historical stuff by Gareth Millward
29 August 2012 – London
The London Paralympics went mainstream. At least in Britain. Continued enthusiasm following the successful Summer Olympics, combined with a concerted effort by Channel 4 to promote the games, led to a focus on disability sport like never before.
Talking about a “legacy” from major sporting events is always tricky. It is often difficult to quantify whether young people are “inspired” to take up sport and become world-class athletes; certainly, if success is measured by direct financial return or sustained increases in participation in organised sport and informal exercise, there doesn’t appear to be much impact.1
The Paralympics did appear to capture the public imagination, however. At least in the short term. For the first time, debates about disability became mainstream. The press covered the games in great detail, no doubt bolstered by the number of gold medal British athletes were winning. Britain had gone through periods of discussing disability before, but usually in relation to the provision of services and protecting individual’s rights. Here was something different. This was about what disabled people could do rather than what they could not.
One of the legacies of the games has been Channel 4’s The Last Leg, a comedy show hosted by disabled comedians. Originally designed as a light-hearted review of the Paralympics and associated disability issues, it has returned for regular series ever since. All three hosts have become regulars on the UK television comedy circuit. And it’s regular feature “is it OK?” has led to some hilarious moments of disabled and non-disabled people asking awkward questions about disability that we British were too frightfully polite to ask.
They also haven’t been afraid to branch out into other equality issues.
Somewhat ironically, then, the Paralympics were held in the midst of a massive crisis in social security for disabled people. The head of the Department of Work and Pensions, Iain Duncan Smith, was determined to cut welfare expenditure and had targeted disability as an area in which savings could be made.2
The other issue, and one that recurs with disability sport, is the idea that disabled people are either superhumans overcoming adversity – and this is indeed the marketing push Channel 4 has made for its coverage of the Rio games – or helpless victims who require constant support and supervision. Those in the middle – the vast majority of disabled people who want to be part of general society – are overlooked.
Disability organisations are hoping to use the interest surrounding the games this year to draw attention to these issues. Disabled People Against the Cuts – a radical campaigning campaign group – have begun a “Rights not Games” campaign. This echoes the movement in the 1990s for anti-discrimination legislation called “Rights not Charity”.
The benefit cuts have already resulted in stories of athletes having their careers threatened by a lack of support.3 This may also help to make the public aware of the issues surrounding accessibility and cost-of-living benefits, especially those to do with transport. Regardless, it will be interesting to see if Rio has the same impact as London did on disability discourse amongst the general public in Britain – and if that extends beyond these shores too.