Will these Paralympics make a real difference?
There has been much talk of the Olympic legacy, but what lasting impact will the Paralympics have on the lives of disabled people in Britain?
Emily Dugan is social affairs correspondent for The Independent, i and Independent on Sunday. She was previously a news reporter for The Independent on Sunday. Her investigations into human trafficking have twice been awarded Best Investigative Article at the Anti-Slavery Day Media Awards and her human rights journalism was shortlisted for the Gaby Rado Memorial prize at the 2012 Amnesty Media Awards.
Sunday 09 September 2012
What will London 2012 leave behind? This Paralympics has been feted as having the potential to create a legacy far beyond sport but, once the Olympic Park falls quiet tomorrow, will any of it really take root? The Independent on Sunday examines what difference the Games made and what needs to happen to make them a catalyst for change.
David Bowie's song "Heroes" boomed out in the stadium during the Paralympics, as Britain pulled in gold upon gold. Now the country has a second wave of sporting giants to add to Jessica Ennis, Mo Farah and Sir Chris Hoy – and the crowd's cheers for Jonnie Peacock, Hannah Cockcroft and Sarah Storey were just as deafening.
Seeing home-grown Paralympians display world-class athleticism can hardly fail to inspire. But Bowie's celebratory words also contain a warning for overnight sensations such as Peacock and Cockcroft – without continued support from fans and sponsors, and reports about them in the media, there's a risk they will be heroes "just for one day".
Thanks to sponsors of the Paralympic Games and athletes, disabled sport in Britain has enjoyed a financial boost on a scale not seen before. But that level of investment will need to continue. Lottery funding is hugely important to the British Paralympic Association (BPA). It received £1.8m of National Lottery funding from UK Sport to boost its performance preparations, such as the pre-Games camp in Bath, and will hear in December what its allocation will be for the next cycle.
Preparing for the Games in Rio, with associated issues such as travel and a different climate, will provide an even greater challenge. Investment from big companies is also crucial: Tim Hollingsworth, chief executive of the BPA, said yesterday that commercial partners were "the bedrock of our future". BT has already signed up to support British Paralympians after 2012, helping them compete in the Winter Games in Sochi in 2014 and then in Rio.
When the Paralympians turned up at the Olympic Village two weeks ago it needed barely any adjustments for everyone to get around with ease. London 2012 has been described as "a blueprint for accessible building" but this now needs to be translated into new structures across Britain. Thanks to poorly designed buildings, even casting a vote is problematic: nearly seven in every 10 polling stations are difficult to access, according to the disability charity Scope. There are legal requirements for new public buildings to be more accessible, but most do only the bare minimum.
Guy Parckar, from the Action for Access campaign at Leonard Cheshire Disability, said: "Often, there's a sense that if you have a ramp or level access then people have ticked the accessible box, though there's more to it than that. It would make a huge difference if more of our public buildings were made accessible. There are still a great number of places that people just can't get into which means that people are excluded from society."
Protests in Britain against the Paralympic sponsor Atos, whose health branch is responsible for deciding who is fit to work, have reignited the debate about who should receive benefits. Campaigners argue the fitness-to-work survey carried out by the IT firm is designed to move more people off incapacity benefits, even if they may be unable to work.
Despite the fracas, the Government is ploughing on, planning to cut swathes from the budget it allocates to supporting the disabled. The disability living allowance will be replaced next year with a new means-tested benefit called the personal independence payment, which will mean around 500,000 fewer adults get support. The loss of support with the high costs incurred by disability has left many afraid the cuts will cost them their freedom.
Feted not hated
While public adoration for athletes such as David Weir and Cockcroft has reached euphoric levels, many ordinary people with disabilities face a rising tide of hate. Before the Games, the Government's rhetoric about those with impairments was all too often focused on painting disabled people as work-shy scroungers off the state.
Three-quarters of people surveyed by Disability Rights UK believe the volume of negativity about disabled people is "significantly increasing". Nine in 10 believe there is a link between negative press portrayal of disabled people and a rise in hate crime.
Neil Coyle, director of policy and campaigns at Disability Rights UK, said: "It is vital that we challenge negative stereotypes of disabled people in the media. We agree with Lord Coe that these Games will be defined by the legacy they leave behind. The Government must seize this opportunity to combat the rise in hostility disabled people are experiencing."
A flying start
For the thousands of athletes who arrived at Heathrow in a wheelchair this summer, the airport was unrecognisable. As a one-off gesture, the airport guaranteed that all athletes would have their own wheelchairs waiting for them at the gate.
Unfortunately, flying is not usually so straightforward for people with impairments. Even Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee, and a seasoned traveller, has been stopped at the gate by airlines saying that he cannot fly alone in a wheelchair. He will continue to lobby for airport improvements after the Games to bring an end to the nightmare of travelling with a wheelchair.
Trains, buses and the London Underground all need improving, too, with only around half of Britain's stations properly accessible. Lord Coe said yesterday that while in 2008 there were 48 Tube stations that were fully accessible in London, now, on the back of delivering the Games, there are 68.
Employment can still be a massive issue for people with a disability: only half of disabled people are in work compared with more than three-quarters of non-disabled people. They are also more likely to receive unfair treatment at work.
Any changes in the workforce need to come from the top. Tackling employment inequality will now fall to Esther McVey, appointed as the new Minister for Disabled People in last week's reshuffle. She will need to look at the barriers that can prevent disabled people from getting into work, such as a lack of jobs with flexible working patterns or a lack of confidence, skills or experience.
From sporting success to athletes being hurled from their wheelchairs on the field of play, to outrageous jokes on Channel 4's post-Games show The Last Leg, disability has been a constant talking point during the course of the Paralympics. This coverage has helped challenge the nation's view of disabled people.
Richard Hawkes, chief executive of Scope, says attitudes don't change overnight but it could be the start. "The legacy of the Games should be a Britain where we focus on what disabled people can – rather than can't – do and where we have the support in place so that disabled people can achieve their aspirations, whether that's taking part in the 2016 Paralympics or simply being able to go to the pub with friends," he said.
"Now we need to keep up the momentum. We need to ask what else we can do so that disabled people are visible not just in sport, but in the media, in politics, in the arts and, above all, in everyday life." In research by Scope, 84 per cent of disabled people said greater public discussion of their lives would improve attitudes.
Sport for everyone
It has been an inspiring 11 days, but Britain's Paralympians are still the exception. A tiny proportion of children and adults with disabilities do sport – fewer than one in five play any sport once a week. Among the able-bodied population the figure is double that.
One of the main barriers is that not enough sports clubs make the effort to include disabled people. Barry Horne, chief executive of the English Federation of Disability Sport, said: "My hope is that sports and the fitness industry really proactively embrace disabled sport. [Sport accessibility] is not on the scale you'd hope it would be after the Paralympics. There has been a lot of progress, but it's not like everyone is going to able to nip down their local sports club and find a warm welcome."
The motto of the Games is to "inspire a generation" and no doubt many disabled children will want to try to emulate the success of Peacock and Ellie Simmonds. But, to do that, they need to get into sport and schools need to step up the provision of games in which disabled children can join, such as touch rugby.
"At present, PE is often delivered very well in special schools but many teachers in mainstream schools don't have the expertise to teach high-quality PE to young disabled people," said Alison Oliver, director of sport at the Youth Sport Trust. "Teachers need greater support in understanding how to deliver sport that is inclusive to all young people."
Sainsbury's is expected to announce on Friday a legacy investment of £800,000 over four years to provide training for 22,000 teachers on inclusive PE.
This improvement in sport needs to be mirrored by a rise in education standards: disabled people are around twice as likely not to hold a qualification after the age of 19 than non-disabled people.
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