Leading article: The Paralympics - faster, stronger, higher still

Equality requires a change of heart, which comes when language and culture change

Para- is a prefix that means "beside", "beyond", "distinct from but analogous to". Hence the cleverness of the invented word Paralympic. For the Paralympic Games, the opening ceremony for which takes place on Wednesday, promises to be a great celebration of sporting excellence. It takes place "beside" the Olympic Games, but goes "beyond" them in its "how do they do that?" wonder, and we hope it will be "distinct from but analogous to" the Olympics in the esteem in which it is held.

One of the proudest parts of London's bid for the Olympic and Paralympic Games was the importance accorded to the latter: the chance for Britain to lead the world in changing attitudes towards physical disability. Because attitudes are changing, in this country and around the world, and we hope that the Paralympics will help to change them further.

As often with great liberal social change, language becomes sensitive and disputed. People who are resistant to change accuse others of "political correctness". Yet in Britain, most of the words denoting disability that have in the past been used as insults are now unacceptable.

A ComRes poll for The Independent on Sunday last week found that only one person in five thought that the Paralympics were "more about political correctness than about excellence in sport". Only 22 per cent admitted that they "sometimes feel uncomfortable" in the company of people with disabilities, yet two-thirds, 66 per cent, agreed that "people with disabilities are often regarded as second-rate citizens".

Many people still feel uncertain about the language of disability, and so we offer a short glossary. Many say that "people with disabilities" is preferable to "disabled people" because it puts "people" first. Sir Philip Craven reveals in an interview with The IoS today, that he dislikes the term "the disabled", saying it is a "catch-all that catches nothing".

Francesca Martinez, who has cerebral palsy but prefers the term "wobbly", is often funny, although her television programme last week had a serious purpose in linking the use of words to the bullying of people with disabilities. "Sticks and stones" was never a very good motto anyway.

Elsewhere on our screens, Tanni Grey-Thompson reassured Jon Snow, who was worried about saying the wrong thing as anchor of Channel 4's coverage: just ask, she said. The important thing is not to get it "right" but to have the conversation.

Baroness Grey-Thompson is right: if people show respect to each other and talk to people with disabilities as people rather than as disabilities, and focus on what people can do rather than on what they cannot, then the Paralympics is a huge chance to learn.

With the recent deaths of Jack Ashley and Alf Morris, two great campaigners in this country for equal rights for people with disabilities, we have had the chance to reflect on how far we have come. In this field of equal rights, as in others, legal rights can help lead the way. But full equality requires a change of heart, which can come only when language and cultural norms change.

Let us hope that the real legacy of London's 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games will be a further and lasting shift in public attitudes towards disability. Let the boccia (wheelchair bowls) and the blind cycling begin. It is time now to go "beyond" the Olympics.