As the floods flood and the cold bites, our glorious, golden summer seems a lifetime away. The union flags, the tinsel and the gold medals are now gathering dust on our shelves. We do still hear much of the Olympic and Paralympic legacy, which is said to have “inspired a generation”, but are there any signs that we did anything other than run fast, jump high and shoot straight? Can sport ever make a society more equal, more compassionate?
A recent survey conducted for Radio 4 seems to throw up a strange anomaly: people who are not disabled believe the Paralympics have improved attitudes to disability, but those who are actually living with a disability felt attitudes had worsened. How could this be? Despite the most visible disabled sport event in the history of our planet, what is the real legacy if not one of tolerance and acceptance?
The clue is in the new year’s honours list. Despite winning 10 Paralympic gold medals over the course of his mind-bogglingly successful career, David Weir did not get a knighthood. Chris Hoy and Bradley Wiggins did. Only Sarah Storey received a damehood (the only Paralympian to achieve that level of award), for a glittering career that saw her win 11 gold medals. Kelly Holmes was made a dame after winning two. Only three out of 12 of the nominees for BBC Sports Personality of the Year were Paralympians. I could go on, but more awards went to able-bodied athletes than disabled athletes in every category. Even so, it was a bumper year for disabled sport. Thanks to Channel 4’s exceptional coverage and the superhuman skill and drive of the competitors, I do believe there was a sea change in how people feel about disability. Unfortunately, that change comes from a position of near anonymity.
However, while the Paralympians were wowing us all with their sheer ability and determination, a much more sinister reality is taking place beyond all the glitz and glory. Disabled people need to spend more to live. If you are disabled, the cost of tailored transport, special food and equipment makes everything in society harder to access, harder to conquer. Until recently, we as a society recognised this and through modest “top-up” support, we tried to level the playing field. Whether you were young or old, rich or poor, you could apply for a disability living allowance (DLA) ranging from £20 to £125 a week, depending on the level of your disability.
For the last two-and-a-half years, sick and disabled people have watched in terror as first DLA, then sickness benefits, housing support, care services and the NHS were all cut back, brutally so. Over half a million people will lose their DLA (and here, let us note that several Paralympians spoke of how they could never have achieved such success without DLA), one million their sickness benefits, and hundreds of thousands see their care needs slashed. One in three sick and disabled people already live below the poverty line, and many simply do not know how they will survive once all the cuts have gone through.
To achieve such a cruel cut in support for the most vulnerable of all – the very people most of us believe our tax should go to support – politicians need to create a very convincing smokescreen. For several years now, sick and disabled people have been painted as “scroungers” and “skivers”, with their needs ridiculed and their abilities ignored. Almost certainly as a result, disability hate crime went up a staggering 14% last year.
Is it any wonder that disabled people don’t believe the Paralympics changed much at all? I could no more beat Ellie Simmonds in a swimming race than my able-bodied husband could beat Usain Bolt to the 100m finish line. Yet in government speak, the achievements of a handful of elite Paralympic athletes are used to show how anyone with a disability can do anything they choose, if only they weren’t so lazy or weak. We are celebrating the Paralympics for what we would like to believe they are, and for the wrong reasons. Until we ask ourselves why, honours-list inequality is the least of our worries.