The best Paralympic legacy: an end to this disabled apartheid

Published in the London Evening Standard (August 28th, 2012)

After the wondrous joy of the Olympics, London is preparing for the Paralympics. Another opening ceremony, another 11 days of spectacular sport, another chance to show the world Britain at its best. Let’s get the party started — again.

Before the starting pistol is fired, pause a moment. By all means, take pleasure in the performance of amazing athletes and enjoy another boost to the national mood. These are great moments for the country, especially in such challenging times. But please don’t be deluded.

For these will be 11 unusual days during which people with disabilities take centre stage in our nation’s life. Then, unless there is a massive change in attitudes engendered by the crowds watching goalball and the broadcasting of wheelchair basketball, they will be forced back to the fringes of society when the eyes of the world turn away.

You will hear much hype and hypocrisy. First out of the blocks was Jeremy Hunt, the Culture Secretary, asserting that the UK “had blazed a trail when it comes to the rights of disabled people”, and that organisers had bent over backwards to ensure disabled spectators felt part of the Games.

If only these grandiose claims were true. Instead, it emerged people in wheelchairs must pay for premium-rate phone lines when booking tickets, a discriminatory move undermining any sense of equality. And as my family discovered to its horror, they can only be accompanied by one person, so even if we get tickets we cannot sit together.

There will be well-meaning talk of triumph over tragedy. After all, the media can cope with only a handful of images for disabled people: they tend to boil down to either objects of pity or plucky fighters, both ultimately stereotypes. Rarely are they portrayed as ordinary people living ordinary lives.

More recently another image has emerged, a sinister one that flies in the face of facts but has been fostered by some journalists, broadcasters and politicians from all parties, including some of Mr Hunt’s ministerial colleagues. It is the despised benefit scrounger.

As even the diplomatic Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson says, it would appear there are only two types of disabled people right now — those going for gold over the next few days and those work-shy shirkers fleecing the state.

A misguided campaign to win support for welfare reform by highlighting miscreants has corroded respect for disabled people. People think seven in 10 claims are false. In fact, rates of fraud for disability benefits are among the lowest benefit theft levels — and, ironically, lower than amounts wrongly paid out by bungling bureaucrats.

This malevolent misinformation has fuelled intolerance. A survey last month by Scope found nearly half of disabled people reporting hardening attitudes. Worse, levels of reported hate crime are rising fast with disabled people tipped out of their wheelchairs, abused in the street and scared to leave their homes.

Remember this when politicians claim credit for Paralympic success. Remember too that for all the talk of blazing British trails, for all the platitudes and praise, disabled people are living in virtual apartheid. Facilities are woeful and worsening, jobs few and far between, transport often inaccessible.

Take jobs. Even before the downturn, the statistics were dismal. Fewer than half had employment, compared with three-quarters of other Britons — and those in work were paid less than colleagues doing similar jobs and were far more likely to be bullied. The outlook is even bleaker for people with learning difficulties: fewer than one in 12 is in paid work.

Employers who hire people with disabilities say they are rewarded with higher productivity and more loyalty. But potential employees are stuck on benefits and accused of being scroungers; little wonder more than half live below the poverty threshold — or that four in five Britons have never worked with a disabled person.

One company making commendable strides is Channel 4, which has spent £600,000 hiring staff with disabilities for its coverage of the Games. It plans to broadcast 150 hours of live sport, which is impressive — as has been its ground-breaking coverage of the nightmare that is public transport for people with disabilities.

Yet this is the same channel that employs Frankie Boyle, an alleged comedian who thinks it funny to make jokes mocking profoundly disabled children. When celebrities make cruel jibes, when pop stars popularise hateful words such as “retard”, it demeans and dehumanises people with disabilities, aiding their alienation from society and encouraging abuse.

The legacy is a minority exiled from mainstream society. One disability charity found nine in 10 Britons have never even had someone with a disability in their house for a social occasion.

Most disabled people are not striving for gold, just the humdrum normality of life as lived by the rest of us. By taking disability into millions more British homes, my fervent hope is the Paralympics help the nation finally come to terms with its most maligned minority — especially with numbers rising fast thanks to medical advances.

Unlike five in six people with disabilities, my daughter was born with her disabilities. Since then I have endlessly seen the pitying stares, heard the patronising comments, felt the stumbling embarrassment, lost the fairweather friends — and discovered the disgusting paucity of services.

Earlier this month the great Alf Morris died. He was an inspirational and pioneering politician who dedicated his life to fighting for disabled people after seeing the struggles of his father, crippled in the First World War trenches.

The day before the second reading of his landmark disability rights legislation, Morris said if he could bequeath one gift to posterity it would be a society in which there was genuine compassion for disabled people and they could participate fully in daily life.

That was more than four decades ago. For all the genuine pride and pleasure Britain will derive from the Paralympics, we still have a very long way to go to honour his bequest.

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