Paralympians: Superhuman or Vulnerable?

Paralympics Superhuman Vulnerable Adults

In 2016 the athletes in the Rio Paralympics were marketed as being ‘Superheroes’.

5 years on and the 2020 Paralympians are #SuperHuman.

However, this language strikes me as being at odds with the way that disabled people can be viewed and treated, in particular when it comes to the continued use of the term ‘vulnerable adult’.

People often ask The ACT Safeguarding Adults in Sport team about disabled athletes and participants, and where they ‘fit’ in safeguarding policy and procedures. Are they ‘vulnerable adults’, ‘adults at risk’ or ‘protected adults’? And if so, what should organisations be doing to safeguard them?

Who are ‘vulnerable adults’?

Think about the term ‘vulnerable people’. Who springs to mind? The elderly? The disabled? People with mental illnesses? People with dementia?

The first definition in the Collins Dictionary for vulnerable is:


Someone who is vulnerable is weak and without protection, with the result that they are easily hurt physically or emotionally.

Old people are often particularly vulnerable members of our society.

The definition of ‘vulnerable adult’ was in the 1997 Consultation Document ‘Who Decides?’ Then in 2000, the government published their ‘No Secrets’ guidance. This aimed to develop and implement multi-agency policies and procedures to protect vulnerable adults from abuse. It also encouraged organisations to work together to safeguard vulnerable adults.

Although it feels to me like an old term, the word ‘vulnerable’ is still in common use across lots of settings. This includes sport and activity. Maybe this is not surprising, as some laws that aim to protect people from harm still use the term.

Moreover the Covid-19 pandemic, many have used the word ‘vulnerable’ to describe people deemed ‘clinically vulnerable’ to the virus. People were often being described simply as ‘vulnerable’. They were encouraged to ‘shield’ from society to reduce their exposure to the virus.

Why is the term ‘vulnerable adult’ problematic?

Disabled people have fought for years to shake off the idea that they’re ‘vulnerable’. Looking more closely at the definition, it is easy to see why.

The problem with the term ‘vulnerable adult’ rests on the implication that problems lie with them. It implies that they are weak, and that any harm that they experience stems from that.

Who wants to be labelled as ‘vulnerable’? For very passionate dismissals of the term read Katherine Deane’s blog and Mary Warnock’s article.

Are disabled athletes ‘vulnerable adults’?

Unsurprisingly, people rarely use the word ‘vulnerable’ to describe Paralympians. Instead, people label Paralympians as ‘Super Human’, capable of achieving success that the majority of people can only dream of.

However, the majority of disabled people are not Paralympians. Disabled athletes and participants in grassroots clubs and community groups are unlikely to perform at that elite level. Many may take to exercise to get fitter, lose weight, socialise and to be part of a community. Are they ‘vulnerable adults’?


Soon after I started at ACT, a  wheelchair rugby player contacted me. He didn’t like it when people described him and other players as ‘vulnerable adults’. He found it offensive, for all the same reasons we’ve discussed above.

Where does that leave us in terms of safeguarding adults?

Safeguarding adults legislation and guidance in the UK in now moving away from the term ‘vulnerable adults’. It’s instead asking us to consider whether an adult is ‘at risk of abuse or neglect’.

Whether someone is an ‘adult at risk’ rests on some key questions. Do they have care and support needs? Are they experiencing or likely to experience abuse or neglect? And because of their care and support needs, do they need support with safeguarding themselves?

If the answer is yes to these questions, they would meet the criteria for a referral to the local authority safeguarding team.

This is a shift from labelling groups of people as being inherently ‘vulnerable’. Instead, it’s recognition that adults with care and support needs are more vulnerable to experiencing abuse and neglect.

It is the people around them and the circumstances that they are in that can place them at risk.

You can read more about this important distinction in our guide to safeguarding adults.

Are disabled athletes Adults at Risk?

It depends on their needs and the circumstances that they are in. It also depends on what they want to happen.

Safeguarding adults is about treating people as individuals. It’s about working with them to achieve the outcomes they want to see.

We have moved away from a process driven tick box exercise to a person-centred approach. We sometimes refer to this approach as ‘Making Safeguarding Personal’.

How do sport organisations safeguard disabled athletes and participants?

Any organisation that has adult members, volunteers or staff should embed safeguarding adults across their organisation.

We all have the right to be safe, free from abuse and neglect. Organisations have a duty to ensure that their governance enables that.

Safeguarding is not just about disabled athletes, or adults with care and support needs. It is about enabling all of us to take part safely.

All sport organisations must set out what they would do if there was a concern about an adult. How they would deal with that concern depends on many factors, and so there should be procedures in place to address those circumstances. That could be through codes of conduct, disciplinary procedures, complaints procedures, or an Adults at Risk process. Take a look at our policy and procedure templates here.

However, safeguarding adults is more than responding to concerns. Prevention is key. Safeguarding processes cannot work unless organisations commit to creating safer cultures.


We’ve developed a campaign for sport and activity organisations to work towards safer cultures. Our aim is to place welfare, safety and wellbeing at the heart of values and actions.

Organisations need to create a culture where everyone feels confident in reporting their concerns. Organisations must also commit to listening and responding to all concerns appropriately.

Finally, safer cultures means making a commitment to learning through placing the voice of athletes and participants at the heart of decision-making.

Please join us in working together to create safer cultures in sport through signing up to our #SaferCultureSaferSport campaign.

Head here to learn more, and to make your commitment.