We’re just a week away now from the start of the Rio Paralympics, an event that for disabled people – depending on their viewpoint – is somewhere between a glorious celebration of sporting endeavour and a loathsome festival of ‘inspiration porn’.
Chief among the fears of those whose views are found at the bottom end of that scale is that the Paralympics will be used as a stick with which to beat the 99.9 per cent of us who are just regular, everyday, non-superheroes.
If they can do it, the argument goes, then why can’t you?
It’s a convenient stick to have to hand for a government intent on cutting support for disabled people: why do you need that support? Why can’t you just try harder? Why can’t you just train harder?
If you don’t believe that a government would sink that low, compare the messages that ministers were putting out to justify their disability benefit reforms and to praise our Paralympians.
The benefit system should be about what disabled people can do, ministers told us repeatedly, not what they can’t. Here’s Iain Duncan Smith, in one of many examples: “We need a system focussed on what a claimant can do and the support they’ll need – and not just on what they can’t do.”
Compare that with David Cameron’s words at the Paralympic flame ceremony in Trafalgar Square in August 2012: “A lot of the athletes arriving in London would have been told from a young age about everything they can’t do – and they decided to throw everything into what they can do…”
But there is a way of looking at the Paralympics that could encourage more support from among those who are rightly wary of how British medal success will impact on other disabled people…
This is that every Paralympic medal won by a member of ParalympicsGB should be welcomed and celebrated, not only as an individual achievement – and certainly not as an example of triumph over tragedy – but as an example of what disabled people can achieve if they are given the dedicated, high-quality, personalised support they need to contribute in their own way to society.
Watch Channel 4’s rousing – but completely ridiculous – Yes I Can promotional ad for its coverage of the Rio Paralympics, and it would be easy to believe – as the government seems to – that all that is needed for a disabled person to achieve success is a set of gritted teeth, a trilby and a nifty catchphrase.
But you only have to interview a few Paralympians, as I have, to understand why the advert is complete nonsense.
There is Mel Nicholls, the wheelchair-racer who helped set up a coaching academy in Coventry, at which a mixture of disabled children, professional athletes and enthusiastic amateurs come together every week.
‘So we have Paralympic athletes training with everyone else, everyone just mixes in,’ she told me. ‘It’s a social thing, it’s a confidence thing, a health thing and a competitive thing as well.’
It’s also a fine example of peer support, of disabled people helping each other to achieve their goals, whatever they may be.
Talk to equestrian star Natasha Baker, who won two golds at London 2012, and she may tell you about the huge support team she needs to succeed: the driver, the groom, the trainer, the chiropractor, the physio, the nutritionist, the support from family and friends, and yes, the disability benefits.
Or to Hannah Cockroft, another of the stars of London 2012, who has told me that she is scared – her words – about her upcoming reassessment for personal independence payment. If she loses her eligibility for the top rate of mobility support, she will lose her Motability car.
‘If I don’t have my car I will lose everything, I will lose my independence,’ she says.
Ben Rowlings, another world-ranked wheelchair racer, is part of the Mel Nicholls training group. Without the support he receives from training colleagues, from family, friends, sponsors and coaches, he would be sat at home watching the Paralympics on TV like the rest of us.
‘Without those people behind me I wouldn’t be anywhere close to where I am today,’ he told me. ‘I wouldn’t have gone to the world championships, I wouldn’t have medalled at European championships. Without them I wouldn’t be anywhere. I’m very fortunate that I’ve got a good support network around me.’
A clear-headed explanation, if one was still needed, of why imposing the bedroom tax on disabled people was such an ill-thought-out, discriminatory and cruel policy, when it can force them to move miles from their established home… and network of support.
It is also a reminder of the words of Yvette Cooper, then Labour’s shadow women and equalities minister, and shadow home secretary – and a former claimant of disability benefits herself – in the wake of London 2012.
Cooper told Labour’s conference that year that the success of gold-medal winning Paralympians such as Cockroft, Ellie Simmonds, Jonnie Peacock and David Weir showed ‘how much more all of us can achieve, whatever our circumstances, when we support each other, rather than leaving people to sink or to swim, alone’.
Sadly, none of these points will be made by the British Paralympic Association – which manages Britain’s Paralympic team – an organisation run by non-disabled people, with just one disabled person on its nine-strong board, and just three disabled staff members out of 33.
And what about the 21 team leaders nominated in 2013 by their individual sports governing bodies, who were appointed to head preparations for the Rio Paralympics? Not one of them was a disabled person.
And don’t expect support for disabled people from Sir Philip Craven, the British president of the International Paralympic Committee, and himself a retired Paralympian. He has an aversion to the words ‘disabled’ and ‘disability’; so much so that he can deliver a 1,600-word speech about Rio 2016 without once using either word. He told me in 2011 that the London 2012 Paralympics ‘could well be a step in the right direction’ in removing the word ‘disabled’ from use. His views don’t appear to have shifted since.
Sir Philip and his Paralympic movement clearly think they know better than the United Nations and the 166 countries that have ratified the UN’s convention on the rights of disabled people.
And he made his lack of concern for disabled people’s rights clear when he suggested during the 2014 Sochi Winter Paralympic games that hosts of the Olympic and Paralympic Games should not be judged on their countries’ standards of human rights.
For people like Sir Philip, the people who run the BPA, the creative types at Channel 4, and the Department for Work and Pensions, the Rio Paralympics are all about individual endeavour. Forget the barriers, forget the support networks and forget the discrimination…
And forget also what happens when that support is not forthcoming, because we know about that, too, even though it doesn’t have a prime-time television promotional campaign behind it.
It means disabled people who can’t get out of their homes to go shopping, who have to sleep in incontinence pads because their local council can’t afford to pay for night-time support, who have to hand back the keys to their only form of transport, who are surviving on visits to the food bank, and who lose the support they need to cook their meals and do their housework…
It’s a far cry from what – despite the mess the organisers have made of their Paralympic preparations – you’ll see in Rio, but please don’t let that dampen enthusiasm for the feats of our Paralympians.
Instead, here’s a plea: let’s ignore all and every attempt to turn the Rio Paralympics into a schmaltzy festival of triumph over tragedy, of inspiration porn, and celebrate it for what it is: a thrilling, dramatic representation of what disabled people can achieve if given the personalised support they need to achieve choice, control, dignity and independence.
John Pring, Editor, Disability News Service
Picture: Boccia star Nigel Murray; picture by onEdition