The Paralympics – what is society’s legacy?

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.

About equalityedge

I run Equality Edge and its unique and creative "Working with Difference" project. It supports employers and managers in gaining a competitive and cost saving advantage from meeting equality and diversity best practice obligations. Coaching and workshops are used to deliver organisational, team and leadership development, assisting in improving communication and the understanding of the impact difference has on workplace behaviour.
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15 Responses to The Paralympics – what is society’s legacy?

  1. Matteo says:

    you say: “Would such a cheering have taken place two weeks previously for a losing athlete at the Olympic Games – I suspect not.”
    Indeed it happened, I think to the Saudi (and veiled) runner.

    • equalityedge says:

      Yes you are right, I remember that now. I was incredibly moved by that cheering too. I’d be interested to unpick why the crowds did applaud her across the line. Was it the recognition of having a Saudi woman running in the Olympics or was there an element of a sympathetic cheer for her losing by such a margin – or of course, a combination of both.

      • Matteo says:

        When 80,000 people do something, even if it is the same thing (cheering, but are we sure there was none booing?), I don’t think they’re moved by the same reason. However, in the case of the Saudi athlete, I’d have cheered because of the gap in the first place, secondly in solidarity for her condition. if she were a US athlete left behind, I’d have cheered anyway.

  2. Jose Jacobs says:

    I pray that disabled people are treated better and get the help to go forward. Trains should cater for them, but the public could offer help and not treat them as stupid. The government should help more, too.

    My eyes were opened to the abilities of all and congratulate medalists and non-medalists alike. Well done

  3. Great article, Michael.

    I completely agree that the exact change in people’s attitudes to disabled people which is the Paralympic legacy won’t become apparent for a while.

    I also agree that the real test of the legacy will be in the level of respect with which disabled people who aren’t ‘superhuman’ are given.

    To highlight that point, I interviewed Yves Veulliet – a non-‘superhuman’ Diversity Manager at IBM who uses a wheelchair – about his fabulous book on the subject. Check it out at: Paralympics 2012: Do you have to be ‘superhuman’ to be an inspiration? and let me know what you think…

  4. People with disabilities will continue to face discrimination, but the paralympics will have given pause for thought and most people with disabilities face poverty and disadvantage will continue to face discrimination unless this is challenged by all of us, sports fans, couch potatoes, managers, co-workers – the DDA is there please use it

    • equalityedge says:

      Hi Lizzie
      Thanks for your comment and of course you are right. However it is worth noting that since 1 October 2010, the Equality Act has replaced most of the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). The Disability Equality Duty in the DDA is the only section that continues to apply. Disability is now one of the nine protected characteristics of the Equality Act 2010.

  5. John Lesser says:

    The legacy of the Paralympics can also be gauged by the growing positive self image people with disabilities have. On the evening of the 100 metre heats – the Olympics, not the Para – when Pistorius finished less than a second after Bolt, it suddenly became really “cool” to be different. This growing self esteem in itself contributes to the way the public perceives “different”, “limited”, “weird” etc. And this in turn reflects back on the same. It’s a kind of mutual progression which bounces back and forth, strengthening both disabled and non disabled.
    Walking through Watford that same evening just felt different for me. As I strolled along the High Street I actually felt proud to have a quirky looking left hand.
    I’m not sure how long this mutual positive flow will last but I’ve a feeling that things just won’t be the sme anymore. Which is just as well.

    • equalityedge says:

      Thanks John for your moving comment. I so hope you are right and that the attitudinal shift declared by Channel 4 will have the desired impact. After all, attitude has to change before action. Perhaps this summer will be a good starting point.

      It has been a truly emotional time for those involved in disability equality. I think it in incumbent on us all to use the Olympic and Paralympic experiences as a springboard to generate greater understanding and awareness from mainstream society.

  6. David Haralambidis says:

    Equality for Deaf and disabled is the most difficult to achieve as we have to struggle with thousands of years of well established aesthetical codes… However this struggle is absolutely essential for the very human spirit and must be won. There are many issues which we still need to deal with on a day to day and on both and collective basis at the same time…

  7. For me the paralympics provided a step change in my perception of the sporting abilities of disabled people. That in turn has changed my perception of disabled people in a normal, everyday work situation, something that will ‘stick’ and not disappear with time. I would like to believe that this is how everyone that watched the games will feel, and if so that is a step change for society. But if you want ANOTHER step change in perception of disability go to see the film ‘Untouchable’ when it is released later this month – a comedy about a quadriplegic and his carer. I saw the preview in the morning of the paralympics closing ceremony. This film really ‘normalizes’ one’s perception of people with disabilities.

    • equalityedge says:

      Thanks Mike for you comment.

      It’s great that so many people have had a perception change, as you did. As I wrote, attitude and perception are important but must lead to positive action. That is what we are waiting for.

      I will be sure to catch the film when it comes out.

  8. Andy Harris says:

    For me personally, the paralympics were an awareness and understanding raising achievement. In my day to day life I rarely have contact with people with disabilities and so it was a bit of an eye opener and yes, I am much more ‘aware’ as a result of the exposure.

    As a new reader, this may have been covered before, but it makes me wonder why schools don’t include modules whereby children (at primary age and then in secondary) are actively put into the ‘disabled’ community, as part of raising understanding (instead of fearing or mocking disabilities that they don’t understand). I know for sure that I grew up (many years ago) totally unaware of disabilities (apart from perhaps blindness and deafness) and therefore my understanding of such issues was never what it could have become at an early age.

    On the subject of the ‘main’ olympics followed by the paralympics, I felt a bit uncomfortable. While understanding issues around logistics and noting that perhaps the paralympics as ‘separate’ helped raise awareness more, I can’t help but think that the two shouldn’t be separated. Surely if there’s to be equality then it should be just one big olympics event, within which there are events covering different categories of abilities. While it gave Channel 4 the opportunity to showcase the event, the fact that it’s shown on a ‘lesser known’ channel sends out the message of the paralympics as being ‘less important’.

    • equalityedge says:


      Thanks for the comment. Yes, you are right, the Paralympics achieved a huge amount of awareness raising within the mainstream and it would be great to get some of that into the ongoing legacy.

      Whether it would be the best idea to get primary school children going into “disabled” environments has been tried in the past. To me, it seems a little like a trip to the zoo. It works much better for schools to put on an event and then invite children from other local schools (including special ed schools) to attend. This would offer a more inclusive activity and will achieve further opportunities for awareness raising.

      Separating the Olympics from the Paralympics is, I am sure, a matter of logistics and cost. Can you imagine the athletes’ village; it would need to be nearly double the size.

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