A senior US government advisor has suggested that the London 2012 Paralympics could help disabled people in their fight against the UK government’s cuts to disability benefits and its opposition to inclusive education.
The comments by Judith Heumann, the US Department of State’s special advisor on international disability rights, provides fresh support for campaigners fighting government cuts of 20 per cent to spending on disability living allowance (DLA), and opponents of the government’s position on inclusive education.
Heumann, an internationally-renowned disability rights activist, served for eight years in a senior role in President Clinton’s administration, as an assistant secretary in the Department of Education, and is a former co-director of the ground-breaking Center for Independent Living in Berkeley, California.
She said there was a need to listen to the views of disabled people about the extra costs they faced and the need for state support to meet those costs.
Heumann, a wheelchair-user, said: “People like myself have additional costs. There should be a greater willingness to listen to that level of discussion.”
She said people had “begun to learn” about the importance of such support people from watching the Paralympics, and pointed to events in which disabled athletes need support from non-disabled assistants, such as the guides used in blind football.
And she said that “personal story-telling”, for example by convincing Paralympians to describe in the media why DLA was so important to them, was crucial in putting across the message that many disabled people do need such support.
She told Disability News Service: “The people who are being adversely affected [by possible DLA cuts], who the country has honoured because they are Paralympians… the benefit may in effect have enabled them to rise to that ability and be competitive.
“I think the media telling these stories is very important. Governments around the world are looking at ways of cutting budgets. An issue that certainly needs to be addressed is when certain cuts have the opposite impact than they should have.”
She said that disabled people who have “gained a level of respect and are believable people” – such as Paralympians – can help to spread this message, including how, particularly for disabled people in relative poverty, benefits can “enable you to participate in social activities”.
Heumann was in London to meet with government leaders and civil society representatives to discuss international development and the implementation of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.
Heumann said she hoped that the media, the business and disability communities and wider society would look at what London 2012 had demonstrated about the importance of inclusion.
“For me, the message is that it can be done. The inclusion of disability into a broad agenda can be done in a seamless way.”
But she said a key question was why inclusion was often not happening in sectors such as schools “and other areas where there are still major barriers”.
Heumann spoke out strongly on inclusive education, another key area in which the Conservative-led coalition has placed itself in direct opposition with the disability movement.
The government’s pledge to “remove the bias towards inclusion” in disabled children’s education has sparked anger and protests by disabled activists since the government came to power.
Heumann said London 2012 could help convince those previously opposed to inclusive education “to rethink what their previous views might have been on inclusion”.
She said she believed inclusive education was “not just important to enable disabled children to academically learn more” but also because “disabled and non-disabled children going to school together” was one of the “lynchpins of what makes England and the US great democracies”.
She said: “Inclusion improves performance for all children and there are many ways that you demonstrate that.
“In the States we have data that [shows that]including disabled children in regular classrooms improves the learning outcomes for all learners in the classroom.”
And she said it was vital to “export the good things we are doing”, by ensuring that schools are accessible and education is inclusive in developing countries that receive aid from the US and Britain.
Heumann said that London 2012 had driven home the message that “disabled and non-disabled athletes are equivalent and deserve the same level of recognition” and that the success of the Paralympics would mean that the issue of equality could be “more easily discussed”.
She said: “People have really watched and learned about how people can accomplish the same objective and the same goal by doing it differently.”
And she said it was “very important” that the close links now established between the Olympic and Paralympic Games meant that all future hosts – such as Sochi, in Russia, for the 2014 Winter Olympics – would have to demonstrate “how they will accommodate disabled Paralympians and visitors”, which would show what was possible in terms of inclusion.
Heumann also said the lack of TV coverage of the Paralympics in the US – compared with the Olympics – was “really embarrassing”, so “the first thing I did when I got here was turn on Channel 4” to watch its coverage of the Paralympics.
But she said that “what was really impressive” was the amount of mainstream news coverage the games has secured on other television channels.
She also praised Channel 4’s commitment to using so many disabled presenters in its coverage.
She said: “The games are not going to end discrimination against disabled people in England or round the world or reform everything overnight.”
Instead, she said, it was vital to look at London 2012 and ask “what have we learned? What changes went on that enabled this to happen?”
She said: “My personal feeling is there is something very different that has happened here and I believe it can have an impact in many areas that people are trying to get addressed, such as education, employment, community inclusion, and that people with more significant disabilities need assistance, and that benefits can help make things more equitable.”
6 September 2012