The Paralympics and attitudes to disability

Baroness Nicholson of Winterbourne

The Paralympic Games were a triumph for Great Britain – not only in terms of sporting ability, but in opening the public’s eyes to the talent, skills and capability of disabled people. The challenge now is to build on the progress made

Streamers, fireworks, balloons and parading athletes have gone. Vanished from view, the Olympic and Paralympic athletes are scattering to pick up their training schedules and pursue further ambitions. We, the spectators, are left with memories; powerful emotions remain with us, stirred up by the extraordinary achievements we watched.

As with all magical memories, we wake up and want an assurance that we can keep the joy, and that somehow it will transform us into a shape, which is better and happier than before. The Paralympics gives us that chance, even more than the excellence of the Olympics, for our personal and public future. 

Take, for example, Professor Hawking at the Paralympics Opening Ceremony. Were we witnessing a genius? Most probably. Successful? Undoubtedly. A great teacher? Yes. An historic person whose work will shape future science and last down the years? Yes. But what about his disability? Is he not severely handicapped? And therefore should we not qualify our judgement, declaring that he is successful despite his handicap, which fundamentally shapes our view of him? Well, to be frank with you, I find that to be an intrusion on his privacy and a discourtesy, which diminishes the questioner.

In common with the disabled performers at the Opening Ceremony, and the athletes whom we watched succeed in different ways on the days following the Paralympics’ opening, Professor Hawking succeeds regardless of handicap. We should comment on their achievements, not continually denigrate them by focusing on the challenges they face and overcome. Yet the spotlight is usually on the difficulties created by their handicap, generally accompanied by extremely penetrating demands for exact knowledge of the disability and, all too often, critical comments which most disabled people face many times a day.

So will the Paralympics bring about global and local change in the attitude of the questioner towards an individual who is different in physical or intellectual capacity? The buzzword that the entire Olympic and Paralympics aftermath now rests upon is “legacy”. The question is asked, as if this legacy were somehow like a gift in granny’s will, which we then enjoy. No triumphant Paralympic outcome is going to emerge like that.

If we want the Paralympics magic to last and spread, we must start work now. What are the topics to be discussed and agreed? Where will we find the time and the resources to change hearts and minds for our goals to be achieved? Why have we failed previously? The spread of topics is wide. It rests on a higher regard in public perception of both the daily difficulties that disability entails and the uniqueness of each individual regardless of physical or intellectual capacity.

The everyday experiences of physically disabled people can be improved by simple means and the use of careful resource allocation. Years ago, as an MP, I struggled to convince successive Secretaries of State for Transport that buses and trains should and could have electronic sliding lowered platforms to allow easy access for wheelchairs.

The Paralympics message, ground out in song and actions throughout the Games fortnight, was uncompromising: “I am what I am”. And the subtext for all was there too: “But since I have a difference from you, I require you to do all that you can to minimise or even get rid of that difference so that the world can see that I am as good as you.” So the onus is on us.

Britain is still a country for the able-bodied; it should be a country for all of her citizens. Through legislation, we have a respectable package of recognition of the rights of access and enjoyment of whatever is publicly available for all; but the implementation is patchy and biased. Employment is a running sore; the regulations are sometimes so tight that they can be used against the employment of a disabled person. A review with the objective of employment for all would not come amiss.

Disability is an expensive business, and there are never enough public or private funds to go round. Despite the recession, some cuts to taxpayers’ support for the disabled are inevitable; but with the clamour for a review of how much and to whom voiced loudly around the stadium, a further deep scrutiny would be wise. The concerns of Paralympians regarding changes to welfare benefits should be taken seriously by the Government.

Great Britain has shown itself to be tolerant, funny, generous in time and energy, kindly and efficient throughout the Games. These virtues are not universally in practice outside of the Olympics and Paralympics. So how to change public attitudes permanently? We live politically by the electoral calendar and time runs faster than the implementation of profound social changes requires. Practical steps must start immediately, so that the magic does not fade.

As many have said to me in other countries, only Britain could have done this: putting on the most tolerant, happy and successful Paralympics ever. Perhaps we might start by being kinder to ourselves – by doing all that we can as individuals each day to arrest the constant drip, drip of negative criticism of ourselves as a nation and our varied communities; and at the same time, build up our volunteering, our learning of the needs of the disabled, and put into practice the positive steps needed to make Britain a place where all can flourish, be happy and succeed.
This post derives from a longer article of mine that can be found here.

1 comment for “The Paralympics and attitudes to disability

  1. MilesJSD
    19/09/2012 at 6:51 pm

    Britain still needs a
    National Healthy-Habits Support & Improvement Movement,and Service;

    very distinctly separate from both
    the NIS – National Illnesses Sector, s
    till wrongly, usurpingly, even hijackingly, called
    The NHS – National Health Service,

    and distinct from
    the Olympics, Paralympics, and a huge range of other Spectacular-Excellence Performance-Pyramid Peaks

    all of which as Generic-Standard is both a Governance-cum-“Private-Sector”, and a General Community-Level, near-insanity;

    it is “a nonsense”
    to expect 61+ million non-peak-excellence British People to emulate and aspire to,
    and to be channeling their Money, Time,
    Human-Energies, and Spiritual-Strengths, into financially-supporting and personally “chasing” like the end of the Rainbow,
    “gold-medal” super-fitnesses.
    But it shouldn’t be so impossibly difficult, to show us 61+ million British People all the right Resources, right Programmes, and right daily Steps, for both supporting & improving one’s (own) existing Healthy Habits,
    and for lifelong adding voluntarily further healthy habits to that existing repertoire.

    Nor should it be at all difficult to get all 61+ million people donating voluntary collective and participatory support (perhaps on a loosely ‘means-tested’ basis) to such a Healthier-Habits-Movement, in-its-own-Right.

    Nor does it seem at all difficult to make available, and to ‘strongly-recommend for all to seriously work through’, from their beginning as members, a progressively safe and holistic series of Programmes ensuring the progressively-holistic enablement of all possible core organ, muscle, and bone groups;

    only gently,slowly and gradually leading up to the competitive levels at which the already-existing “Life Centres”, Gymnasiums, and Olympics/Paralympics Excellence Pyramids are already being funded, adequately subscribed, and adequately specialist-trained.

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