The Paralympics: Eleven days 'will change the world'

Games are expected to transform how people perceive disability

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The Independent Online

The head of the international Paralympic movement believes the London Games will usher in "a new enlightenment of the 21st century", ending the marginalisation of people with disabilities. As more than 4,000 athletes from 165 countries arrive in Britain, Sir Philip Craven revealed his dream that 11 exhilarating days of sport, beginning on Wednesday, will "change perceptions once and for all".

Millions of Britons are expected to tune in as ParalympicsGB attempts to win a total of 103 gold medals in at least 12 sports.

In an exclusive interview, Sir Philip, the president of the International Paralympic Committee, told The Independent on Sunday of his ambition for the event: "I want this mythical group of citizens of this country just viewed as individuals and not collectivised and marginalised, but viewed for what they're good at, what they enjoy.

"The fact that your legs don't work doesn't mean that your brain and your heart don't work. Let's change perceptions once and for all. Let this be the new enlightenment of the 21st century."

Sir Philip's words hint at the theme of his speech at Wednesday's opening ceremony, which is entitled Enlightenment. It will feature hundreds of disabled performers. There will be a new set of 106 copper petals on Thomas Heatherwick's cauldron for the lighting of the Paralympic flame in the Olympic Stadium.

The opening ceremony will also include a fly-past – not from the Red Arrows, but a team assembled by Aerobility, a charity that helps put those with impairments who fly. The Mercury Prize-winning singer PJ Harvey will perform alongside disabled artists who will premiere their music at the ceremony. Professor Stephen Hawking is also tipped to appear.

Before the ceremony, four Paralympic flames, lit at the four home nation's highest peaks, will travel around the UK. The Northern Ireland flame arrived at the Stormont Assembly yesterday. Today, a torch will be lit in Edinburgh, and on Tuesday flames from across the UK will come together in Stoke Mandeville, where the first sparks of the Paralympic movement were lit, when Sir Ludwig Guttmann set up a parallel Games for spinal-cord patients in 1948.

There are already signs that attitudes towards the Paralympics are changing. A survey for Sainsbury's, a Games sponsor, found that two-thirds of children are excited about the Paralympics, and one in five plan to watch the British swimmer Ellie Simmonds in the 100m freestyle.

Sir Philip said that the euphoric moments after the Games would offer the perfect opportunity to make life more equal in Britain for those with impairments. "If it can be done on the crest of a very positive wave then you've got far more chance of it being accepted," he said.

If politics were kept away, the legacies of both Games should last for decades, he added. "Throughout this 21st century, there should be legacies. It's not a five-year plan: this is a plan for 2050 maybe. We need to keep that going and realise that it's not a political football."

He believes that if more sports clubs opened their doors to everyone, spending cuts need not have an impact on access to sport for those with disabilities. "I want to see far more people with an impairment practising sport, not necessarily to become Paralympians, but to get the benefit of it, to become fit."

Stephen Miller and Tracey Hinton were yesterday announced as captains of the ParalympicsGB athletics team. The pair, who have competed at nine Games between them, were introduced to the 48-strong team at their training camp in Portugal on Friday. Miller, who has cerebral palsy, is a three-time gold medallist in the club throw, and Hinton is a sprinter who has won three silver and three bronze medals in previous Games. She lost her sight at the age of four.

Oscar Pistorius, the only double amputee to compete in both the Olympic and Paralympic Games, has spoken of the Games' potential to change global attitudes to disability. "I can honestly say I've run everywhere in the world. When it comes to education surrounding disability, the UK is probably at the forefront and I think that is going to be very important," he said yesterday.