If you read the average newspaper you might conclude that all disabled people are either useless scroungers – or heroes triumphing over adversity. Where that leaves the millions just getting on with our lives, god only knows. Won’t the Paralympics just add to the procession of heroes, making the rest of us feel useless once again? Won’t it induce guilt in anyone who is even the slightest bit slothful or unfit?
It needn’t be like that.
Corny as it may sound we should never under-estimate the influence of role models. When Jack Ashley died in April, the following tribute appeared on a memorial website:
‘He inspired me from a very young age. That Deafness didn’t have to exclude you. You could rise above the crowd if you believed in yourself. My careers advisor told me I should aim to be a shelf stacker.
Instead I ran away to London – worked in cinemas, rising to manager…..I set up a laser company and fired lasers off Oxford Street and Canary Wharf….I founded a charity, taught computer graphics. And I haven’t stopped yet!
RIP Jack Ashley – you inspired me’.
You may argue that Jack was in politics – not sport. Yet he influenced someone he did not know to go into - not politics – but firing lasers off buildings. Similarly, successful sportsmen and women influence people way beyond sport. Margot James, now an openly gay conservative MP, had decided a career in politics was impossible. But:
‘Seeing someone like Martina [Navratilova] in the public eye was an enormous boost. Martina, so confident, unashamed and so successful that she could not be humiliated was an inspiration to me. Suddenly it was possible to be openly gay and successful’.
When the Paralympics get going, with wall to wall TV coverage (more than ever before), with disabled presenters and new medallists, we won’t know who is sitting watching and experiencing a big ‘aha’ moment. But we can guess there will be disabled people suddenly ‘getting’ the point that ‘it is possible to be openly disabled and successful’. In 10 years time some of today’s disabled children will be recounting how they went into arts, sport, business – whatever – because they were inspired by a Paralympic athlete or disabled Channel 4 anchor person. And disabled people will be watching: Scope found that 57% of disabled people planned to watch and 61% saw it as an opportunity for disabled people.
And that is before you look at the way some leading sportspeople, like Ade Adepitan or Tanni Grey-Thompson, make the shift from sports star to wider leader. Tanni’s tweets giving blow by blow reflections on welfare reform or legal aid bills as they go through the Lords are reaching thousands – with the message that disabled people need rights to be able to participate in society. Who knows who they may encourage to go into politics?
But all this is little good if it only benefits a few future ‘leaders’. The crunch question for the Paralympics is whether they will make any difference to larger numbers of disabled people.
They could do. At Disability Rights UK we believe in leadership by the many not the few. We want more and more disabled people to take up leadership roles – in our own lives, in communities, in workplaces in every sector, in schools, colleges….. . With a critical mass of disabled people in teaching, medicine, retail, management and everywhere else we would begin to see a difference for disabled pupils, employees, customers and users of public services.
At a recent debate Stephen Frost of Locog (the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games) said he thought the thousands of disabled people employed or volunteering for the Games had become more powerful in the process – moving from wanting greater accessibility or opportunities, to advising on how to achieve that and making it happen – devising solutions. He referred to it as ‘self actualisation’.
Disability Rights UK is determined to make bridges between the experience of Paralympic athletes and opportunities for disabled people more broadly. In particular:
· We urge Paralympic athletes, when interviewed, to talk about the rights of disabled people, to make links between their own lives and the wider changes needed to break down barriers; and to refer to the rights of people right across the mental and physical impairment spectrum
· We argue passionately that disabled people have a right to take part in sport and fitness. You don’t need to do a marathon in 1 hour 32 minutes (as David Weir did in London in 2012) or be competitive in any way. In Doing Sport Differently (http://www.radar.org.uk/people-living-with-health-conditions-disability/doing-life-differently/doing-sport-differently/ ), our guide written by and for people with personal experience of disability or long-term health conditions, people tell their stories: a long walk with a dog can be your incentive when your mental health is not good, a knock-about of wheelchair tennis can make you feel great. After the Paralympics we may see a surge in people getting involved in sport – let’s make sure disabled people know their rights and can benefit to the full
· We are supporting more and more disabled leaders – in our communities and in the workplace. We host a network of disabled people in senior jobs, in association with Lloyds Banking Group, called Radiate – who support each other, mentor people earlier in their careers and more. See Doing Careers Differently at http://www.radar.org.uk/publications/doing-careers-differently/ and Radiate at http://www.radiate-net.org.uk/
· We advise companies - from transport to retail - on accessibility, by bringing in disabled people to test products and services. If they get it right now for the Games that could have lasting effects for disabled people.
The Paralympics is no panacea. It won’t automatically be great for all disabled people. The challenges we face are so huge – to mention just a few:
· A recent survey by the MS Society found that 24% of the British public think disabled people often exaggerate their physical limitations; and 21% think disabled people need to accept that they cannot have the same opportunities in life as non-disabled people
· Meanwhile the reality of disabled people’s lives is they are twice as likely to live in poverty as non-disabled people – a fact which we do not passively accept
· A recent public attitudes survey in Ireland found that only about half of those surveyed thought people with learning disabilities, autism or mental health conditions should have an equal right to engage in sexual relationships; and less than 40% thought they would be capable of raising children.
We need a major shift in the balance of power, with disabled people controlling our own destinies, participating fully and moving out of poverty. We need public opinion to catch up with that shift. That will take innovation, and campaigns, and struggle – but the Paralympics could help give it a boost.
Liz Sayce - CEO at Disability Rights UK
 Stonewall (2012) Role Models: Being Yourself
 Scope: survey conducted by Comres 2011
 Disability Rights UK developed Doing Sport Differently with sole sponsorship from Visa
 MS Society survey conducted by Comres 2012
 National Disability Authority survey at: http://www.nda.ie/website/nda/cntmgmtnew.nsf/0/90F8D23334D786A880257987004FCF51/$File/Public_Attitudes_to_Disability_in_Irelandfinal.pdf