This article poses a contentious question that originated during discussion with a disabled friend of mine who told me this week that the Paralympics have achieved in ten days what he has failed to manage in forty years.
Derek is 57, has lived his entire life with a physical disability caused by a complication at birth and is a wheelchair user. He lives a fully independent life, works in a managerial position, is married and has three children. However, almost daily someone ask him a question which disappointments him and his quest for equal status. As a lifelong campaigner for disability equality he has worked tirelessly to change societal attitudes towards disabled people. Sometime he recognises how far we have come in the UK, and then someone will ask a question, proving once again that “ordinary people just don’t get it”.
So to what extent has there been a societal shift and has the Paralympics really done something positive to progress the journey.
Over the years, I have had many a discussion with Derek and other colleagues about the hero/victim polarity. Disabled people either achieve great things; they sail the Atlantic single handed, climb Everest or run the London Marathon or they are in need of care and support. These two extremes evoke the emotions of wonderment, admiration and respect on the one hand, or sympathy and pity on the other.
Of course, most disabled people live, like Derek, not at either end of the spectrum. As with most people, they take on the challenges of day-to-day existence with varying degrees of success and occasional failure. They want neither awe for what they have achieved nor pity for what they cannot. Sue is severely hearing impaired. She told me recently that she wants awareness from mainstream society and most importantly, a little extra time to communicate and make herself understood.
So have the Paralympics helped change attitudes, will the amazing experience we have just gone through help raise awareness and understanding? It is too early to say for certain that things have changed, though exposure has increased and disability has been given higher than ever profile in the media. According to a BBC online article “Stuart Cosgrove, director of creative diversity at Paralympic broadcaster Channel 4, says that nearly two-thirds of people questioned in a poll it commissioned said the Games had shifted their attitude towards disability”. I wonder how this shift will manifest itself as it is only the great achievers who have been seen. I hope it will not just further raise the hero status at one end of the disability spectrum.
I remember a 1500 meter race last week, during which one athlete finished far behind the rest of the field, he was almost lapped by them. The race was over and the crowd, a full 80,000 stadium rose to their feet to cheer in the losing, lone runner. Was this is in awe of his achievement or in sympathy for him, being left so far behind. Would such a cheering have taken place two weeks previously for a losing athlete at the Olympic Games – I suspect not.
The extent to which attitudes have shifted will be determined not only by what happens in the sports clubs regarding disabled participation, but also how individuals are treated in schools or universities, on the street and in restaurants and, of course, in the workplace. Disability equality has come a very long way since the days of the birth of the Paralympics in 1946 but still has a way to go. I don’t suppose that Sue will suddenly get the extra communication time she needs.
If attitudes have really shifted, then we should be seeing more acceptance, understanding and inclusion – action as well as emotion; improved education and job opportunities, ongoing exposure and perhaps even increased inclusion in mainstream sport. Maybe we might even see the disabled TV presenters, we now all recognise, on Match of the Day” or other sporting programmes, or will they have to wait until the next Paralympics to get on TV again?
Let’s see what the next few weeks and month have to offer before we can really assess the Paralympian legacy.