It was the wee boy with walking difficulties who set me off. Rocking and rolling in his awkward gait, such was his determination to reach the platform on his own, he was literally shrugging his helpers off. Everything in his demeanour roared this is my stage, this is my moment, I don’t need you.
And I blubbed. For I don’t think I have ever seen disability celebrated in this way before. With disabled people, of all ages and all impairments, with the barriers removed, with society enabling them at last, to show to a worldwide audience just what they can achieve when given the space to do so. Alongside their non-disabled peers.
That inclusivity is one of the abiding memories of these Paralympics, not least from Channel 4 which provided superlative coverage from a mix of differently abled presenters, having sought out new talent for the purpose. Here’s hoping all of them get the chance to turn themselves into household names.
But, of course, it was the athletes who truly shone. And what they demonstrated is that they might lack a leg or two, or sight, hearing, or intellectual faculty, but actually they really are the same as the rest of us. With hopes, dreams, talent and skill. Only with more grit, determination, optimism and self belief.
All these athletes from all those countries showed us what can be achieved when people are celebrated for who they are and what they can do. And what they can achieve when they are given access to the support, resources and technology too often denied to disabled people in every day life.
The best moments of these Paralympics, for me, came not in the performances, remarkable though they were. Nor even in the hotties who abounded – and let’s be honest, there were plenty of those too, and the idea of disabled people as fanciable will have come as a revelation to many. No, the best moments came from the chicklet.
In his excitement at learning about the games at school, at trying to decide if Oscar Pistorious or David Weir was his favourite. And from watching him imitate the running style of Richard Whitehead after watching his astonishing gold medal win. And in sating his curiousity to know more about the impact of different conditions and in exploring how it might be to be without sight, or hearing or the ability to touch or walk.
Because it’s all good. Because like him, there are now thousands more children and adults with a better understanding of what it takes to be super human. One hopes, not just in a swimming pool or on a track or on the back of a horse, but to cross the road, to get to school, and to just get on with life.
And maybe, just maybe, we will all resolve to call for change, to end the discrimination, the prejudice, the marginalisation, the inequality, the injustice and the poverty that is the lot of most who are differently abled.
About ten years ago, the organisation I worked for conducted research with disabled children and young people on their experiences of growing up. We found that most had few friends and little normal social life outside of school. Even there, they were often excluded from the social activities which are just as important as formal learning – break times, dining rooms and school trips.
Saddest of all, was that at primary school age, children with a wide range of disabilities had the same aspirations as their peers: they wanted to be astronauts, pop stars, vets and footballers. By their teens, their worlds were becoming limited – not by their abilities but by society’s low expectations for them.
By fifteen, they wanted to work in IT, or simply to live on their own, or to have a job of any sort. Their comments were some of the most poignant I’ve ever read, steeped in a realisation that hoping or wishing for more was forlorn.
And while we are all still beaming from bearing witness to an extraordinary festival and celebration of sport, I have recently seen as-yet unpublished research with disabled children and young people which suggests that little has changed in a decade. Children with disabilities are still much less likely to participate in sport and play activities than their peers.
Yet, as many have said and as we have all seen, sport can be a leveller: it can and does provide a platform upon which all can show what they can do, rather than what they cannot. And play is vital for children to learn about themselves and their world around them: most importantly of all, play is about fun and making friends.
Which is why the announcement today by the Scottish Government of an investment of £125,000 to train PE teachers to fully include disabled children in PE and sport matters. It’s chicken feed of course, and no where like the investment that is needed in training, equipment and facilities. But it’s a start. And importantly, it will help hasten the vital process of changing attitudes, removing barriers from minds and scales from eyes.
For, the Paralympics will be for nothing if we allow the glow of the last two weeks to fade. We must turn the glorious memories into lasting legacies.
So that it becomes the norm for disabled children to have friends, to be invited over for their tea, for sleepovers and birthday parties. So that local authorities think twice before cutting short breaks and instead, cut waiting times for assessments and equipment. So that schools fulfil their statutory duties to support children to learn, enabling them to go on to have the same life chances as others.
So that when disabled people take to the streets to protest against the poverty imposed upon them by a callous government intent on removing their benefits, we join rather than ignore them. So that we don’t turn a blind eye to low-level harassment, name calling and worse visited upon families, but instead take a stand and name and shame the perpetrators.
So that our society becomes a fair, just and equal one. And disabled people and their families enjoy the right to be not just super human, but ordinary humans too.