This time last year the country was basking in a double afterglow, from the Olympics and the equally successful Paralympics. With record crowds, accessibility built into the planning, and extensive coverage on mainstream television, there was hope that the Paralympics had not only shown what disabled athletes could do, but would transform attitudes towards disability more widely.
By Christmas, it seemed that hope was being realised. A survey for the disability charity Scope found that almost three-quarters of the disabled people polled thought the Paralympics had had a positive effect on public attitudes. True, the small print suggested that change had been limited. Only 20 per cent said they felt the Paralympics had changed the way people talked to them; a similar proportion said it had made people more aware of their needs, while a colossal 84 per cent said they still felt patronised.
A year on, the results of another survey from the same charity are, to say the least, disappointing – and a far cry from Lord Coe’s post-Paralympics boast that “we will never look at disability in the same way again”. Previous prejudices, it seems, have returned, and even increased. Four in five said that attitudes towards them had not improved, while one in five said they had actually got worse. More disabled people are participating in sport and community activities, but the rise is small. The Paralympics legacy, says Scope, “hangs in the balance”.
At least as dispiriting as the attitudes that emerged were the reasons many gave for the deterioration. Time and again, Scope said, disabled people found themselves labelled “scroungers”, and they blamed this on the Government’s benefits crackdown, including the new disability assessments. Publicity for the very small proportion of fraudulent claims, they felt, tarred everyone with the same brush.
Such a view can be contested. In surveys of public attitudes to state spending, there is little hostility towards benefits for disabled people, with many believing that they are not generous enough. Clearly, though, this is not the message getting through to disabled people, who also feel that the squeeze on local authority services is harming their quality of life.
The state has a duty to ensure that taxpayers’ money is well spent and efforts to weed out fraud are justified. But disability benefits have a very low incidence of fraud and the positive difference that state help can make needs to be stressed far more than it is. This time last year, the Paralympics brought a change for the better in popular attitudes towards disability. If the balance of that legacy is now to be tipped in the right direction, there must be a change of tone from the top.