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Paralympics Effect ‘Challenges Perceptions of Disabled People’

The impact of the 2012 Paralympic Games on public attitudes towards disabled people has been positive but some campaign groups have sought to “misuse” it for political ends, a leading activist told this year’s eAccess conference.

And disability consultant and campaigner Simon Stevens told delegates that while the London Games had raised the profile of disability issues, it would take some time before we could judge whether the effect will be lasting.

Stevens was addressing e-Access ’13, the UK’s leading event on access to technology by disabled people, organised by E-Access Bulletin publisher Headstar. He criticised the way some charities used the Paralympics alongside “anti-government rhetoric”, for example. “They argue that for the average disabled person, the Paralympics has not distracted from the supposed hardship that disabled people face from this Government’s welfare reforms”, Stevens said. “This use of the Games to promote a prejudiced victimhood viewpoint… is unhelpful.”

However he said the true value of the Games for the image of disabled people in the UK lies somewhere between positive and negative views. “I believe it is important that we see the Paralympics are just as one factor of many that has assisted to raise the profile of disability issues… The politics of disability has peaked and the Paralympics has been a part of them, adding another dimension to the public’s understanding of disability, contrasting the media’s portrayal of disabled people as vulnerable and or freaks.”

It would take some time to assess the Games’ true legacy, Stevens said. “The trick will be how to be keep this going in the long-term, and use it to challenge the perceptions of disabled people as merely vulnerable objects of pity. I fear the public still see disabled people as a single homogeneous group, who all think the same… We must start showing that disabled people are diverse individuals that have their own unique wants, desires, aspirations, goals, likes and dislikes…The Games must be seem as a part of a wider informal movement of action that is helping disabled people to achieve their status as fully contributing citizens.”

Conference keynote speaker Hannah Cockroft MBE – world-record-holding wheelchair sprint racer and winner of two gold medals at London 2012 – said the rise of the internet and social media had helped boost athletes’ profiles. The video sharing site YouTube, for example, had hosted short films on individual athletes and their training. “It really made people watch and take notice of our abilities for the first time,” Cockroft said. “It helped bring the Paralympics out of the Olympic shadow and celebrate us [Paralympians] as elite athletes. It really made people watch and [see] our abilities for the first time… what we could do instead of what we can’t do.”

Cockroft said interest in Paralympians had carried on into 2013, partly due to the extensive media coverage the Games had received. It was essential for this kind of exposure to continue, she said, “because otherwise a nation seems to be able to forget the Paralympians pretty quickly.”


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