A year on from the Paralympics, people with disabilities still face prejudice and abuse

Published in The Guardian (August 28th, 2013)

When Don goes out, he faces frequent hostility. Despite living in a picture postcard part of the country, this man in his 40s, with autism and emphysema, finds himself increasingly shoved aside on the street because he moves too slowly. Recently parking in a blue badge space, he was confronted by a hate-filled thug who screamed about “bloody benefit scroungers” then followed him up the street shouting insults until he saw a police officer.

Few people with disabilities will be surprised. There are an estimated 200 similar cases a day in our supposedly civilised nation, while a study found eight in 10 of those with autism suffering harassment like Don. One speaker at a conference asked his audience of 300 disabled people if anyone had endured taunts and abuse; all but 10 put their hands up, although hardly any bothered to report the incidents. Then there are the most extreme cases: the blind lady punched to the ground, the man with learning disabilities set on fire, the teenager killed on his birthday.

Bear these incidents in mind if you hear hype about how the Paralympics changed Britain.Tomorrow marks one year since that glorious festival of sport began. It ended with highfalutin speeches and proclamations of a seismic change in attitudes. We were told people would never see disability in the same way after witnessing the dazzling exploits of David Weir.

The sad reality is little has changed. Yes, there have been some small steps forward. My profoundly disabled daughter gets perhaps a few more smiles on the street; some sports have seen a small rise in participation from disabled people; a handful of companies have become slightly more progressive. Channel 4 deserves credit for sustained coverage of disability issues on its news.

But life remains difficult for a minority still segregated from the rest of society, the tide of intolerance strong. A study this week by the disability charity Scope is expected to reveal that most disabled people have seen no improvement in attitudes since the Paralympics; some say things have actually deteriorated. It is great to open up a few basketball clubs to wheelchair players – although still only one in four sports clubs have suitable facilities for disabled people – but this is no panacea for people routinely abused and unable to get dressed, gain jobs, travel on public transport or access local shops.

As one leading activist told me, the fizz turned flat all too fast. We live in a country where eight in 10 people have never worked alongside a disabled colleague, and even fewer have had a disabled person in their house for a social occasion. This makes it all too easy to demonise the disabled with scrounger rhetoric – which, apart from all those heroic Paralympians, remains the most common image across the media.

The government, despite decent work encouraging the employment of disabled people, fosters this cruel climate with its malevolent misuse of statistics and its promotion of the false idea of rampant disability benefit fraud. And while there is nothing wrong in testing claimants amid austerity, something is clearly astray when almost half those deemed fit to work appeal and 40% are successful. Yet while basking in the afterglow of 2012, ministers introduced the discriminatory bedroom tax.

But it is too glib just to blame the government. It was Labour who piloted the inept assessments by Atos (a firm with the gall to sponsor the games but unable to tell me how many disabled employees it has). And this country’s confused and uncaring attitude to disability is so deep-rooted that the concept of a sea change sparked by a single sports event was always crass.

Small incidents reflect wider attitudes. One man with mobility difficulties told me of struggling through a crowd at a station only to be told by the manager to find a better time to travel. I have heard of children bullied at school who, like rape victims, were told by teachers to change their behaviour to avoid trouble. Celebrities use language such as ‘retard’ without causing a media furore. Judges refuse to accept obvious hate crimes involving disabled people, as seen in several recent cases.

It remains hard for disabled people to find work, the place of perhaps greatest social integration. One blogger wrote last weekend that when he sent 100 job applications revealing he was blind, he received no replies – yet when he deleted this single fact, he was invited to 73 interviews. Meanwhile such is the indifference few care that dozens of people with disabilities die needlessly in our hospitals, or that a minority group is trapped in poverty, hit disproportionately hard by the soaring cost of living.

The Paralympics was a beautiful festival that made Britain feel better about itself. But if anything, life is becoming harder for disabled people with more intolerance, more inflexibility, more poverty, more alienation, more loneliness. Maybe attitudes will really change one day – but until then buses won’t stop for people in wheelchairs, bars won’t let in people on crutches, and beatings will continue for people with learning difficulties.

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