Lecturer in Sport & Fitness, The Open University
When I was at the Paralympic Games in 2012, I saw a person walk up to a woman in a wheelchair wheeling herself up a slope, grab the handles of her chair and start pushing her up the hill, much to the annoyance and surprise of the woman in the wheelchair. My friend brushed it off as someone only wanting to help, but I saw it as ignorance and a lack of respect, displayed in a venue where we were supposed to be widening our horizons about what disabled athletes can achieve.
Despite progress, negative public attitudes, ignorance and awkwardness about disability prevail. According to a report by Scope, 67% of the British public feel uncomfortable talking to disabled people and 36% of people tend to think of disabled people as not as productive as everyone else. These attitudes affect every aspect of disabled people’s lives – in the playground, at work, in shops, on the street.
After the London 2012 Games, former Paralympian Tanni Grey-Thomson said it was important to remember how everyone felt in the euphoria of Britain’s success in the Paralympics, but that they are not everyday reality.
While there appeared to be progression on people’s attitudes towards disability at the time, she argued that “more still needs to be done to shift perceptions towards disabled people”. Grey-Thomson points out that disabled people are portrayed as Paralympian superheroes, “benefit scroungers” or victims – but not all three together.
The IPC World Championships in Qatar is an opportunity for these attitudes to be challenged again.
Athletes such as Stef “the blade stunner” Reid from Leicestershire are stretching the boundaries of what is expected of disabled people. She is not only a Paralympian, but also a model who became the first Paralympian amputee to be part of London Fashion week.
Earlier this year, Great Britain’s David Weir won silver in the London Marathon wheelchair race and will compete in the 1,500m and 5,000m against his rival Marcel Hug, “the Swiss Silver Bullet”, in Doha.
The first day of the IPC Athletic World Championships saw six world records smashed; one of these was Great Britain’s Sophie Hahn who won the women’s 100m long jump. Aled Davies also won gold in the shot put where he threw a championship record of 14.95m.
These stories stand in stark contrast to the lives of many disabled people living in the country she is representing on the world stage.
The UK welfare state that was developed as a way of supporting those who were sick, unemployed or who suffered injury is being eroded. We’ve seen a great deal of change to all of these benefits in recent years which has had a detrimental impact; 2,380 people have died after undergoing a work capability assessment (WCA) between 2011-2014 after being told they were “fit for work”.
As Grey-Thomson argues, we should be linking up politics, education, sport, and health and developing more NHS programmes, such as My Voice, My Wheelchair, My Life, which can transform wheelchair services for users and their families.
While athletes might be role models and provide inspiration to others, they can’t be the sole driver behind the need to change attitudes; they can only be part of the change towards a more equitable society. David Weir argues that the momentum has been lost since 2012 and 2013 but let’s hope there is sufficient media coverage so that we are well informed leading into Rio 2016.