Personal Reflections in the run up to my coverage of the London 2012 Paralympics : Plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose?  

Paralympian athletes are ever pushing the boundaries and  rewriting the record books but are such changes evident outside the stadium in terms of greater parity at grass roots for those with a disability?

We have seen awesome TV trailers beaming with impactful and positive imagery promoting the Paralympics and especially Channel 4 doing a rocking job raising public awareness and fully supporting and promoting the achievements of our exceptional para-athletes. Team GB  para-athletes have so many world class stars and set to many podium finishes and a rack of medals. We talk of Olympic legacy with anticipation of change for the better. Hopefully the Paralympics too will inspire first those with a disability to reach for their own  stars and follow their example but also “ordinary ” people with disabilities, for so long marginalised,  taking satisfaction from seeing their peers excel knowing too  that the  general public will be witnessing and admiring their achievements and wearing down preconceptions. But is there a danger that these welcome and  positive images we are going to see during the games may actually deceive us into thinking that people with disabilities in general are all now enjoying a much , much better quality of life having benefited  through legislation, adaptive technology and  social change?

My one concern is that the exciting spectacle of such impressive achievements by elite para-athletes  may also create or re-enforce the  perception that finally we have a society that fully celebrates, integrates  and empowers anyone with a disability where formerly attitudes and, for example , physical barriers in terms of access   both limited opportunity and handicapped those seeking maximum independence even in everyday things.

The  charismatic former world record breaking elite Paralympian , Tani -Grey Thompson, was elevated to be  peer of the realm, and  is an active advocate in the House speaking passionately and authoritatively on  particularly disability and women’s issues and yet, we read, had to grovel, alone ,  on the floor of a train late one night, relatively recently , having to  transfer herself and her day chair off the train when the train company failed in their obligation and promise to have assistance ready at the end of that journey. ( Report of Tani’s transport nightmare)

 Geoff Holt ,MBE,  disability ambassador, world record breaking trans-Atlantic solo sailor , a quadriplegic electric chair “bound” athlete was barred from boarding a train because his chair wheels might “damage the carpet .”   Geoff’s Story

Even champions are in a sense ordinary people with mundane everyday tasks to do which most of us take for granted but still, for those with a disability, needless handicaps are still put in the  way. Innocent or not discrimination is  alive and well overtly and covertly. Prejudice and ignorance  is indiscriminate as is officious bloody mindedness of uniformed jobsworths. London hosts the Olympics and the Paralympics soon and how ironic, as we put on our best and welcome guests from around the world,  that we read today  London Transport bus drivers are striking again , this time where it hurts , at a disabled but wheelchair-enabled pensioner,  by refusing him the right to travel on 28 separate occasions.   London Transport bus shame

We need to be creative in devising different opportunities to be active beyond simply the context of organised sport for those living with a disability..

The Olympics legacy theory aims to justify the incredible expense of the show, by  seducing us with what is actually in my view , the feint  prospect of a huge surge of active participation in sports when  a nation, predominantly ( percentage wide statistically corpulent, that is overweight through lack of adequate exercise and diet), will  largely content themselves with simply watching it sitting down ( often wearing leisure sports wear! )  gathering additional calories and possibly inspired with additional light-weight dressing of  national pride which actually takes no effort the nearest they will get to a beam.

In my view the individual Paralympian’s achievement is yes , totally on a par with the Olympians  as they are of the same noble metal  that medals are made from, but  in a real sense  greater because of the additional effort needed just do the ordinary things we take for granted , and then to prepare and eventually qualify and get to the games. This  may  include the given overcoming of the initial disability as a starting point , but, for example ,  every day barriers  in the physical environment, extra hidden costs  and, even still ,  social attitudes which include a tendency to patronise and sympathise (and in some cases ostracise or even vilify) rather than empathise.

RSA’s sprinter Oscar Pistorius will be in London competing and will make history, the first and only athlete ever to achieve parity in competing in both the Olympics and the Paralympic athletics and that in the face of great controversy and objections which he had to face and also overcome to secure his right to compete against “able bodied” peers.

Olympic qualification criteria are based simply on benchmarks of various commonly shared units of measurement and Palaympians enjoy parity of opportunity as those parallel (hence “para” prefix) games represent various sports with their own measurement benchmarks subject to often  minor adaptions of the sport, enabling rule variations , the use of some specific but controlled adaptive apparatus and technology  and, in  addition, an  internationally agreed system of classification criteria so that athlete’s compete on equal terms with others in the same event.  Thus to achieve full potential, adaptions ( not concessions) are necessarily built into the system but also the arena so to speak whereas , back on the  street, all athletes and non athletes are not assured of an even playing field despite advances and legislation.

Triathlete Paula Craig fought the London Met to protect her employment rights when she became disabled and brought about the institution’s revision of its policies to embrace genuine equal opportunities.for those with a disability.

The Paralympic legacy will  I hope at the very least be that  kids with disabilities , at grass roots, will have those athletes as role models and heroes to inspire them in various fields of life not just sport but all the  evidence points to a decline in grass roots participation in disability sports at a time when the elite paralympic athletes are enjoying unparalleled media exposure and success. (A similar   decline is also evident in the “able bodied” world and in both “ genres “  that is anticipated to further decline.) It is also a hope that the general, public witnessing what is possible will also do much help change attitudes to disability and further raise awareness of outstanding, that is, remaining issues.

You can have legislation in place and enforcement procedures , lower curbs, have pneumatic lowering of bus entrance thresholds, ramps , preferential spaces on public transport,  to enable, for example , wheelchair users but that movement has lost some momentum because of government austerity and cost cutting which should have seen such developments protected and remaining a key priority with further investment. I say that  because even before the “crash”, the majority of the disabled community remained struggling for basic entitlements let alone any sense of equal opportunity and that also includes those children and adults with learning and communications difficulties who could not and  still cannot rely on adequate support and provision or advocates able to assert their rights for them.  Typically for any successes in getting  full and appropriate provision for example in education is the domain of assertive, articulate parents able to fight the establishment.

I am in no way knocking the Paralympics or the Olympics because they show case what can be achieved with the highest endeavour by the best of us up against those from other nations and thereby announcing , in the case of the Paralympics,  that  the means are there , and if also there is the will , former limited expectations are being constantly extended.  Sport is just  one of the contexts in which , with best practice,  and crucially, intelligent and informed decision making and investment, those with disabilities can enjoy a better quality of life that’s currently on offer for the majority and yet which still is an ambition rather than a reality for most ,sadly.  I so wish that this Paralympics will be a springboard to turn admiration into  raised awareness and positive action.

DICLAIMER. I am not an active participant in any sport nor working directly for any disability group or  organisation and here offer my own views   – I do photograph professionally full time and report  on Paralympic events with a background of 26 years as a specialist educator of inner city youngsters disadvantaged by a wide range of learning difficulties compounded by physical and other disabilities and thus committed to  helping raise awareness and celebrating para athlete achievement as a continuation of that profession in retirement. )

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