Go for gold,” said Boris Johnson, wishing ParalympicsGB luck and gushing about how they could inspire disabled kids to say “I want to be an athlete”. I wonder if the man has ever given a speech in which he has not come across as utterly patronising.
You’ll see a lot of similarly sickly bilge on social media from MPs who usually treat the non-athletic, and yes the athletic, disabled community with thinly veiled contempt. When the Paralympics is not in session.
This explains why many of us in the disabled community feel rather ambivalent about what we’re going to be seeing over the next two weeks through the lens of a media that usually does its best to ignore us.
Yes we want GB to do well. We want to see our peers winning a hatful of medals. It’s fun to actually watch sports we may have participated in (wheelchair basketball and wheelchair rugby in my case) which are usually invisible to mainstream broadcasters or any of the innumerable specialist sports channels.
The trouble is, watching people, and especially politicians, bathing in the reflected glory of the gold that will be brought home, and claiming to celebrate our Paralympians’ achievements, can be a little hard to stomach given just how shabby the normal service is. Particularly given that such service will be resumed in a fortnight’s time.
I got the same sense when I did a ring around of my disabled friends.
They’ve had to deal with intrusive and unpleasant Personal Independence Payment (Pip) assessments and appeals, job interviews when they are confronted by people who see only the wheelchair or the white cane, the difficulty with finding a loo or a parking space when out and about, the climate of suspicion that requires multiple documents to be submitted to access venues. Yes this person is disabled. Honest to God. Truly, properly disabled because, duh, you don’t use ruinously expensive equipment for fun. It’s purchased to just get by.
These issues are rarely discussed as they don't feature prominently enough. Sports get a couple of weeks every couple of years (there’s the winter Paralympics too). Once in a blue moon there’ll be a movie like A Quiet Place, or Run, featuring a disabled actor in a disabled role. They stand out because of their rarity. TV dramas? Hah. Maybe a soap opera will dabble in a little tokenism every now and again. Tanni Grey-Thompson is sometimes featured on the news. There’s The Last Leg. But that’s about it.
Not every disabled kid is sporty, just so you know, Boris Johnson. There are plenty who might like to be scientists, or doctors, or architects, engineers, lawyers, artists, actors, hell, writers like you once were – and I still am. Shouldn’t we be trying to inspire them too?
That's just not happening. Earlier this year Johnson hailed a national disability strategy that was little more than a buffed-up PR exercise. All style, no substance. The most newsworthy line was the setting of a target for disabled hiring at MI6; they will obviously issue reports on it, yet the number of spooks is likely a bloody state secret.
The problem with the Paralympics, from the perspective of ordinary disabled humans, is that while we want our peers to do well, at the back of our minds is the ever present fear that their achievements will be used cynically, for the purposes of propaganda. A way to divert attention from the crap we have to deal with, a means of pushing back against, say, the UN panel which justifiably accused the government of systematically stomping on disabled Britons’ rights a few years back.
“It expands the gap between hero/burden. Some of us are just trying to get/keep a job, have a family and a life. The Paralympics sets a standard for us that few can reach,” said a friend of mine. And that’s on point too.
I want to be fair to Channel 4 here. It seems there are people at the broadcaster who’ve listened to some of these objections.
Instead of talking about the Super Humans, which was really starting to grate, its slogan this year reads Super. Human. That full stop is important because even Paralympians can’t always avoid being treated as less than human when they get home.
There’s a scene in the three-minute promo – you can see it on YouTube – in which a wheelchair-using athlete is denied entrance to a cafe because of a step, an all-too-common experience for standard-model disabled humans. But Channel 4 could stand to do more too.
I realise I’m at risk of sounding like the “angry disabled person” here but you know what, a lot of us feel very angry and with good reason.
A dog is for life, not just for Christmas. Britain’s disabled people are treated like dogs when the Paralympics isn't on the telly, the sort of dogs that regularly end up getting kicked. You want to inspire disabled “kids”, Johnson? And the rest of you? Change it.