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Focus – Access To The 2012 Olympics: Running To Catch Up

by Sir Stephen Duckworth

Planning for the 2012 Olympic games in London began some time ago, and there are many considerations that have been sadly ignored by previous hosts when it comes to making the games accessible to people with disabilities.

Accessibility issues relate not just to disabled spectators, but also disabled athletes. What are we doing for these groups? For example, is there technology that can help? I remember going to the Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing and watching the blind sprinters running with their guides. When they had run the 100-metre race and crossed the finishing line, they didn’t have a clue whether they had come first, second or third. Is there an electronic wrist band that they could have that would indicate to them where they had come as they crossed the line? Surely it is technically possible to let them know. Of course, their guide was a few paces behind as they crossed the line, because those are the rules, and he or she would tell them, and you would see a sense of euphoria or disappointment depending on where they had come.

In relation to the other customers, the paying customer and a significantly large number of non-paying customers. They are known as the Olympic or Paralympic family. They are treated like gods by the organisation, because essentially, without them, the host city would not have got the event.

What I was surprised about – because I became a member of the Paralympic family when I went to Beijing because of my involvement with London 2012 – is the red-carpet treatment that you get if you happen to belong to that family, and how there’s a lower standard of treatment if you remove that particular badge – as I did for one day – and try and get in as a bog-standard punter, as it were. The disparity of treatment between the two types of customer was quite appalling, and I hope that, in 2012, we can get it right for both customer groups.

It’s critical really because, in Beijing, there were very few local Chinese disabled people attending events. I saw a couple of elderly Chinese people who looked fairly affluent compared to the people that you would see out on the street, but very few disabled people in China attended the events at the Paralympic Games, and I am told also the Olympic Games.

I think that, when the event comes to London, at least 50 per cent of the spectators will be London-based. The other spectators in Beijing, the other disabled spectators in Beijing, were other athletes. So we are going to see double the number of disabled spectators than we were seeing in Beijing.

Now, the way that China overcame the problem of accessibility to technology and other issues was through their volunteers. They had 1.2 million volunteers. We are looking at having roughly about 60 or 70,000 in this country. I am told, also, that of those volunteers approaching half of them were either police or the secret service! And they wore different-coloured hats, that’s the way that you could tell.

In some Beijing venues, platform stair-lifts were required to enable disabled people to enter the facility. On at least one occasion the lift broke, so it did take an awful long time to get in and out of that building. The reason being is that I used quite a peculiarly heavy wheelchair, but as technology develops in wheelchair design, electric powered wheelchairs at least will become heavier and heavier. We are hoping not to require this sort of platform lift going up a flight of steps technology in London because we are designing it in as we go along.

What we need to do in everything that we think about is design out the disabling barriers. How do you do that? One example is that of chip and PIN technology. The British banking association commissioned my organisation to develop a system to consult with disabled people about how to make chip and PIN technology as accessible as possible. We ran 35 focus groups, with 10 disabled people in each group, all of different impairment types all over the country, 350 people in total, to consult about the design of chip and PIN technology. So remember what disability is. It’s nothing to do with our impairment. It’s to do with the way that engineers, architects and others have historically built in barriers that restrict our opportunities to participate as equal citizens. Barriers that we feel we have a right not to encounter.

Now when we design and develop technologies for people, we have heard talk already about the digital divide. So as well as thinking about the design and development of the new technologies we have got to think about ways in which we develop that technology, to encourage users who are at the bottom of the ditch to engage with it.

Because otherwise we’re only going to develop technologies for the more motivated, active disabled people who are doing things. The vast majority of disabled people still stuck in their passive and medical mode of thinking will not gain access to opportunities.

NOTE: Dr Stephen Duckworth OBE is Chief Executive of Disability Matters. This article is adapted from a talk given by Dr Duckworth at the ‘Designs on the Games’ conference in October 2008 organised by charity PhoneAbility and the Institution of Engineering. For more details including transcripts visit:


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