Two of our leading Paralympians have spoken of the mixed legacy from London 2012, with a public “hunger” for Paralympic sport, but major concerns around the impact of welfare reform on disabled people.
Sophie Christiansen, who won three equestrian golds at London 2012, and powerlifter Ali Jawad, who narrowly missed out on a medal, were speaking at this year’s National Paralympic Day, held for the first time on the Olympic Park.
The event took place almost exactly a year after the closing ceremony of the Paralympic Games in the same Olympic Park.
Christiansen told Disability News Service that she believed there had been a sporting legacy from London 2012, but that more should have been done for disabled people in general.
She said she was particularly concerned about the replacement of working-age disability living allowance (DLA) with the new personal independence payment (PIP), and what it might mean for her and other disabled people.
And she said she was alarmed by the government’s decision to tighten the walking distance criteria for the PIP enhanced mobility rate from 50 to 20 metres.
Christiansen said: “It is not just a yes or no question. I could write a whole essay on whether I could walk 50 metres. It all depends on the terrain, what I am doing afterwards, what I have been doing that day, whether I have got someone with me. It’s not that simple.”
She said she was speaking out because she was concerned that she could have her benefit taken away in the move to PIP.
She said: “I am one of the most disabled Paralympians and people still do not get that I need care and I need a wheelchair for one day but I can go to work [the next day]and not need a wheelchair.
“Cerebral palsy is a much more complex disability to understand than say Jonnie Peacock’s [the amputee sprinter].
“The Paralympics were a glamorous outcome of years of hard work and people haven’t really seen what it is like to be disabled behind the scenes.”
Christiansen said she believed that there were still problems with attitudes towards disabled people. “I have read some great articles this week by Paralympians who say they are treated differently when they get their Paralympic kit on.”
She said she hoped part of the legacy from London 2012 would be greater publicity for elite disability sport: “You can see how much interest there is in Paralympic sport. I think it is time for the media to catch up because obviously there is a hunger and an interest and an enthusiasm for it.”
But she said that Paralympians represent a “really small proportion of the disabled community”.
“I think the general public now automatically think that they understand disability. But not every disabled person is a Paralympian, so I would really like to see more role models created outside of sport, in the fields of business and academia and the arts and music.
“I think having high-profile role models would encourage more disabled people to go out there and fulfil their potential, but also show the general public what disabled people can do.”
Jawad said he believed London 2012 had taken public recognition of Paralympic sport to a new level.
He said: “I think before the games I wanted the whole squad to have a better recognition of their achievements. I think we have done that. I think we are now on the same level as the Olympics. We are superstars now.”
And he said he was pleased that more disabled people were now trying out sports rather than “shying away”, as they did before London 2012.
But Jawad also mirrored Christiansen’s concerns about the government’s DLA reforms.
He said that when he spoke to disabled people outside the sports world, they were talking of their concerns about the move to PIP.
Jawad, who claims DLA himself, said: “I think they are really, really concerned about DLA. That is the main thing they talk to me about. They are genuinely worried about their jobs.
“[DLA] is needed because a lot of disabled people rely on that, especially severely disabled people.”
And he said he was concerned about the assessment system introduced for the new PIP. “I don’t think it is going to be done properly. A lot of people will lose out. The government should change it. At the moment I don’t think the rating system is any good.”
But he added: “Some people do abuse [DLA] and I think that’s wrong as well.”
Jawad said he did not believe the reforms and cuts were causing widespread concern among other Paralympians. “I don’t think it is a big concern to a lot of Paralympians. Their focus is training.”
He has yet to be assessed for PIP, as the government is delaying most reassessments until after the 2015 general election.
He added: “As long as my [Motability] car stays I will be fine. Without my car I couldn’t get around.”
Christiansen and Jawad were speaking on the day that Sport England announced it was awarding another £8 million of National Lottery funding to promote disability sport.
Sport England said that £7 million would be invested in the Inclusive Sport programme – in addition to the 44 projects that have already shared £10.2 million through the scheme – and £1 million in Get Equipped, a new disability equipment fund.
Inclusive Sport will offer disabled people more opportunities to play sport by investing in organisations “with good ideas and the right expertise to make this happen”, while Get Equipped will give sports clubs the chance to apply for up to £10,000 for specialist equipment.
Sport England said it was investing more than £157 million in projects aimed at increasing the number of disabled people playing sport.
Meanwhile, new research by the English Federation of Disability Sport has revealed a “clear untapped demand for sport and physical activity” among disabled people, with 70 per cent of those surveyed saying they wanted to do more.
12 September 2013