes would have to fulfill the WHO (World Health Organization) definition of intellectual disability in order to compete.
The WHO definition states that the individual must have an IQ below 75 and have an impairment in adaptive functioning (such as in social, domestic or communication skills). Most countries have a standardized test to measure adaptive functioning and it was found that people with an intellectual disability generally fall in the lowest 2% of the population.
The official definition as per the Paralympic Movement organization for the classification of ‘intellectual impairment’ is as follows:
“A disability characterized by significant limitation both in intellectual functioning and in adaptive behavior as expressed in conceptual, social and practical adaptive skills. This disability originates before the age of 18” (American Association on Intellectual and Developmental Disability, 2010). The diagnostics of intellectual functioning and adaptive behavior must be made using internationally recognized and professionally administered measures as recognized by INAS (International Federation for Sport for Para-athletes with an Intellectual Disability).
What is the new process?
The new process requires that a competitor submit “primary evidence” which includes a psychologist’s assessment with specific IQ tests, verification that their impairment affects their day to day performance (adaptive functioning) and that the impairment occurred prior to age 18. The primary evidence is then submitted to a committee of 2 to 3 independent psychology experts assembled by INAS. But that is just the beginning!
Once the individual has been approved as meeting those specific criteria, he or she must then undergo a sports-specific assessment. At that point they need to prove that the impairment has an impact on the performance of that particular sport. First, they are tested on overall “sports intelligence” which includes reaction time, memory, concentration and spatial perception. Potential competitors must score below the level of an able-bodied athlete to continue. Next they are tested on specific skills for their sport; for example, in table tennis they would need to return a serve from a ‘table tennis robot’ to a specific spot. They get several chances to hit the target with the ball. An able-bodied athlete will increase their accuracy on the 2nd ball whereas an intellectually impaired athlete will not have learned from their first attempt.
When the tests are completed, the athletes who performed poorly in comparison to able-bodied athletes are allowed to participate in the Paralympics. Some might question as to why you would select someone who is not particularly good at a sport but that is the same standard that is used for people with physical impairments. If you perform as well as an able-bodied person in a sport, then your impairment is not limiting your ability to compete on an equal basis.
The new testing system is described as “extremely robust” and the athletes are tested repeatedly. Sports researchers are now looking to future Paralympics and designing more tests that will allow the intellectually disabled to compete in a broader range of sports, including the now infamous game of basketball. Another cheating incident is unlikely with the new safety checks in place.