Time to turn the memories into legacies

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.



Paralympics 2012: bring it on

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.





Pause welfare reform to listen to the Hardest Hit

To me, the current debate around the UK government’s Welfare Reform bill is fascinating, both in terms of the proposals in the bill and the fact that the disability movement has united around a cause in a way that I have not seen before. This was shown on Saturday (22nd October) when I, along with about 1000 other disabled people, attended the Hardest Hit Rally in Edinburgh to show the Government our opposition to the proposals.

I am against the proposals because they will have a direct impact on the way I live my life in both long term and the short term. In the long term, it may affect the way I manage my disability. At the moment I receive the Disability Living Allowance (DLA), for which there is a care component and a mobility component to help me pay extra costs associated with my disability. I use the care component to pay for my home help and the mobility component to pay for taxis to places which are too far for me to push myself to or when the bus stop is too far away. These two examples may seem small but they make a big difference to my life. My home helps me keep on top of my household chores and takes me shopping while the trips in the taxi take me to meet my friends and to appointments. So if the amount I receive changes, this could have a major impact on things I need help with through no fault of my own. My disability is obvious but my fear is that the changes to disability benefit will have a major impact on people with unseen disabilities or conditions that fluctuate.

The other concern I have about Welfare Reform is the pressure that is put on people to get off welfare and into work. I do not object to finding people employment to get off benefits but I do think it is unrealistic in the current economic climate for people to be able to find work in a set time frame. It can take a lot longer as the competition increases for fewer jobs.

The short-term impact from the welfare reform proposals is to do with finding employment.  On Friday, it will be one year since I have had paid employment. I have a degree, which I studied for because I wanted a good job. Many of the jobs advertised in the job centre are for skilled trades such as chefs or for military roles, which I cannot do because of my disability. Other advertised jobs are ones which I could do but am over qualified for, though this does not help the people who have fewer qualifications either.  In my view, the government should transform the Job Centre into a careers service, which caters for graduates and not as qualified people, so that everyone is helped.

As I mentioned, people go to university because it is meant to be the way to get a better job but I believe many will be put off by the potential debt and the fact that the job market is so tough.

The government paused its health proposals to talk more to NHS staff and the public. I urge the government take a similar pause and listen to the views of those who took part in the Hardest Hit marches across country.