Will the Paralympics do anything for disabled people?

The Paralympic Games have been amazing and to many people, including me, something of a revelation. Of course, I knew about Dave Weir, Ellie Simmonds and Oscar Pistorius, but I had no idea that there were blind long jumpers, one-legged high jumpers and wheelchair rugby.

I am sure the games have more than fulfilled expectations of raising the profile of disabled people and showing them in a far greater positive light than the media normally allows us to see.  It is more than refreshing to see ‘inspiring’ and ‘heroic’ images, proving that people who don’t have the use of two arms, two legs and two eyes are still capable of inspiring awe.

We should certainly celebrate their success, but I am not sure how relevant is their experience to the everyday life of most disabled people with whom they have about as much in common as I do with Usain Bolt or Jessica Ennis.  Paralympic athletes are special not because they are disabled, but because, like any elite athlete, they have the talent and commitment to be the best.

In the same way that the Olympic Games were an escape from our normal existence, the Paralympic Games tell us little about what it is like to be disabled in Britain today.  For many it is harder to get a good education and difficult to get a well-paid job resulting in the income for disabled people being about half that of the non-disabled.

In a double whammy, more technically referred to as ‘double disadvantage’, a disabled person’s cost of living is also often higher, because maybe they need to adapt their living space or their transport.  And on top of that, last winter, a survey for Scope showed that 46 per cent felt attitudes to them had worsened over the last year.  A depressing 64 per cent said they had experienced hostility or aggression.

I suppose there is little you can do in the short term to change the feelings of stupid people, so sadly there will probably always be some with irrational prejudices.  But in the same survey, 76 per cent said they had direct experience of people not making adjustments to allow for their circumstances.  Yet, it has been illegal since 1995 to turn a disabled person away from a job, service, amenity or transport because of prejudice or refusal to make adjustments.

If welfare cuts are the most immediate and pressing of concerns for many disabled campaigners, that old enemy, discrimination, refuses to go away.  Only last week, the Association of British Insurers and the AA were forced to deny allegations that they discriminated against disabled people by failing to distinguish between their modified vehicles and those of boy racers who have adapted their cars to make them faster or flashier.

Similar unfairness pervades holiday insurance, where some insurers have been found to quote £1,000 for travel cover for an average family holiday, suggesting they are confusing being disabled with suffering from a life-threatening illness.  Mind you, nothing the insurance companies do would surprise me.

To be fair to insurers (and you won’t often hear me say that), they aren’t the only ones guilty of insensitivity or blatant disregard for the law.   The sponsor of the British Paralympic team, Atos, is the very company accused of heavy handedness in testing disabled people to reassess their eligibility for benefit payments.  And Topaz Energy Ltd, sponsors of the Irish Paralympic team, has just had to pay out £9,500 each to three women for sex and disability discrimination claims.

Even more alarming, in August the company that runs the .uk domain registry, Nominet, was found guilty of disability discrimination for using the mental illness of its legal and policy director, Emily Taylor, as a ‘pretext’ for sidelining her after she raised concerns about an independent governance review.

This might sound like just another corporate behaving like, well, a corporate, but because of the economic importance of the internet, the company is officially considered part of our critical national infrastructure, along with power stations and airports.  It operates under government supervision and runs a charitable trust that supports, among other things, a youth mental health project.  You’d think it would have known better.

Employers aren’t just breaking the law when they discriminate against disabled people, they are preventing the UK economy from meeting its full potential.  More than one in five adults is disabled, but only half are likely to be in work, compared to four fifths of non-disabled adults.  It strikes me that a far better way to cut the benefit bill would be to support employers in helping these people reach their full potential, not cutting the amount paid to those who really need it.

All the same, times have most definitely changed.  The fact that we are now debating whether or not to use the term ‘disabled’ rather than how to banish words like ‘spaz’ or ‘mong’, which were all too common when I was at school, has got to be a good thing.  But disability still evokes fear and anxiety, probably in the way that any difference does.

Psychotherapist Philippa Perry wrote in the Guardian of an experiment in which able-bodied people were asked to sit next to a disabled person.  Half were first allowed to stare at the person through a two-way mirror and half were not.  They were all then measured to see how closely they sat next to the disabled person.  Those who had been allowed to stare sat closer than those who had not.

It may, of course, prove nothing, other than none of use wants to get up close and personal with someone we don’t know.  But it may also suggest that in making disabled people more visible the Paralympics could have a beneficial effect.  By exposing people to all manner of disabilities, from the blind and partially sited to those with learning disabilities and from those with mild impairments to those with cerebral palsy or missing limbs, the games have surely opened our eyes to a whole patchwork of humanity we probably weren’t aware of.

And surely that can only be a good thing?

Posted in: Employment law

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