Furious disabled activists are proposing a boycott of next year’s Paralympic games in London, over links between the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) and the company that tests disabled people’s “fitness to work” for the government.
Campaigners have become increasingly angry at the Paralympic movement’s links with Atos, which is a sponsor and IT partner of the Paralympics and is building the IPC’s new website.
The ties were strengthened last month when the IPC co-opted the founder and former chair of Atos, Bernard Bourigeaud, onto its governing board.
Atos Healthcare – the branch of the company that carries out work capability assessments (WCA) on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) – has been the focus of repeated protest action by disabled activists.
The call for a boycott over IPC’s links with Atos has come from Black Triangle, which campaigns against the unfair use of the WCA to reclassify disabled people as “fit to work”.
This call has already been backed by two other campaigning organisations, Disabled People Against Cuts and the DWPExaminations internet forum, which hosts accounts of disabled people’s experiences of the WCA.
Disabled activist John McArdle, co-founder of Black Triangle, said he and fellow campaigners would continue to call for a boycott of the Paralympics if Atos did not withdraw from the WCA contract.
He said: “It is quite frankly obscene that they are sponsors of the Paralympics. The government is using them and the Paralympics to make propaganda for their ill-conceived welfare cuts programme.”
He said campaigners would also lobby Paralympians to boycott 2012 and “speak out against the plethora of cuts to disabled people’s income and other support”.
He said: “We are not all supermen and women who are able to participate in the economy and society as the government would have you think.
“If people are to be assessed for their fitness to work it must be done ethically and based on sound scientific and medical judgment and not some flawed ‘tick-box’ computer assessment administered by Atos that is getting it wrong disastrously on a scale which defies belief.”
The IPC insisted that it had “no dealings at all” with Atos Healthcare, and activists were “tarnishing an entire organisation because of what one arm of that organisation is doing”.
An IPC spokesman said: “Of course we understand that people have concerns, but we would be very disappointed if people did boycott what will hopefully be the biggest and best Paralympics so far because of this when at the end of the day Atos Healthcare are fulfilling a duty they have been asked to do. Surely it is for the British government to resolve.”
He added: “We are aware that some people are unhappy that we have Atos as a partner and the appointment of Bernard Bourigeaud.”
He said Bourigeaud was appointed because of the IPC’s long relationship with Atos, his close relationship with the board, and his experience of working on international projects.
He promised that Paralympic athletes would be able to speak out next summer on equality, discrimination and rights issues, and would be allowed to criticise Atos Healthcare as long as they did it without bringing the IPC or the games into “disrepute”.
He said: “If they have an issue with Atos, if they want to express it, so be it.”
A spokeswoman for ParalympicsGB, which manages Britain’s Paralympians, said: “We want as many people as possible to support the British athletes and therefore would be disappointed if such a boycott took place. However we accept that this decision rests with each individual.”
She added: “We are aware that Atos’s involvement with the DWP is drawing a lot of attention at the moment. We are continuing to monitor the situation closely and are keeping the IPC aware of the feedback we are receiving.”
She also promised that team members “would be free to express their own opinions” on “any issues that affect them”.
An Atos spokeswoman said Bourigeaud left the company in 2007 and no longer has any connection with it, although she said Atos was aware of the reaction to the IPC co-opting him onto its board.
In a statement, Atos said that it “acknowledges all public debate” and is “committed to working with the IPC to deliver the technology that will help ensure a successful games for athletes and spectators around the world”.
16 September 2011