At the beginning of the Paralympic Games I didn’t know how to react. I was unprepared for the head on collision that my perceptions of disability would have over the coming 12 days. I was uncomfortable seeing lines of double amputees competing in the swimming pool, and felt a certain embarrassment as they were interviewed afterwards. There was a shock and horror at seeing an athlete’s ‘stump’ in the flesh, and it was this alone, rather than the articulate interview that was taking place, that came to define the person I saw in front of me.
In the same way I found the brutal effects of cerebral palsy difficult to comprehend. Even by using the word ‘brutal’ now shows that perhaps I continue to hold my bias that allows disability to dominate my perceptions of an individual. But I think over the course of these Games, I have come a long way in reassessing my overall attitude towards disability. The quite remarkable achievements of David Weir, Alex Zanardi and Oscar Pistorious, not to mention the thousands of other competitors who all rose to the occasion, have empowered millions of disabled people throughout the world and challenged the previously held views of so many more. They have set a precedent normalising themselves and made a statement by demonstrating their ability to overcome obstacles to compete as elite athletes in their own right.
…prejudice is overcome when people can share a common understanding…
I don’t for one second imagine that the competitors ever thought themselves as anything other than elite athletes. But addressing the public’s attitude towards disability was always going to be one of the aims of these Games. It is easy to make generalisations, and no doubt there are those I don’t speak for, but up until now, people in a wheelchair, with a guide-dog, or with cerebral palsy have been viewed by so many of us through the prisms of their disability. I do not think I am alone in having experienced a profound transitional adjustment over the Paralympic Games. I liken the stigmas attached to disability in the UK to the expression of racism as it continues to occur in our society. It exists in its basic form because of a lack of exposure which must surely be the first step towards any level of assimilation. For the last two weeks, the British public has been living a constant wave of euphoria with exposure to disability at its heart.
In a sense, the success of the Games owes a significant debt to the levels of media exposure they have received. It has been difficult to avoid pictures of athletes with disabilities in the newspapers and on television, and it is through this indirect interaction, along with the generation of role models that have been born from these Games – think Simmonds, Peacock and Storey – that stereotypes can be broken down and reassessed. And yet the true transition has arrived when the success of the Paralympic readjustment transcends itself to everyday life, where we can focus on the abilities of an individual, without any subconscious caveat alerting us to their disability. As racial tensions in this country have shown us, despite all the legislation that can be brought in, prejudice is overcome when people can share a common understanding, a respect and an identity that enables a process of assimilation to form subconsciously over time.
…forcing us to reassess…
As the Games progressed, I found it very easy to feel more admiration towards the Paralympians, competing in spite of their disability than their able-bodied colleagues. And yet again this was my preconceptions returning, this time in a subconscious form. I felt emotional pity and therefore increased respect towards to Paralympians, because still, I was judging them as athletes with disabilities rather than elite competitors in their own right.
People have disabilities and we should never be in denial of this fact. They will require particular treatment and we should not shy away from this. However, it was as though the Paralympics, as well as allowing us to continue the Olympic triumph, enacted a journey in the minds of every spectator, as perception after perception, and disbelief after disbelief, was challenged on a daily basis, forcing us to reassess the limitations we had previously placed on so many individuals in society.
…our society is stronger for the tolerance and diversity that we exhibit…
And at the end of that journey, we are all the stronger for it. As a nation, the United Kingdom has led the world for a number of weeks and proven that our society is stronger for the tolerance and diversity that we exhibit. We have laid down an invitation to the rest of the world to join us in a bid to become more open and more accepting, to embrace mankind in all its forms and to be unapologetic on coming together as a nation and embracing hope, belief, determination and passion.
As many have said, the real challenge starts now. These last few weeks deserve nothing less than a life affirming, legacy of attitude to inspire future generations to not stop at this, but push the bench mark higher, for the good of our nation, the world, and more importantly for the good of themselves.