A voyage through time to challenge our perceptions

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London's Paralympic Games kicked off last night with a triumphant celebration of humankind's ability to overcome seemingly impossible odds in a ceremony aiming to alter the world's perception of disability.

Physicist Stephen Hawking led spectators on a "voyage through time", highlighting scientific discoveries and the fight for equality by disabled activists and athletes.

In a stunning finale to the £10m, three-hour spectacle, the Paralympic flame was finally lit when Joe Townsend, a Royal Marine Commando who lost both legs after stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan, hurtled into the stadium on a zip wire from the 376ft Orbit tower. He handed the torch to veteran Paralympian David Clarke who gave the final honour of lighting the cauldron to Margaret Maughan, winner of Britain's first Paralympics gold medal in Rome in 1960.

Dubbed "Enlightenment", the storyline to the show was infused with simmering political radicalism and social commentary.

The evening began with Professor Hawking telling the crowd: "Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Try to make sense of what you see. Be curious." Hundreds of neon-lit volunteers then danced around a giant umbrella – a motif that appeared frequently throughout the ceremony as something both quintessentially British and protective. A giant ball of light descended on the giant dome causing a simulated explosion symbolising the Big Bang. Against a thumping version of Rihanna's "Umbrella", acrobats on high wires zipped around the stadium.

Like Boyle's Opening Ceremony, much of the performance revolved around an interpretation of Shakespeare's The Tempest. The central character, Miranda, was played by 34-year-old disabled actress Nicola Miles-Wilden, who "travelled back in time" to the Enlightenment to the garden where Isaac Newton realised the concept of gravity. At this point the 60,000-strong audience, who had all been given apples, were encouraged to take part in a mass "apple bite".

A cameo from Sir Ian McKellen, left, playing Prospero, helped Miranda find her way back to the modern world – on a giant up-turned umbrella boat.

In a celebration of the disability rights movement, hundreds of protesters filed into the stadium to Ian Dury's once-controversial and now celebrated anthem "Spasticus Autisticus". More than 4,000 athletes from 165 nations took part in a parade that took more than an hour to complete.

Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee, hailed the Games as "a celebration of the development of the human spirit".