Friday, 31 August 2012

The Paralympics - Hot Potato?

Olympic fever spread throughout the UK earlier this month. Even people who had been adamant they had no interest in the Olympics were carried along on the crest of a feel-good wave by our amazing athletes. Their sheer determination to bring home the good and the feeling that at last Britain had something to feel good about. We were basking in virtual sunshine if not the real thing. Facebook was awash with posts about the athletes, their victories, their emotions and the sense of pride that we were all feeling. More than one person posted that what we were seeing was the best of Britain and we probably were.

Fast forward a couple of weeks to the Paralympic Games. The Paralympics should have seen us all standing shoulder to shoulder again being carried along once again by our feel good wave. Sadly for some of us at least the Paralympic Games have been tarred by the fact that Atos, the company employed by the Department of Work and Pensions to carry out the Work Capability Assessment on adults with disabilities, is one of the major sponsors of the Paralympic Games.

Many people with disabilities feel that having Atos as a major sponsor of the games is rubbing salt into wounds. Neither the Olympic nor the Paralympic Games should be political. Sadly the Paralympic Games have become just that.

We cannot blame the Government for agreeing to Atos sponsoring the Paralympic Games but you have to wonder why the Paralympic Association thought that they could agree to Atos sponsoring the games without there being any concerned comments from disabled people. We are being told that we should be feeling inspired by these games when in fact the games are actually making many people with disabilities feel even more threatened than before.

Those feelings were made worse by the fact that David Cameron was allowed by C4 to speak just before the opening ceremony. His words could have come straight out of the Atos handbook. Or did we just think that because we now associate David Cameron with someone who has it in for people with disabilities?

Speaking about the Paralympic games David Cameron said "It's going to change people's minds about disability and it will teach people to ask what people can do rather than what they can't do. The Paralympic athletes overcome disadvantages and then go on and do really amazing things."  

Can we please be realistic about the athletes who are taking part in these games? What we are watching are the elite of disabled athletes. Disabled or not these athletes are no different to elite athletes who compete in any sports. These athletes did not wake up one morning and ask for a place in the Paralympics. Just like the athletes who took part in the Olympics they have been training for years and money has been invested in their training. Money that most disabled people will never have access to.

The majority of disabled people are no more capable of becoming Paralympians than any one who is running for a bus is capable of competing against Usain Bolt. Success is relative to every single one of us and how our lives are playing out. For some people with disabilities making it out of bed every day means that they have successfully competed with their own body and won their race.

Some people with disabilities will simply never be able to overcome their disability no matter how hard they try or how much they want to. We have to be very careful not to make them feel bad about what they cannot do. It is morally wrong to focus on what people with disabilities can do without paying any attention to the things they cannot do through no fault of their own.

Of course we must celebrate all of the things that people with disabilities can do but that does not mean that with a little more determination they could all become fully functioning, fully employed and fully independent members of society. (No matter how much the current Government might want to believe and want us to believe they can.)

We are now in a situation where adults who are receiving Employment Support Allowance are terrified of saying that they can do anything without fear of retribution from Atos when their time comes to be assessed. Next year we will see adults with disabilities having to be assessed twice when Disability Living Allowance is replaced by PIP. Many will find themselves being assessed for the second time by Atos.

Now is not a good time to be living with disability, either for those with the disability or their families. This is especially so if the child or adult has a hidden disability. While the Government continue to profess that all things are possible for everybody including those with disabilities if they just try harder, and while the media happily publish story after story about benefit scroungers and malingerer’s, people with disabilities are the ones left trying to survive the continual onslaught from the Government, the media and members of the public to.

Campaigners continue to campaign against the Work Capability Assessment stating that it is not fit for purpose. The assessment cannot to accurately assess the functionality of adults with autism and other disabilities.

We should not be using the athletes who are competing in the Paralympics as a measurement or yardstick of success and triumph over disability. Nor should we be holding them up as an example of what people with disabilities could do if they put their mind to overcoming their disability.

Society now views disability in a very dim light. Will the Paralympics do anything to alter that view or perception of those who we should really be protecting?  Act Now for Autism thinks not. In fact if anything we think it could cement the view that people with disabilities could be doing more for themselves instead of simply sponging off the state.

There is speculation that the Team GB athletes who are competing in the Paralympics hid their Atos branding on their passes during the opening ceremony of the games. It would be lovely to find out that they did in fact do this in support of those who like them are facing a lifetime of disability.

The debate about the Paralympic Games will probably continue throughout the games, which is extremely sad when the games should really be a celebration of those who have trained so very hard to compete in.

When the celebrating appears to be at the expense of other people with disabilities, it does leave a bitter taste in the mouth.

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