It was a small gesture of solidarity, nothing more, but I have to admit that it was satisfying.
Taking my new black Staedtler permanent marker pen and blanking out the word “Atos” on my Paralympic accreditation and the “lanyard” that hangs it around my neck did at least ease some of the frustration that has slowly been building this week as the Paralympics progress.
The sport has been, almost exclusively, heart-poundingly good. There have been incredible levels of skill, commitment, fitness, strength and technique. Ali Jawad in the powerlifting, David Clarke on the five-a-side football pitch, Natasha Baker in dressage, David Weir and Hannah Cockroft on the track, Ellie Simmonds of course in the pool…
But what there hasn’t been – yet – is any sign of solidarity from our publicly-funded athletes with those at the sharp end of the further drastic cuts coming to the financial support and services enjoyed by hundreds of thousands of disabled people – including, inevitably, many of our Paralympians themselves – over the next three years.
You can’t force an athlete to talk about disability rights, and as Baroness [Tanni] Grey-Thompson has said, they often live in their own elite athlete bubbles, protected from the harshness of everyday existence faced by many of those who are not “elite”, or, indeed, athletes.
If it was always going to be difficult during the games to persuade our Paralympians to talk about cuts to disability living allowance – due to start kicking in from next year – I always knew it would be next-to-impossible to find anyone willing to discuss Atos’s sponsorship of London’s Paralympic Games.
It is a fact of London 2012 life that no matter where you turn you cannot avoid the gaze of that most-unpopular of four-letter words. At times, it seems as if the Atos logo is following every visitor, stalking them like a malevolent red eye hovering above the vast Olympic Park.
So it was with a sense of relief that myself and my good friend and fellow disabled journalist Paul Carter (@juniorc0) took black ink to our official London 2012 media accreditation and tried – in our own tiny way – to block out the malevolent figure of Atos that looms over this fantastic sporting festival.
I’d thought long and hard about taking this small step, not because it was a major life-changing event or a significant protest, but just because as a reporter I see my job – even as a disabled reporter – to stay impartial, whatever the story, to not take sides, and just to report the facts.
But journalists are human beings – Daily Mail columnists excepted, of course – and prancing around the Olympic Park with an advert for Atos swinging prominently from my neck I began to feel that I’d crossed an ethical line by not expressing some kind of unhappiness with its sponsorship and close, close involvement in the games.
But why blame Atos, when they are only the contractors carrying out a government assessment?
For me, it is the sheer reckless abandon with which they have performed their duties, not even bothering to find accessible offices in which to carry out those assessments, or to train their assessors properly, seemingly doing everything they possibly can to find as many disabled and ill people as they can “fit for work” and so depriving them of vital financial support.
The assessments, as carried out by Atos, are putting thousands of sick and disabled people under terrible, unnecessary strain, forcing them further into poverty, and are even responsible for some deaths – we will never know how many – including people driven by despair to suicide. “Just following orders” has never, ever, been an acceptable excuse, particularly for a company making such huge profits out of disabled people’s misery.
But most of all – particularly when these Paralympics will surely be used as a propaganda tool by the government to justify their cuts to disability benefits – the athletes we are watching perform amazing feats of skill, endurance and commitment, could not do what they do without support, whether from the national lottery, sports bodies, or the benefits system.
And some of that support is at risk, both for the athletes and for your everyday, non-elite athlete disabled person. And when it comes to disability living allowance, many of our Paralympians could be in for an unpleasant surprise once the new reassessment process begins next year and the cuts of 20 per cent start to kick in.
So when the accreditation that London 2012 hands out proudly proclaims to the world the close and friendly link between the “Paralympic Games” and “Atos”, then the least I can do is spend a few seconds to test out just how permanent my new black marker pen really is.
4 September 2012