Disabled by campaigners, reabled by Paralympians?

I took part in a post-Paralympics Manchester Salon debate earlier this evening asking whether people with disabilities are Disabled by society, enabled by the legacy? This is what I had to say:

Baron Pierre de Coubertin, founder of the modern Games, is associated with two notions of what the Olympics – and by extension the Paralympics – is all about. First, we have Citius, Altius, Fortius (or Swifter, Higher, Stronger) and then there is – and I paraphrase – well, they’re only games aren’t they? It’s the taking part, not the winning that really counts. These are on the face of it contradictory notions, but the metaphor of the level playing field – and the idea that in order to have a chance of winning you need the opportunity to take part – is perhaps a more appropriate one when it comes to the politics of disability. That used to be the objective of chaining your wheelchair to the railings – or so I thought.

Oscar Pistorius upset a few assumptions about level playing fields with his carbon fibre blades judged to be an advantage by critics at the Olympics. I was at the Paralympics to see a pissed-off Pistorius lose to the taller-bladed Alan Oliveira in the 200m final. While no longer invincible he had prompted many of us to conclude that the supposed heroism of Paralympians needn’t be of the patronising overcoming bad stuff that happened to them in the past variety. Beyond the back stories of personal adversity, prosthetic limbs weren’t what they used to be. And disability needn’t be as disabling as it once was. One might even have a competitive advantage as a consequence of a so-called disability and be enabled (with a little technological doping and a lot of training) to perform better than the so-called able-bodied. The President of the International Paralympic Committee asked that the word ‘disability’ not be used during coverage of the Games. ‘You know what the word ‘disabled’ means’ he said: ‘It means something doesn’t work, doesn’t function. How would you like to be called that?’ He was wrong to try to tell us what words we can use, but he was right to question what is meant by disability today.

While most of us were getting excited about the Games and selling out the 2.5 million available tickets – others were getting worked up into frenzy over sponsorship. For campaigners, Atos, contracted by DWP to carry out the hated work capability assessments, became the Paralympic equivalent of Olympic sponsors Coca Cola and Cadbury. Cameron doesn’t give ‘Atos’ about people with disabilities they quipped hysterically. They called for a boycott of the evil multinational that had recently pledged to invest $100m dollars in International Paralympic sport over the next 10 years. Disabled People Against the Cuts joined forces with UK Uncut and scuffled with police outside the DWP and Atos offices; and the team GB athletes allegedly hid their Atos emblazoned lanyards at the Opening Ceremony. Far from inspiring a generation one commentator objected that the ‘sermon in form-fitting Lycra’ was being ‘exploited to make disabled people feel inadequate and guiltily dependent on the hard-working taxpayer’.

According to Ade Adepitan, basketball medallist and co-presenter with Clare Balding of Channel 4 coverage of the Paralympics, ‘without DLA I would not have been able to do what I did or be a top athlete’. DLA is a non-means tested benefit used to pay for transport, equipment, care needs, etc and clearly relied on by large numbers of people. Former Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thompson explains that disabled people face typically ‘higher living costs as a result of their impairment’. Still 3.2 million people – that’s a lot of people, more than the record numbers attending the Games remember – are on DLA at a cost of £12.6 billion a year. The infamously tighter and apparently unfair new assessment criteria and testing regime are designed to get 500,000 people off DLA over the next four years as the benefit is phased out. I don’t doubt that there is more than a little substance to the ‘horror stories’ described by opponents of welfare reform. But the welfare system does need reforming, and more importantly our welfare culture needs challenging. It should support people with disabilities to lead active lives as far as is possible – the possible being something that needn’t stay the same as the Paralympians have amply demonstrated – rather than disabling them further as in my view it tends to do.

Instead what we have from the critics of welfare reform is a diminished and dependent view of what people with disabilities are capable of. ‘Celebrate the Paralympians’ said Polly Toynbee ‘but remember what they say they need from the state to get them there’, rather insultingly seeking to place the welfare state on the podium rather than the athletes themselves. Echoing Toynbee, a disability rights activist claims that ‘their astonishing achievements would not have been possible without a state striving for inclusion, integration and equality’. So not only is it reasonable to question why so many people are claiming this benefit and whether the money might be better spent on reducing their dependency on the state. But to do so is also to challenge the belittling and state-enamoured assumptions held by those who think they are speaking on behalf of people with disabilities.

This relentless portrayal of the disabled in the most unflattering of terms – as weak, vulnerable, state dependent creatures unable to do much at all – is hardly conducive to a struggle for something better. Never mind throw a javelin they can barely leave the house. They are the ‘hardest hit’ say campaigner’s intent on winning only in the sport of competitive victimhood. Which is all rather odd because the one thing that campaigners go on about endlessly is how badly disabled people are portrayed and how prejudiced the able-bodied are. The Games are an opportunity to educate the plebs into treating disabled people better we’re told. Indeed you’d be mistaken for thinking that that was the only reason for holding them. This is the Paralympic legacy. Bugger the sport we’ve got more important things to lecture you about seems to be the general line. That was the premise of much of the commentary both before and during the Games. While Jackie Ashley at The Guardian thought the Paralympics ‘may be morally more important than the Olympics’. Pistorius in a rather backhanded compliment declared the UK public ‘far more educated’ and therefore, presumably, well-suited to lecturing the rest of the world. The Games can ‘do quite a lot to change people’s perceptions’ he said.

Critics argue that the government, with its welfare reforms, are making things worse by portraying the disabled as scroungers. Not only that they claim that a duped and prejudiced public are going along with it. The not very funny ‘comedian’ Jeremy Hardy joined the anti-Atos protestors and had this to say: ‘it’s just so cynical, because that strategy is being targeted at people who don’t have much, trying to make them hate people who have less’. Which as an analysis is itself both patronising and cynical. Philippa Perry, psychotherapist and wife of transvestite artist Grayson Perry, claimed: ‘Disabled people experience hate, guilt, patronising attitudes, avoidance and persecution’. Last year it was Ricky Gervais using the word ‘Mong’ on Twitter; this year, predictably enough, it’s Frankie Boyle going out of his way to offend. Actually the latter wasn’t being particularly offensive this time around. ‘It’s got to be weird being a Paralympian under this government’, he said in one of his tweets, ‘knowing that a medal means you’ll lose your Disability Living Allowance’. Unless jokes about the benefits system aren’t allowed anymore. That’s infinitely funnier than anything I’ve heard Jeremy Hardy say.

Both Gervais and Boyle pricked the thin-skinned culture of offence-taking rather than feeding off any wider hatefulness toward people with disabilities. Mencap felt moved, nevertheless, to tell Channel 4 to ban Boyle from causing ‘profound offence to disabled people’. George Galloway – again on Twitter – caused offence by calling somebody a ‘windae-licker’, a derogatory term for people with disabilities. One, I confess, I hadn’t heard of until the comment was retweeted and no doubt offended all the more as a result. And once more prompting Mencap to feel outraged. They called the comments ‘deeply offensive’ declaring: ‘Hate crime and bullying are a daily reality for many disabled people and the use of language like this only furthers hostility and violence.’ But is this really the case? It’s repeated so often you’d think it was an incontestable fact. One recent Guardian headline screamed that disability hate crime is at its ‘highest level since records began’. Reportedly, there were 1,788 recorded incidents (though far fewer convictions) in England and Wales in 2011, representing an increase of 18% on the previous year. Which, incidentally, is when records began.

So who’s disabling who here? Maybe they have ulterior motives but it’s ironic that it’s the reforming political class not campaigners who seem to believe most in what people with disabilities are capable of. Far from defending the welfare status quo, those who really want to improve things should be asking some searching questions about it. Much as they are in regard to Remploy and the shockingly poor and sometimes abusive care standards in care homes for the learning disabled. The failure of compassion levelled at Atos and DWP may well spring from the same managerial culture that is so undermining standards of care. So I am not arguing that the state should no longer support people with disabilities. But it can do a much better job and campaigners should be standing up for disabled people’s independence not portraying them as helpless victims forever dependent on handouts. Still both are complicit in today’s culture of low expectations and an elitism of the non-sporting kind that disparages the attitudes that it presumes most people hold. This is doubly patronising, making victims out of the disabled and bigots out of the rest of us. If there is a Paralympic legacy it should be to challenge this culture and, like the Paralympians, not just take part, but aim to go Swifter, Higher, Stronger.

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