Will the Paralympics change attitudes to disability? [The Observer, September 1]

Alex Brooker, reporter for Channel 4’s Paralympics coverage

I genuinely believe the Paralympics will change perceptions of disability in this country, one of the main reasons being that they will take disability to an audience bigger than perhaps ever before. Channel 4 is broadcasting more than 500 hours of live coverage over the next nine days, and millions of people will be watching the Paralympics on TV for the first time. Couple this with the fact that more tickets have been sold for these Games than any in history – close to 2.5m.

The Paralympics will grip audiences and the public will get used to seeing disabled people. They will see that they are just the same as everyone else and that even if you are disabled you can achieve incredible things. Sport is a great tool to unite people and as the public get behind ParalympicsGB over the next nine days, more and more misconceptions about disability will change.

In the aftermath of these Games, I am certain there will be people who won’t look at a disabled person the same way again.

Jody McIntyre, journalist and author of the Life on Wheels blog

I think the Paralympic Games are a hugely positive event. It is a chance for disabled people from across the globe to showcase their sporting talents.

However, this is not a one-off. The Paralympics, like the Olympic Games, take place every four years and are broadcast to millions of people. Furthermore, you do not have to turn on your television screen in order to “get used” to seeing disabled people. You can simply step outside your house; people in wheelchairs are travelling around, people with guide dogs, people with missing arms or legs.

It is not sporting achievement that will determine the nation’s view of disabled people as a whole, and nor should it be. Not every disabled person will be a Paralympic champion, but that does not detract from the fact that they are a unique human being, with skills that should be valued, and weaknesses too.

Unfortunately, we are living in a society in which disabled people are heavily demonised. That is why, when the government makes calls to cut benefits for disabled people by 20%, despite the fact that only 0.5% of claims are fraudulent, many sections of the public think it is perfectly acceptable.

AB I agree that the Paralympics are not technically a one-off, but the huge increase in the number of spectators and viewers at home means that, in a sense, they are. Putting it simply, the Paralympics will reach a greater audience in this country than ever before. That is a massive thing, because I disagree with your point saying you can see people missing arms or legs every day. A lot of people will have never seen that many disabled people before and certainly not with the wide range of disabilities to be seen at the Paralympics.

I’m not saying that sporting achievement will determine what our nation’s perception of disability is. It doesn’t matter whether someone comes first or last. But if someone is watching that hasn’t seen an amputee before and they see them as they are, as any other person, then they will be educated.

I’m disabled and I’m not competing, but someone could see me on screen and understand more about my disabilities.

I don’t believe disabled people are demonised. Unfortunately the system has been abused and it needs rectifying. If that means me filling out some forms, then so be it.

JM As I previously said, the system is being abused, by approximately 0.5% of applicants. That does not call for cuts of 20%. The figures simply do not add up. Is that really a process of “rectifying”?

Many people will see the Paralympics, and that is a great thing, but let’s look beyond the glamour of the event, to the actual situation disabled people living in Britain face today. The Games are being held in London, one of the most diverse cities in the world. So, when considering the transport system that people use to get around the capital, you would think that disabled people are as free to use it as anybody else. In reality, this is not the case. If a wheelchair-user wants to go to Paralympic events, how are they going to get on the tube? Most tube and train stations in the capital are completely inaccessible!

I do find your final comment somewhat disturbing. I would hope that we can look beyond our own circumstances to appreciate that others face difficulties that we may not. I drive a car, but that doesn’t mean that I discount those who use public transport to get from A to B. As the government attacks the services of those who need them most, it will certainly not be a situation of “filling in some forms”; indeed, for many disabled people, it will mean losing vital support that they were once entitled to.

AB I agree that the proposed cuts will adversely affect more people that they should. In reference to my last comment, which you find “disturbing”, I am saying that I am personally happy to have to justify my own claim. I cannot speak for every disabled person and not every disabled person speaks for me.

This debate is whether the Paralympics will change attitudes towards disability. I think that it will. There is a difference between seeing disabled people and feeling confident enough to engage with them. My feeling is that it will encourage the latter. Whether or not it can change plans that a government has put in place, then that is something different altogether. The acid test will be how people vote at the next election. If the Paralympics brings attention to the plight of disabled people that claim benefits and that motivates people to vote differently, then your concerns will be addressed.

My concern is that you believe that these athletes, who have trained hard for four years, will not have changed attitudes unless it results in a government reform. That’s not why they first picked up a basketball, put on a running blade or got in a pool. I just hope that this debate doesn’t detract from their great sporting achievements. And with the public not only seeing disabled people, but understanding them through the coverage, attitudes will change.

JM Attitudes towards disabled people have changed, are changing, and will continue to change in the future. However, this is not a process that takes place over 11 days of sporting events.

You didn’t respond to my point about public transport. This is part of the problem; amid the hype surrounding the Games, real issues that affect disabled people on a day-to-day basis are often ignored.

I am going to enjoy watching the Paralympics, as I did with the Olympics. Nonetheless, as long as we live in a society where the interests of an elite minority are placed above those of the majority, there will be discrimination against disabled people, just as there is discrimination against single mothers, teenagers, black people and Muslims.

You suggest that the results of the next election will address my concerns. But as is becoming clearer by the day, there is very little difference between the major political parties in this country. They all support making cuts, which adversely affect the Paralympians of tomorrow. They all support going to war, which disables men and women in other countries.

I want to see a future where disabled people have the opportunity to access sport for many years. Not just between now and 9 September.


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