Author: Sam Brady, 22nd March 2022

One thing that I have frequently noticed when cataloguing the WheelPower Archive is the evolution of names for sports, magazines, events and organisations. Whilst seemingly minor, it highlights changing conceptualisations of disability sport and also the language surrounding disabled people. In the decades covered in the WheelPower Archive, there is a near constant influx of names and acronyms to remember, and all of these changes can make archival work frustrating or confusing. This is especially so when there are additional political meanings behind these changes.

The frequent name changes relating to the history of the Paralympics first presented itself to me at the start of my PhD research, as I grappled with the basic history of the Games. The Games started as the ‘Stoke Mandeville Games’ and later added ‘International’ to the start of this when the events included athletes from other countries. The term ‘Paralympic’ was used for the 1960 Games in Rome, as it was the first competition to leave Stoke Mandeville, but the term was not used officially, as the Games did not always take place in the Olympic host nation. This video made for the NPHT TikTok account highlights just some of these names. Whilst the name ‘Paralympic’ has now stuck, this is just the tip of the iceberg in terms of changing names and language.

One of our recent TikToks showcases the different names for the Paralympics that can be found in our Heritage Centre and items. The names displayed are the “Stoke Mandeville Games”, “International Stoke Mandeville Games”, “Toronto Olympiad for the Disabled” (the 1976 Games hosted in Toronto, Canada), and “The Olympics for the Disabled” (the 1980 Games hosted in Arnhem, the Netherlands).

One specific example from the WheelPower collection is WheelPower itself. WheelPower began life as the British Paraplegic Sports Society, founded in 1972. In 1991, the charity renamed itself to the British Wheelchair Sports Foundation, and later began operating as WheelPower. Unsurprisingly, WheelPower’s archive features multiple references to the three names, alongside their different logos throughout the years. At first, it was not always obvious that these three names were linked, especially as I didn’t necessarily encounter items chronologically. This is similar to other organisations and charities which operate within the sphere of disability sport. There are a lot of acronyms to remember, and it often reminds me of the Monty Python’s Life of Brian sketch about political parties. But, once my familiarity with these event names and organisational acronyms grew, it became simpler to keep track of things.


Three items detailing the evolution of WheelPower’s names and logos. The first item on the left is a 1985 handbook for the British Paraplegic Sports Society. The middle item is a leaflet from the British Wheelchair Sports Foundation, c. 2000. The third item, on the right, is a fundraising leaflet from WheelPower. AR116/2019, Box 39, Item 25A (left); AR116/2019, Box 30, Item 7 (middle); AR116/2019, Box 30, Item 47A (Right). © WheelPower Stoke Mandeville Stadium Archive.  

That isn’t to say things are easy, however. One example of frustration can be seen in some event booklets I came across recently. These booklets were either programmes or results for the same event in 1987 and 1988. For both years, competitors’ programmes were labelled to be for the ‘National Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Games’, but the corresponding results were for the ‘National Wheelchair Games.’ However, the competitors’ programmes for the 1989 event were labelled the ‘National Wheelchair Games’ – breaking the pattern I was previously relying on.

Moreover, the International Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed became the International Stoke Mandeville Games, which then became the World Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Games. The annual numbers for these events are consistent, so it can be worked out these events are linked. For example, the 32nd International Stoke Mandeville Games for the Paralysed was in 1983, the 34th International Stoke Mandeville Games in 1985, and 35th World Stoke Mandeville Wheelchair Games in 1986. However, by 1989 the annual number has been dropped, making this link harder to keep track of. Without having these events presented in a carefully maintained order, they may all appear to be unrelated to each other.

I personally found this all a little confusing, as whilst it’s not a huge inconsistency in the grand scheme of things, it was hard to keep track between all the other event games, organisations and acronyms. It is often especially confusing as these items are not always presented in any particular order, or even in the same box, leading to some guesswork at times. From the perspective of a non-expert, it is easy to get lost, and a reason why one colleague at Buckinghamshire Archives drew up a handy acronym sheet for our box listing volunteers to refer too.

A list of acronyms complied by an archivist at Buckinghamshire Archive working on the WheelPower Collection.

Humour aside, rapid name changes are not surprising, especially in a movement as big as the Paralympics, or even wider disabled sport. Of course, it is also important to consider the wider social and political context many of these changes – for instance, the name of the Games changes from the Stoke Mandeville Games to the International Stoke Mandeville Games to reflect the growth of the event, and the multitude of countries that took part. However, this also represents broader developments within disability sport and the history of medicine and rehabilitation, as different countries began to incorporate sport into rehabilitation programmes, and disabled athletes became increasingly eager to take part in the Games.

Other developments are more complex, however, and have different implications. When interviewing wheelchair athletes, for example, I received different responses regarding how to refer to the broader umbrella of these sports. One participant preferred the term ‘para-sport’ over ‘disability sport’ – primarily because of the use of the word ‘disabled’.[i] However, another participant had the opposite approach, disliking an overuse of the prefix ‘para’, and preferring the word ‘disabled’ to be used.[ii] There are multiple considerations to bear in mind here, such as the political perspectives of the interviewees or other factors. Furthermore, Dennis Frost argues in his book that ‘disability sports’ are a subset of ‘adaptive sports’, and that ‘para sport’ does not encompass all sport for disabled people, complicating this issue further.[iii] The main point here, however, is that as different terms have popped up in the archive, it is notable they are often detached from their social, political or historical context, as we are simply listing their contents. Much like the name changes of events or organisations, understanding why certain terms have been used, and the meaning it holds, is often lost when sorting through stacks of papers and programmes. 

This, in truth, is part of the reason why cataloguing work without proper expertise can be frustrating. I’m aware that there are meanings behind each of these names, acronyms and languages choices, but it’s often hard to pinpoint what they are or why they are important. Or alternatively, they may hold little meaning, but knowing what was or was not significant at the time helps us understand the historical context of these events, organisations and terms. At the very least, awareness of this trend is useful from a scholarly perspective, as it gives myself and other scholars more data to draw on. And from the archival perspective, it certainly keeps things interesting. 

[i] Phillip Craven, Interview with author, November 3rd, 2020, Zoom.
[ii] Ian Thompson, Interview with author, October 6th, 2020, Zoom.
[iii] Dennis J. Frost, More than Medals: A history of the Paralympics and Disability Sport in Postwar Japan (Ithaca, Cornell University Press, 2020). p xvii.