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Why are we heralding the Paralympics – and at the same time making the lives of disabled people more difficult on a daily basis?

2012 August 28
by Paul Vallely

The Paralympic Games, which open in London today, could change people’s attitude towards disability for ever, the capital’s Mayor, Boris Johnson, has suggested. It is not hard to see why he says that. More than 4,000 athletes will compete in 11 days of games in which the British team has been given a target of 103 medals – almost one per hour of the competition. The festivities promise to rekindle the euphoria and widespread sense of positivity engendered by the London Olympics – and from which the nation has suffered unwelcome withdrawal symptoms in the fortnight since that great festival ended.

Indeed many have suggested that this second course in a great banquet of athletics, archery, cycling, judo, rowing, sailing, swimming, weightlifting and wheelchair rugby will be all the more inspiring for the fact that the competitors have had to overcome even greater challenges including mobility disabilities, amputations, blindness and cerebral palsy.

Britain’s greatest Paralympian, Lady Tanni Grey-Thompson – who holds 11 gold medals, six London marathon wins and 30 world records – has, however, counselled caution over the suggestion that the event will transform deep-seated discriminatory social attitudes towards disabled people. The large funding gap between Olympic and Paralympic athletes is but one symptom of that. A more disturbing symbol is to be found in the week of protest which disability activists today launch against Atos, the Paralympic sponsor which runs the Government’s new crackdown tests to curb sickness benefits. More than a thousand ­sickness benefit claimants died last year after being told by Atos to get a job as part of George Osborne’s attempt to slash the nation’s welfare bill.

Baroness Grey-Thompson fears that the development of the next generation of disabled sportsmen and women could be undermined by government plans to restrict the disability living allowance which allowed her to pay for the transport and equipment that opened competitive sport to her. That – and the ending of the Independent Living Fund, local authority spending cuts and a move away from educating disabled children in mainstream schools – could undercut the inspiration the coming days ought to bring to a new generation of Paralympians.

The shame of that is exacerbated by the fact that the Paralympics are today returning to their spiritual home. The Games grew from the pioneering
work of the refugee German doctor, Sir Ludwig Guttmann, who revolutionised the treatment of veterans with spinal cord injuries at Stoke Mandeville Hospital after World War II.  The stories of bravery, tenacity and gutsy achievement he made possible then will, over the coming days, find modern parallels to excite and exalt us in the example of the para-equestrian David Lee Pearson, the wheelchair marathon athlete David Weir, the double amputee blade-runner Oscar Pistorius or the rower Tom Aggar who in seven years living with a serious spinal injury has never lost a race. Not to mention Eleanor Simmonds who despite her dwarfism became the youngest Briton to win gold at the age of 13 as the Beijing Paralympics.

These will be Games which, as Prince Harry has said in a royal greeting to the Paralympics, are very much about ability rather than disability. The motto of the Games is Spirit in Motion and the applicability of that to the whole nation will be underscored in a victory parade through the streets of London to honourBritain’s heroes from both Olympics and Paralympics alike next month.

A common misconception about the Paralympics is that the prefix of the term is some kind of veiled reference to paraplegia. In fact its origin is the Greek preposition pará meaning beside or alongside. The Paralympics are a competition held in parallel with the Olympics and in the same spirit of friendship, solidarity and fair play. In the far off days of those first Stoke Mandeville games the participants were patients with injuries which once led them to be regarded as people beyond hope. Today they have become a source of hope to the whole world.

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