In the Olympic Stadium on Saturday evening, among 80,000 exuberant men, women, girls and boys, I watched with wonderment and stupefaction as Paralympians jumped, ran, threw, clapped, waved, laughed and cried. I come from a culture where disability is regarded either as a family curse or divine payback for bad deeds in previous lives.
In the stadium loo, I heard two young Asian women arguing in Gujarati with their Hindu grandmother who still holds to these dreadful superstitions, common in most non-Western countries even now. In the West, societies based on Darwinian Capitalism have their own embedded hostilities towards body and mental imperfections. These Paralympic Games answer both sets of prejudices and bit by bit change global public attitudes. (Britain should take more credit than it does for first setting up the competition in 1948 with a small number of war veterans.)
After the first hour you didn't even notice the missing arm, the metal blades, the shakes. Richard Whitehead, winner in the 200 metres, became a Grecian God with fab biceps; double amputee South African Oscar Pistorius looked like a bird of paradise as he took off in the 200-metre heats, and the finalists in the men's triple jump were breathtakingly graceful.
Houssein Omar Hassan, from Djibouti, came last in his 1,500 metres heat – a full seven minutes behind the field. He had injured his ankle, but as the only representative of his country and for his own pride he finished and with honour. He was given a standing ovation.
I wasn't in the Aquatics Centre to see Ellie Simmonds, only 17 and 4ft tall, win her gold medal, but can imagine what that was like for her and the crowds who love her so. In the women's club throw, the bronze medal went to our own Gemma Prescott and the gold and silver were won by Maroua Ibrahmi of Tunisia and Mounia Gasmi of Algeria – impaired Muslim females, you know, the much caricatured objects of anti-PC mirth. They were stunned as the crowd affirmed them in a way they probably have never been before.
The superhuman participants have pushed their bodies and minds beyond all limits, as the organisers keep emphasising. The competitors are not victims, not physically and mentally deficient, not grotesque, not abnormal, but gifted and determined. They don't expect pity or special pleading. They are winners. And that is exactly how the spectators saw them.
These responses are both fantastic and problematic. Just because Paralympians have triumphed over disabilities doesn't mean that all the rest of the disabled can or must. And the Games are not evidence of the end of discrimination against these humans. That's like saying (and too many do say it) that Will.i.am and Barack Obama attest that racism has passed on or that Margaret Thatcher proved that sexism was just a self-serving whine.
I come not to bury the Games, but to caution against naiveté and those who will exploit the glory and turn it to their advantage. A small number of protesters have come out against the private French firm Atos, a Games sponsor which assesses the work fitness of people on disability benefits – like jobs are queuing up for such applicants. We know of their many unfair decisions and the anguish of those summarily denied money they can survive on.
Remploy factories where people of disability had jobs and dignity are being closed down by the Coalition. Today workers begin a series of strikes against these heartless, senseless decisions. I don't know which is more cynical – to offer sponsorship or to be approved. Then the German company, Chemie-Grünenthal, manufacturers of the drug Thalidomide which caused thousands of people to be born limbless, have just apologised and paid for a statue of a child without arms and legs. Do you suspect they are just choosing this euphoric and celebratory time for the debilitated in the hope of stealing redemption? Harold Evans, editor of The Sunday Times when it uncovered the Thalidomide disaster, responded this weekend to the nauseating gesture: "[The company] remains silent still on adjusting compensation for inflation and the dreadful effects on victims – the men and women in adulthood, many now without parental support."
Evans, thankfully, uses the V word. It's all very well to celebrate heroes but hundreds of thousands of incapacitated people must feel bewildered in this suddenly victimless environment they are told is around them. How convenient for the Government. It wants to cut the bill for disabled benefits by 20 per cent and so has mounted a PR assault on claimants, accusing most of being bogus when only 0.5 per cent, apparently, are falsifiers. The public has been brainwashed; now there is the additional burden on the disabled to fight fate, overcome their limitations, and emulate inspirational athletes.
I understand why the disabled have fought hard to be defined for their abilities and not afflictions. But now the danger is that they will be treated as if they are the same as everyone else and expected to just get on with it, without special provisions or understanding. After the closing ceremony, disabled people may find themselves living with a more pernicious, invidious kind of inequality as they are forced to march under the banners of aspiration and victory.Reuse content