The Paralympics in London 2012 were heralded as championing new attitudes towards disability in the UK, with Prime Minister David Cameron, saying they would “inspire a lot of people and change people’s views on disability”. Similarly, the press coverage of the Paralympics extolled the ‘superhuman’ abilities of the athletes. The British public seemed to follow suit. They bought 2.7 million tickets, globally the most tickets ever sold for the Paralympics, with most events a sell-out. There was national pride in the achievements of ‘Team GB’ Paralympians – notably, double gold-medal winners David Weir, a wheelchair athlete and swimmer Ellie Simmonds. Oscar Pistorius, the South African runner became the unofficial Paralympic poster boy. He took part in the ‘ordinary’ Olympics too, qualifying for the semi-final of the 400 metres. He won the gold medal in the same event in the Paralympic T44 category. Here was surely proof of the breaking barriers between ‘us’ and ‘them’. But beneath the surface has anything really changed? Hardly. Rather the current government is in the process of overseeing a number of changes that are eroding state support for disabled people leading to cuts in their welfare payments. The Paralympics may have changed attitudes to disability for a couple of weeks but it has done little to change the lot of disabled people in the UK.
For a time, the media was awash with discussions of impairment and disability. The different categories of Paralympic athletic competition were painstakingly explained so many people became informed, and understood the differences between the degree of function presented by the different disabilities. Was the formula used to determine the permissible height of amputees’ cheetah legs fair? Was ‘les autres’ a meaningful category – could someone with dwarfism really be equated to someone with a progressive illness? And there were commentary shows mainly featuring and presented by disabled athletes with plenty of risqué chat challenging traditional views of the disabled as unattractive, asexual and unable. The focus was inclusion not exclusion and the clear message was that ‘they’ are just like ‘us’.
However, this media focus was all fairly superficial. For example, Atos was one of the major sponsors of the Paralympics. Before the games started, Atos Healthcare, a subsidiary of a French IT multinational, won the contract to carry out work capability assessments on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions. Atos assess the claims of people claiming benefits as a result of a disability or injury to decide whether people on benefit can be deemed ‘fit for work’. They also assess whether the level of state support they receive is ‘justified’. Their sponsorship of the Paralympics resulted in a week of direct action and protests by ‘Disabled People Against Cuts’ with slogans such as, ”Nobody likes hurdles as much as Atos”. In terms of the work Atos is undertaking, there is continuing concern about the quality of the process and outcome of assessment (McCartney 2011 citing a report from the Citizen’s Advice Bureau Scotland). Of those assessed as being fit for work over one third appealed the Atos verdict, and 40% of them won their appeal. Despite concerns about performance, Atos has been awarded contracts to carry out similar assessments for the new Personal Independent Benefit, which is to replace Disability Living Allowance from April 2013.
Another policy initiative is also causing concern amongst disability campaigners. The new system of Universal Credit for state welfare recipients will leave many disabled people considerably worse off. Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson (a Paralympic gold medallist) led a commission into the proposed reforms and estimated that nearly half a million disabled people and their families would lose £58 a week.
Then there are the additional cuts to services offering support and social contact to disabled people – mainly due to steep reductions in council budgets, prompting the need for ‘efficiency savings’. According to a survey by the Care and Support Alliance, 24% of disabled adults say their services such as day care or at home support services have already been cut, and the Learning Disability Coalition reported that most of the organisations providing services to people with learning difficulties, report cuts in funding for their services from local authorities.
So how much of a game-changer was the Paralympics? It lauded, even lionised, the prowess of disabled athletes who were indeed impressive. It also highlighted the positive impact of participation, which is ironic given the ongoing political assault against the funding and services required to enable participation of the most disabled in our society. The impact of such cuts on disabled people is wide reaching and long term. In contrast, the impact of the Paralympics has been fleeting and, like the Olympic flame, quickly extinguished.
About the Author: Gill Green is a Medical Sociologist in the School of Health & Human Sciences at the University of Essex. She has been researching social aspects of long-term illness since the early 1990s.