The Paralympics is currently taking place in the UK against a backdrop of heavy cuts to disability benefits. George Osborne was booed when he attended a medal ceremony, as was Theresa May, and the sponsorship of Atos (who carry out the controversial tests to determine whether claimants of incapacity benefit are “fit to work”) has caused controversy and protest. Here, Alan Roulstone, co-author of Understanding Disability Policy, examines the 2012 Paralympic legacy and whether it could be a false dawn for disabled people:
There has been much talk ahead of and during the London Paralympics 2012 of the legacy of the Paralympics in changing attitudes towards disabled people. The British Prime Minister captured these sentiments of hope at the games’ opening ceremony noting the promise for: “Eyes are being opened, attitudes hopefully shifted”. This and many similar comments by social leaders are suggesting a longer term shift in attitudes towards disabled people engendered by the successes of disabled athletes.
Such change would of course be very welcome indeed, especially during a period of recession when disabled people are struggling to retain or gain paid work. Indeed, even the most ambivalent observer could not deny the power and social exuberance at the sight of very fit and talented disabled athletes attaining the very pinnacle of sporting achievement. That said, the assertion that a wider and lasting legacy may be seen in attitudes and treatments of disabled people has to be viewed with real caution.
Firstly, there is no evidence at all that the treatment of disabled people in countries hosting Paralympic games has improved the lot for disabled people more generally. There is little evidence that the Sydney or Beijing Paralympics have discernibly improved disabled people’s lives. China continues to be coy about the use and extent of institutions for many even young disabled people. Australia is busy implementing a Basics card for welfare recipients, many of whom are disabled, which will ensure that spending can be monitored and that swathes of the Australian population will be denied access to the parallel cash economy. This, it is feared, will enshrine a form of social apartheid where types of spend will be associated with welfare status, the effects of which will be potentially deeply stigmatising.
A number of things are being muddled, it can be argued, in the assertion that many disabled people can be helped by the Paralympics being staged in London. The first relates to disability diversity. Although the different events and challenges see hugely diverse categorisations being applied -amputee, double amputee, muscle weakness, sight limitations – the common denominator here is that of elite trained, fit, largely young individuals with physical impairments. These are not simply athletes, but elite athletes who have made a career in a given sport. No one denies the sheer effort and determination in achieving such levels in sport. Many of those however facing the worst attitudes and treatment barriers are people who are unwell, may have flare-up conditions ( such as arthritis, multiple sclerosis, sickle cell disease) which makes even limited physical activity difficult.
There is of course a risk that only those disabled people who are seen to overcome their predicament will be treated as heros and well regarded; or to use a high-jump metaphor, that the bar of social expectation will be set even higher. This mirrors what happened when stories of austistic savants began to hit the public consciousness in the 1980s and a number of my friends and colleagues with autism/Aspergers syndrome were asked what it was they could do that was special. Sometimes, a little knowledge is of course a dangerous thing.
The reality for many disabled people is that, whilst some can work, given the opportunity, and many can contribute to a range of important social activities, they may face major social, environmental and attitude barriers in everyday life. They are some distance from the heroic image of a medal winner mounting a podium. However as a disability researcher and policy writer it has long been my view that disabled people are heroic in contending with the daily obstacles of the built environment, the shifting of the ‘welfare category’ in a way that severely disadvantages former welfare recipients.
The most difficult aspect of the Paralympics for many disabled people has been the bizarre juxtaposition of seeing great sporting achievements (rightly) being applauded and poster girl/boy images of photogenic disabled people alongside arguably the most aggressing and top-down reform of welfare since the Poor Law. This is not simply a reform of welfare along the lines of the Fowler reforms of the 1980s, this is a fundamental reassertion of who counts as disabled. Disabled people once accredited by medical and DWP/DSS authorities as ‘disabled for life’ risk being told they are no longer ‘that disabled’ and will be reviewed periodically or worse still have been taken off Disability Living Allowance. The same mindset is already being applied to Employment Support Allowance recipients/applicants and there are many horror stories as to who is being told they are ‘fit for work’, including people with terminal cancer and brain tumours.
Disabled people are diverse, it goes without saying. The binary worldview that there are heroes and villains cannot justly be applied to disability. Disability is complex – people may emphasise their challenges to get the welfare support to which they are entitled, but will of necessity have to emphasise what they can do when applying for paid work – this says more about contemporary society than it does about disabled people. The sooner sick and disabled people are seen as contending with different barriers – from hurdles, high jumps, to medical and welfare systems – the better. This type of re-evaluation would be a truly Olympic change to policy thinking.
Alan Roulstone is Professor of Applied Social Sciences (Disability Policy) at Northumbria University and Honorary Professor at Swansea University, UK.