Yasmin Alibhai-Brown: Not all disabled people can be world-beaters

Now there is a pressure to fight fate, overcome limitations, and emulate inspirational athletes

Share

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 Grunenthal, 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 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.

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: Home Care / Support Workers

£7 - £10 per hour: Recruitment Genius: This care provider is looking for Home ...

Recruitment Genius: Web Team Leader

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: One of the UK's leading web des...

Recruitment Genius: Client Manager

£27000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: A growing, successful, friendly...

Recruitment Genius: Property Negotiator - OTE £20,000+

£16000 - £25000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This family owned, independent ...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Separate lives: Boston’s streets illustrate the divide between the town’s communities  

Migrants have far more to offer than hard work and wealth creation, yet too many exist in isolation from the rest of society

Emily Dugan
Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird has sold 40 million copies  

Go Set a Watchman: Harper Lee’s new novel is more than just a literary event

Joseph Charlton
The Greek referendum exposes a gaping hole at the heart of the European Union – its distinct lack of any genuine popular legitimacy

Gaping hole at the heart of the European Union

Treatment of Greece has shown up a lack of genuine legitimacy
Number of young homeless in Britain 'more than three times the official figures'

'Everything changed when I went to the hostel'

Number of young homeless people in Britain is 'more than three times the official figures'
Compton Cricket Club

Compton Cricket Club

Portraits of LA cricketers from notorious suburb to be displayed in London
London now the global money-laundering centre for the drug trade, says crime expert

Wlecome to London, drug money-laundering centre for the world

'Mexico is its heart and London is its head'
The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court that helps a winner keep on winning

The Buddhist temple minutes from Centre Court

It helps a winner keep on winning
Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

Is this the future of flying?

Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

Isis are barbarians

but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

Call of the wild

How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

The science of swearing

What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

Africa on the menu

Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'