Main Site         

“Hello to you out there in normal land. You may not comprehend my tale or understand!”

2012 August 30
by Paul Vallely

Two British athletes broke world records on Day One of the Paralympics yesterday heralding the prospect that the Games will match, or even exceed, the triumph of the London Olympics. The opening ceremony offered a good augury of that in its comparable sense of scale, power of imagination and breathtaking can-do technical ability – illustrated by a British Army war veteran, who was a double amputee, zooming down into the stadium from a 350 ft high zip wire.

Some eight million people watched the spectacle on television, far more than tuned in previous Paralympics openings, fully justifying Channel 4’s decision to involve its most-high profile presenter, Jon Snow, in the event. Some grumbled about its advertising breaks but the commercial broadcaster has to live in the real world, particularly after recruiting the authoritative sports specialist Clare Balding from the BBC and spending £500,000 on a talent search to unearth new expert disabled presenters.

There was too an admirable effort not to sentimentalise disability. Activists had warned in advance against describing the athletes as brave or courageous in their struggle against their disability. That is not, of course, to minimise the scale of individual athletes achievements. But the ceremony contextualised them, as with the story of Martine Wright, who was horribly injured in the 7/7 bombings and whose fight back to fitness won her a place in the sitting volleyball team. Such stories inspire and, as the Olympics showed, the public have an appetite for inspiration in these hard times. That is clear from the impressive ticket sales for the 11 days of the games. We want, as Sebastian Coe said at the opening ceremony, to be excited, dazzled and moved.

To say that is not to be blind to the disparity between the provision for Olympic and Paralympic athletes – nor between the disabled athletes of the First and Third Worlds whose wheelchairs, prosthetics and other equipment as they paraded round the stadium were clearly of varying quality – a fact the Games authorities should address. There is a similar gap between the best and the worst provision to ordinary disabled people in this country, depending upon the postcode lottery of which hospital or local authority serves them.

But what the ceremony so spectacularly achieved, from the outset with the uplifting words of the wheelchair-bound physicist Stephen Hawking, was that the Paralympics are not about disability so much as ability. The Games, said the man who is probably the most famous disabled person on the planet, are about transforming our perception of the world and the people in it. We are all different. There is no such thing as a standard human being but rather a shared human spirit of creativity which takes many forms and which means there is always something each of us can succeed at.

Part of that human creativity is anger at injustice, which is why it was so fitting that the opening celebration concluded with the protest song Spasticus Autisticus written by Ian Drury, who was crippled with polio as a child. He wrote it in 1981 outraged by the UN International Year of the Disabled which he condemned as a patronising concept. After the parading of the Universal Declaration Of Human Rights his war cry reminded us that some remain more equal than others.

That anger is still alive, as was clear from the fact that many in the British Paralympic team at the ceremony hid inside their clothing the lanyards bearing the name of one of the Games’ sponsors, Atos, a company tasked by the British government with cutting benefits to disabled people.

David Cameron, who has said the Games “will change attitudes to disability and have a positive impact on society”, might do well to consider what part his Government’s policies have in maintaining negative social attitudes at a time when disability hate crimes have been rising not falling – and in a society where half of all disabled people live below the poverty line.

For in the end we will be judged not by how loudly we cheer the success of extraordinary Paralympians but by whether as a society we change the ambivalence with which we treat ordinary people with disabilities.

“Hello to you out there in normal land. You may not comprehend my tale or understand!” – Spasticus Autisticus, Ian Drury

Comments are closed.