National Paralympic Day: Artists dismiss talk of 2012 legacy


theweeksubSome of the country’s leading disabled artists have dismissed suggestions of any legacy for disabled people from last year’s London 2012 Paralympic Games.

They spoke out as they took part in the annual Liberty disability arts festival, which this year was merged with National Paralympic Day for the first time, and took place on the Olympic Park in Stratford, east London.

The festival took place almost exactly a year after the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games.

The disabled artist Katherine Araniello said that “things have got worse and not better” since London 2012, with benefit cuts, and disabled people finding it difficult to secure the funding they need to ensure their support and independence.

She said: “We are feeling the threat. It is a threat to our existence and our future, participating in the world and contributing.”

She herself has had to fight the hated “bedroom tax”, by proving to the council why she needs three bedrooms for herself and her 24-hour personal assistants.

She said: “I had to fight really hard in a really bureaucratic way to hold onto those rooms.”

Araniello said the Paralympics had painted a representation of disabled people “being capable and able in a sporting environment… an environment they are used to working in”.

“But if you take them out of that environment… disability and access and barriers become all too paramount.

“It is quite insulting to be honest to be in the mindset that people who do sport are going to change the future of other disabled persons’ lives, because they are not.”

She added: “The only positive that I see is I like the idea of seeing more disabled people being represented in the mainstream. If it has to be sport, then so be it.”

Asked what had changed for him since London 2012, Tony Heaton, chief executive of Shape Arts and a wheelchair-user, said: “Before the Paralympics, when I went to hail a cab I used to put my hand out and six cabs would drive past.

“Since the Paralympics, when I go to the edge of the road and put my hand out, six cabs will drive past.

“Nothing has changed at all.”

Heaton, who designed the sculptures on the speech lecterns for the Paralympics opening ceremony, and is himself a former wheelchair basketball international, said there had been a short period of time around London 2012 when some people began to see disabled people in a more positive light.

But he said the opportunity had been missed, and the talents of disabled artists were still being ignored by the mainstream arts world.

The actor and writer Mat Fraser, who compered the main Liberty stage and also played key roles in the Paralympic opening and closing ceremonies, said he believed the – negative – legacy of London 2012 was the introduction of the government’s personal independence payment (PIP), which is gradually replacing working-age disability living allowance.

He also said he found it difficult to see the London mayor Boris Johnson at the event. “It is awful and it is a bit rich of Boris, a Tory, to come down here giving it all large, when he is part of a party that is taking away my people’s liberty. It is called the Liberty festival.”

But he added: “We do have to put it all aside and celebrate.”

He believes the number of young non-disabled people now trying disability sports will “pay dividends” in 15 years’ time.

He said: “A lot of local children were trying wheelchair basketball today, without there being any stigma. That wouldn’t have happened five years ago.

“It was vital that we continued the momentum [from London 2012], especially in the local area. Let’s keep the momentum going.”

Ruth Gould, artistic director of DaDaFest, said London 2012 had made disability and disabled people more high-profile, but not always in a positive way.

Despite the success of London 2012, she said, the Paralympics did not represent “reality” for disabled people, many of whom were facing the fallout from the government’s austerity programme.

She pointed to one of her artists, a wheelchair-user, who was told by three different people in Liverpool to “get out of the effing way” while he was using a pedestrian area.

In the arts world, she said, disabled people were still being sidelined, despite the Paralympics. “We want to see more disabled people in mainstream productions. We still do not see that. We are still not seeing that equality.

“I think we need to get a bit more political in our art. It is not a time to be quiet.”

The disabled writer and performer Penny Pepper said: “I hold the Paralympic athletes in the greatest respect, I am thrilled to see them on telly.”

But she said Paralympic sport was about individuals at the top of their own sport, and their experiences had no relevance to those of other disabled people.

Jaspal Dhani, former chief executive of the UK Disabled People’s Council, said: “I don’t believe things have changed.

“The only people it has probably changed for are the top elite athletes. For disabled people as a whole I can’t see where the change is, I really can’t.

“I can’t find any evidence of anything that as a result of the Paralympics that is actually better in any meaningful way, which has actually improved the life chances of disabled people.

“When you look at the bigger picture, around independent living and the rights of disabled people, that landscape hasn’t changed at all.”

Meanwhile, One Year On, a new review sponsored by Accentuate – which aims to create a “cultural shift” in attitudes towards disability in the wake of London 2012 – has concluded that London 2012 failed most disabled people.

The report, written by thinktank Demos, discusses the concerns of some of the leading disabled cultural figures who took part in an Accentuate symposium in Brighton in July.

It suggests that “the ‘one per cent’ of disabled artists whose work was commissioned as part of the Cultural Olympiad received a huge boost as a result, but the silent majority of disabled people have seen far less benefit”.

The report marks the start of an in-depth study by Accentuate aimed at understanding why so few disabled people are employed in the cultural sector, and what stops disabled people engaging in the arts more generally.

12 September 2013