The panel of leading disabled figures had been gathered together by Accentuate, which aims to create a “cultural shift” in attitudes towards disability in the wake of London 2012.
But asked to examine the cultural legacy of the London 2012 Paralympics – one year on – speakers struggled to look forward with any optimism.
Professor Nick Watson, director of the Strathclyde Centre for Disability Research at the University of Glasgow, pointed to comments made by the Conservative minister for disabled people, Esther McVey, in last week’s foreword to her new Fulfilling Potential disability strategy documents.
McVey described how she was building on the “inspiring” Paralympic Games by working with “inspirational role models” to “show that high aspirations can be achieved for every aspect of life, including employment”.
Watson told the audience: “Here we are seeing the idea, re-emerging through the Paralympics, that it is the disabled person who is at fault for not trying hard enough to get a job.
“All we need to do to get disabled people into work is to show them a few Paralympians pushing a wheelchair very fast and they’ll come out and get jobs. This for me is a real danger of the Paralympics and the representation of it.”
He also warned of the “marking out of disabled people as a new folk devil who are responsible for much of the economic malaise that we are now experiencing”, and said discussion in the mainstream media of disability as an equality issue was now “yesterday’s news”.
Watson told the symposium: “I talked to a young man last week with a learning disability. I said, ‘What do you want most?’ and he said: ‘I want to be able to get on a bus at least once without somebody making fun of me.’”
The writer, director and performer Jamie Beddard described how “depressing” it was to look back to the Paralympics and the optimism that had surrounded London 2012.
He remembered how his seven-year-old son had taken him to his playground last summer and showed him off to all his non-disabled friends.
He said: “It was really cool to be disabled. I was a big deal in the playground. Seven-year-olds wanted to know me. It was amazing.”
But he said that while he and other members of the “disabled elite” had benefited from the Paralympics, he now believed that other disabled people had not, and he felt a responsibility towards “the vast majority of silent voices” who “haven’t done as well as we have in the last year”.
The artist and activist Liz Crow, speaking at the symposium via Skype, spoke of her disappointment that athletes and artists had missed the opportunity to put their work into context last summer by acknowledging that many disabled people taking part in the big London 2012 cultural productions or watching the sport on television at home were “at the sharp end of benefits changes”, government policies and offensive newspaper reporting.
Hannah Morgan, a lecturer in disability studies at Lancaster University, said that London 2012 had “raised the profile of disability sport and of disability more generally”, and had shown “disabled people” being “exceptional”, while disability had also become “everyday”.
But she said it was necessary to ensure that the legacy of the games was about social justice “as well as a celebration of diversity and success”, and warned that it was impossible to separate any discussion about the positive aspects of the London 2012 legacy from the “devastating impact of austerity on the lives of so many disabled people and their families”.
Alison Wilde, another leading disabled academic and a lecturer in education at Bangor University, said: “I am not convinced that disabled people are not inspired and motivated in the first place.
“In fact, I firmly believe that many disabled and ill people are being forced into such untenable circumstances that getting through the day can and should be seen as an achievement against insurmountable odds.”
She said that despite record-breaking television audience figures for the Paralympics, the idea of raising people’s aspirations to be “super human” was “ideologically loaded” and fed the “cult of celebrity culture”, maintained “cultural stereotypes”, reinforced “negative public attitudes”, and served to “legitimise” cuts to public spending.
She said there was a “huge chasm” between the portrayals of elite disabled athletes and “ordinary disabled people”, both of which were rooted in the “bio-psychosocial model of disability” championed by companies such as Atos, which sponsored London 2012, and Unum.
She pointed out how David Cameron, the prime minister, had said the Paralympics would teach people “what they can do, rather than what they can’t do”.
Wilde said that it was obvious that the legacy of the Paralympics would see the issue of welfare approached in the same way as elite sport, “in that it is up to us to improve our attitudes and slay all our barriers”.
The academic and writer Tom Shakespeare, in an illustrated lecture shown to the audience at the beginning of the event, said the games proved “that the word ‘excellence’ can be used in the same sentence as the word ‘disability’”.
But he said that the same media that was “praising disabled sporting success is now attacking supposed benefit scroungers”, ignoring the very low levels of disability benefit fraud.
He pointed out that only a tiny minority of disabled people become Paralympians and that “most of us need some support to meet the extra costs of disability”.
He said there “may be some more work to be done” to make sure talented young disabled people get the qualifications, training, funding and employment opportunities they need to “set them on the road” to success in the arts world.
He concluded that “all disabled people have the potential to achieve more in their lives and participate in our society and to make a difference to Britain”.
But he added: “They need proper investment and a lasting change in attitudes. Not superheroes, and certainly not scroungers.”
8 July 2013