I have had the privilege of meeting some of Scotland’s greatest ever Paralympians. To a man and a women, they are inspiring people, who embody the concept of triumphing over adversity.
They are hugely talented athletes whose abilities should not be doubted: they can all run, swim, jump, cycle and row far better than you or I can. Sport has enabled them all to succeed and demonstrate their true personalities in a world which is often indifferent, if not downright, hostile to their needs and interests.
Their lives have been far from immune from the inaccessibilities and inequalities which bedevil all of Scotland’s disabled people. A built environment which blocks rather than aids; an educational system which limits rather than encourages; and behaviours and attitudes which belittle rather than empower. And underpinning it all, the relentless impact of a lifetime of struggle economically and socially for them and their families.
Even though London is set to stage the biggest and best ever Paralympics with millions of spectators, and millions more watching and listening from all around the world, still we fail disabled people. Corralling disabled spectators rather than creating stadia which allow them to sit with their families and friends symbolises the kind of discriminatory treatment they experience day in day out. Charging disabled people more for tickets to events is symptomatic of the economic apartheid which goes on everyday. It’s supposed to be illegal in the UK to do this, but the unwillingness and inability of successive governments to enforce the letter of the law to end discriminatory practices has allowed unscrupulous providers of goods and services to charge with impunity.
In recent years, in Scotland and elsewhere in the UK, our top ranking disabled athletes have enjoyed lottery support, similar to their differently abled counterparts. This has allowed them to enjoy high level and consistent coaching, support, facilities, recognising their talent, dedication and prowess. Many are now full-time athletes – as it should be.
This kind of equality, though, is fleeting – what becomes of them once they retire from international sport is where their experiences diverge sharply from TeamGB heroes. There will be few sponsorship deals or advertising opportunities; a handful will have decent careers to sustain them, most will have no job at all. Far from enjoying the trappings of success, many will return to battling with local authorities for basic services and support which make getting by a lot less hassle.
With no sense of their own unworthiness, UK Government members will be demonstrating that the art of hypocrisy is one they have learned well. They will be happy to bask in the reflected glory that a huge medal haul and a wildly successful Paralympics will bring specifically for London’s reputation, but more generally for our own. And yet, they are the ones attacking disabled people with their welfare reform proposals – estimates suggest that 60,000 might lose entitlement to care benefits under the changes and a further 40,000 could lose out on the small sums of money which acknowledge that disabled people have to use more costly transport options. And this is only in Scotland, and only on disability related benefits: many thousands more will be adversely impacted by changes to housing benefit and income-related benefits.
Cuts to services too are showing a disproportionate impact on them and their families, with college and training places drying up, short breaks and family support disappearing and provision in schools which aims to ensure that disabled children enjoy a better learning experience, better attainment and thereafter, improved life chances in adulthood is being scythed. None of this, of course, will be mentioned, in the next two weeks.
Paralympians will be invited to share their stories but they will be carefully choreographed so as to keep politics and sport apart. Yet, with the opportunity to beam their experiences directly into our living rooms, surely there can be no better time to shame we able-bodied (supposedly) citizens about the indignities our society – created and maintained with our collusion – heaps upon disabled people and their families. Brave broadcasters would allow the real stories to be told – about hate crime, poverty, isolation and marginalisation in their everyday lives – as well as the ones about their sporting endeavours and achievements. And even though we won’t hear them, it wouldn’t do any of us any harm to ponder how we all might use this opportunity to create a just Scotland for people with disabilities and longterm conditions.
Which is not to suggest that we shouldn’t also sit back and enjoy the spectacle about to unfold before our eyes. Far from it. We should watch, shout, scream and rejoice as much for our Paralympians as we did for TeamGB. I’ll be glued to it all and enjoying the fact that I’m not having to get up in the wee small hours to cheer them all on.
And I’ll be crying. Copiously. As I always do. Not through pity, occasionally from the knowledge of the social and economic struggle overcome by many to get to these games at all, but mainly of joy.
We are about to share in people’s realisation of a dream, people who will achieve more in the next two weeks than most of the rest of us manage in a lifetime. We will be privileged to do so.