Today sees the launch of the 2012 Paralympic Games right here in the UK and Channel 4 will cover the events as no disability games have been covered before.
Like any world-class athletes, Paralympians will have dedicated much of lives to being the best, the fastest, the most skilful. For a lifetime they will have trained and pushed themselves beyond endurance, just as the Olympians that went before them.
Of course, just as very few able-bodied people become Olympians, so only a few people with disabilities will ever become Paralympians. Do you imagine you could run faster than Mo Farah or Usain Bolt? Do you have the mental resilience, commitment and single-mindedness to achieve all that Steve Redgrave achieved? It’s unlikely. However, in the coming days, we may well hear UK politicians sound as though they’re using this wonderful event to suggest all sick or disabled people could win gold, if only they tried a little harder.
Disability affects people in different ways. Some may be able to see losing their sight as an opportunity; others as an endless succession of dark tomorrows. A broken spine may spur some on to overcome, but for others it may be years before they can come to terms with a life unrecognisable from the one they knew.
A child from an inner city estate will face barriers to accessing sport that a child from a wealthy background may not. This is true regardless of physical abilities, but even more so for a disabled child living in poverty, who dreams of becoming the new Tanni Grey-Thompson or Tara Flood.
Sportsmen and women are often reluctant to politicise sport, but disabled athletes simply cannot separate the two.
Those with serious disabilities – and many of the athletes we will cheer on to greatness in the next few days – have extra expense in their lives. Just getting to a training session is a challenge. Paying for mobility aids, or adaptations to sports equipment, is expensive. Staying healthy and strong when you have a disability can be a challenge over and above those of more able-bodied athletes. Some will experience periods of ill health, times when they cannot work or train.
And this is where our social security system has supported these athletes to be all that they can be. The disability living allowance will have helped many of them with those extra costs. The DLA is a non-means tested benefit, paid to Paralympians, people in work and those for whom work will always be impossible. Incapacity benefit may have provided a small income during periods of ill health or recovery. Some will have received support from the independent living fund.
But that is all under threat today. DLA is being abolished and 500,000 people with mental or physical disabilities will have support stripped away. The independent living fund is to be scrapped completely. Incapacity benefit has been replaced with the loathed employment and support allowance, and a further 1 million sick and disabled people will no longer be eligible for support during periods when they cannot work.
In an unpleasant twist, Atos, the company charged with assessing “fitness to work” but denounced as unfit for purpose by thousands of disabled people such as Debbie Jolly, is sponsoring the Paralympics.
Most Paralympians will have relied on at least one of these benefits to level the great Olympic playing field. As they take their places on the podium, as coverage beams out to millions of viewers, they have a chance to remind the world that their astonishing achievements would not have been possible without a state striving for inclusion, integration and equality.
The UK has much to be proud of when it comes to disability, but we are in danger of throwing it all away. I hope these great athletes remember what it took to be great and find ways to defend the support that enabled them to be all that they are today.
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