I was watching Newsnight last week and saw a discussion on the diversity and legacy potential of London 2012 with respect to the UK’s disabled population. Some of the remarks made by Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson I was in complete agreement with, whilst others left me perplexed and feeling somewhat cut off from whatever the organisers are trying to achieve.
She is right to say that legislation alone will do nothing to change the mindsets of the majority in our society who see disability as something to be scared of. The reason for this, as with many people’s fears, is because people are not aware of what different disabilities involve and the affects they have on people. Even after attending full state education, there are still some people who believe a physical disability automatically translates into having a learning disability; I’ve had grown professionals shocked by the fact that I can speak clear English, even though there is nothing to imply otherwise.
Nevertheless, whilst legislation does little for the public’s mindset by itself, it does proactively champion a change in managerial attitudes within the public and private sectors. The Disability Discrimination Act (DDA) and subsequent Equality Act 2010 have both implemented statutory duties that I believe contribute to the changing social attitudes through the public’s interaction with these sectors and their growing acceptance of the legislative themes of tolerance and equality.
Unfortunately, I do not agree with Tanni’s interpretation of how the Paralympics will bring about the greatest attitudinal change by “having the athletes here [which] will do more to normalise disability than anything we will ever see”. In fact, a very small percentage of the public will actually watch the Paralympics games in person or on Channel 4 and out of those that do, how many of them will make that tangible link between those elite athletes and the members of their local community who have a disability? I fear too many will compartmentalise what they’ve watched on TV between the interactions they experience in their community.
With respect to the legacy that London 2012 offers the 10+ million strong disabled population in the UK, I worry that it will actually encourage the exclusion already felt by many. We live in a celebrity-driven culture where the ordinary man and woman aspire to the lifestyles lead by the few; increasing the representation of celebrities with a greater range of disabilities will do more good for attitudinal change than focusing on the most-able for just two weeks. I believe there is a real risk that those people who are less able will instead feel pushed aside by majority society and the objectives of the games themselves. Changing a public mindset will always be difficult and I truly believe that the Paralympics has the capacity to be a catalyst for change but their aims are again based on the inclusion of the few and not of the many. A real legacy would focus on all in an inclusive approach.
You should never try to make disability ‘acceptable’; you just need to allow people to understand and that in itself will erode their subconscious casual prejudices.