Real World Problem Solving: The sound of gold — Paralympics 2016


What does gold sound like? If you followed the 2016 Paralympics, which ended this Sunday, Sept. 18, you may have observed some medalists on the podium shaking their medals next to their ears. This year’s medals, the product of an innovatively inclusive effort to provide enhanced sensory experiences for Paralympic athletes with visual impairments, were uniquely designed to produce sound when shaken.

Although the sonorous design of the 2016 Paralympic medals is simple, it is also unprecedented. Small steel pellets are implanted within a hollow space on the inside of each medal. Gold, silver and bronze medals contain a different number of pellets, giving each a distinct sound. The idea for audible medals, produced by Brazilian designer Claudia Gamboa, was readily embraced by Olympic brand managers. Coining the new medal design the “sound of victory”, Olympic design manager Dalcacio Reis was hopeful that the innovation would begin “a new way of celebrating on the podium”.

The modification of Olympic medals to accommodate athletes with visual impairments is not new. For the past several competitions, the standard design has been enhanced with additional embossment in braille. However, the design of the shakable medals allows athletes to identify the distinction between gold, silver and bronze. Gold medals (containing 28 pellets) have the weightiest sound, while bronze medals (containing 16 pellets) elute the softest rattle. The design provides a way for athletes with visual impairments to identify their medal, establishing another sensory dimension to their hard earned victories.

Athletes from the United States have won 112 Paralympic medals over the past 11 days of competition in Rio de Janiero. This count includes 40 gold medals, 42 silver and 30 bronze. However, this haul only puts the United States in 4th place of the overall medal count, with Ukraine, Great Britain and China filling in the top three slots. China’s Paralympic medal count is nearly double that of the United States. Why doesn’t team USA dominate here, as it does in the Olympics? Compared to other nations, whose Paralympic teams are often totally subsidized, US Paralympic athletes struggle to receive any kind of sponsorship, public or private. The lack of resources makes it difficult to compete on an international stage.

The lack of support, coverage and sponsorship of US Paralympians reflects a broader culture of disability invisibility within the country. Elite sports coverage is just one of many avenues in which people with disabilities are notably absent. The issues of visibility and accessibility are specifically relevant to the University of Tennessee campus, where many sidewalks, crosswalks and buildings are inaccessible to students with disabilities. For many students on our campus, a simple class change seems like a Paralympic event in itself.

Despite all of the flak that the organizers of the Rio Olympics have received, from complaints of dirty water and street crime to the menace of Zika, their innovative approach to Paralympic medal design represents a form of inclusive thinking that is the first of its kind in Olympic history. It goes to show that small changes have the potential to facilitate a significantly fuller and more positive experience for people with disabilities. As our campus continues to expand, develop and renovate, it is my sincerest hope that we can model this kind of thinking to create an academic and social environment that is golden for everyone.

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