Can the Rio Paralympics correct the 'legacy' of London 2012?
For somebody not often enthralled with 'sport', I found myself watching a fair bit of the action from Rio 2016, both Olympics and Paralympics. Obviously, as somebody with a research interest in both the social and political aspects surrounding 'disability' in general, I was always going to be drawn towards the latter. Indeed, I watched much of the London 2012 Paralympics too and enjoyed it. A games that was highly successful in terms of exciting sport, high ticket sales, full stadiums and great TV coverage. And something that our government decided had also changed British attitudes towards disability forever -mistakenly.
The 'real' legacy of London 2012
Certainly, the 2012 games were highly successful in providing role-models for disabled people, role-models who indeed inspired other disabled people to similarly take up sport, some of whom were actually competing in Rio 2016. However, in terms of changing attitudes and behaviour towards disability within the UK, London 2012 arguably failed. It fact London 2012 played an absolute stinker on that score, something that is largely ignored by Britain's traditional media.
I've written a couple of articles on the London 2012 Paralympic Games already for Disabled-World, so I'm not going to go into too much depth about them here. Just to say that it was a games that brought disability into the living rooms of many Brits, arguably for the first time, and there was a general optimism that this could be an important turning point for disability itself within the UK (particularly regarding equality). An optimism particularly encouraged by the unusually positive rhetoric of politicians themselves, many of whom also argued for some time afterwards that attitudes towards disability had indeed been changed 'forever' as a legacy of London 2012.
In reality and despite the rhetoric, disabled people within the UK continued to be treated as second class citizens. In reality, our politicians continued to treat disabled people like something they had just trodden in. In reality, disabled people continued to suffer unfettered abuse, humiliation and violence from the abled-bodied - as a matter of course. And in reality, disabled people continued to die as a result of brutal welfare cuts termed 'austerity'. This year, three important reports were released that finally confirmed everything that many of us had been saying for years about the treatment of disabled people within the UK.
In March, a damning House of Lords Select Committee report concluded that the Government had actually failed in its duty of care towards disabled people. This failure covered many years and many areas, but most shockingly, by the introduction of tribunal fees and the withdrawal of access to legal aid, actions that created barriers that effectively curtailed disabled people's right to fight discrimination, particularly over employment.
In June, the UN's long awaited investigation and report into the human rights abuses of Britain's disabled concluded that the UK's 'austerity' policies have indeed breached the UK's international human rights obligations. For many years, the UK government has constantly and fervently denied that they were violating even the very basic human rights of disabled people, as a matter of course. However, such denials have always sounded hollow and now the truth of the matter is slowly surfacing.
And in July this year, The Equality and Human Rights Commission (EHRC) launched a blistering attack on British attitudes, prejudices and practices towards disability. Building upon the investigation carried out in March by the Lords Select Committee, the commission argued that thousands of disabled people are still being treated like 'second class citizens' within modern day Britain - denied access to the even the most basic things. Including access to transport and housing, but also pubs, theatres, restaurants and sport or music events.
Unfortunately, four years on from London 2012, that is the REAL legacy of the London Paralympic games.
Repeated failure or wilful neglect?
Followers of my previous articles for Disabled-World will not be surprised by any ongoing criticism of the current Conservative administration, as well as criticism levelled towards the previous Labour government as regards the treatment of disabled people. Arguably, the treatment of disability within the UK began to rapidly deteriorate under the last Labour government itself, beginning with the introduction of the insidious Work Capability Assessment (WCA) in 2008. A humiliating and degrading 'test' used by the UK Government's Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) to decide whether jobless disabled people were still entitled to welfare benefits. A test that was arguably ideologically driven, primarily aimed at 'redefining' what disability actual was, and simply in order to withdraw the welfare state from many.
The introduction of disability welfare 'reform' also coincided with an increase in negative political and media rhetoric surrounding disability itself, arguably a form of unfettered political and media hostility that was quite unpreceded within the UK, and one that came dangerously close to the level of hostility and propaganda that Nazi Germany conducted towards Judaism, 70 years or so previously.
This year's Select Committee report on the government's failure in its duty of care towards disabled people, as well as the UN's report on its human rights violations is indeed shocking. However, it's a failure that had been repeatedly highlighted time and time again over the past number of years by many. Highlighted by disabled people themselves, highlighted by the families of disabled people, by carer's or social workers, by disability charities, by certain sections of the media and by a number of politicians themselves.
So, nothing that the Select Committee, the EHRC and the UN concluded is therefore 'new'. Put bluntly, it's just that nobody within government acted upon these concerns and not only that, often seemed to wilfully and deliberately dismiss these concerns as lies, half-truths and misinformation. This deliberate continuation along a path of inequality and basic human rights abuse is gross misconduct at the very least. However, the blatant breach of care that we have witnessed since 2010, not only opens up government to accusations of misconduct and gross negligence, but where disabled people have died unnecessarily and primarily as a consequence of government action or inaction, accusations of corporate manslaughter must surely now come into play.
Some disabled people take a much stronger line that that, arguing that the wilful, deliberate and systematic withdrawal of state help from the acutely sick, and highly vulnerable disabled people themselves, bordered closely upon a sickening combination of modern day 'eugenics' and 'genocide'. Particularly when Government where being continually warned of what the likely consequences of such action or inaction was going to be.
At the very least, since 2010, we have indeed witnessed within the UK what Professor Gabor Gombos, a former UN committee member on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) called the 'grave' and 'systemic' violations of the human rights of disabled people, way back in 2014. What really motivated those human rights violations will only ever be answered by interrogation of the 'architects' of those violations.
Britain's shameful treatment of sickness and disability
Between 2011 and 2014, 2,380 people died of a chronic or terminal illness just days after being found fit for work by the government's 'fit for work' assessment process. A sign in itself that all was not well with the programme. There is even a bank of evidence stacked up against the Government's DWP that illustrates time and time again how the terminally ill were continually harassed by job-centres via phone-calls and text messages - as they lay dying in a hospital bed.
Additionally, more than 80 people are said to have committed suicide shortly after undergoing the work ability assessment, deaths that the official Coroner has drawn direct and causal links with the WCA process itself. And these figures are likely to be a low-end estimate.
In conjunction with the WCA and the wholescale slashing of welfare benefits for the disabled and their carer's, government also began an all-out propaganda campaign that blatantly targeted and labelled disabled people as workshy, layabouts and scroungers. Something that many disabled people argue, caused attitudes towards disability to become increasing negative and may even have motivated abuse and violence in some cases.
The reality of Britain's recent treatment of disability can therefore be summed up as a brutal one, with the deliberate targeting and scapegoating of sick and disabled people, simply for cheap political, ideological aims. Not just deliberately and callously throwing sick and disabled people off the welfare system in order to save money, but in order to promote an ideological 'work ethic' that the Conservative Party fervently and mistakenly believed to be diminishing within the UK. A systematic programme of state sponsored harassment and abuse that not only stopped sick and disabled people from getting the help they needed, but often made them sicker in many instances.
Government 'spin' and media 'propaganda'
By 2014, it was clear to many of us who were not just interested but disgusted by what was going on, that disabled people were not only suffering brutal and callous treatment via the UK's welfare system, together with an ever increasing hostility disseminated via Britain's media, but that negative attitudes towards disability from the able-bodied were also getting worse not better. After the London 2012 Paralympics, Britain generally saw an increase in negative attitudes and negative behaviour towards disability, not the decrease that many Conservative politicians were arguing as being part of the legacy of the games. Indeed, all the evidence not only pointed towards worsening attitudes towards disability, but high and possibly rising levels of 'hate crime' too.
Certainly, the 2012 games were successful in many ways (as mentioned above) but arguably, the continuing negative government and media rhetoric surrounding disability welfare fraud massively contradicted and counteracted any positivity that came from the games themselves. Research evidence exists that not only highlights that negative political and media rhetoric surrounding disability increased from 2008 onwards, but that Britain's general public were also increasingly turning its back upon the welfare benefit system altogether, believing it to be over-generous and wide open to abuse or fraud by Britain's disabled.
Therefore, I was quite surprised to say the least when I came across a BBC (British Broadcasting Corporation) report from July 2014 claiming that a 'new' government survey, undertaken to mark the two years since the Paralympic Games in London, had revealed that more than two-thirds of people within the UK believed that attitudes towards disabled people had improved since London 2012. However, after closely investigating this rather laughable report myself, the report not only quickly unravelled as simply being a piece of hastily cobbled together PR 'spin' from the Governments Department of Works and Pensions (in conjunction with some blatant media propaganda too from the BBC). But it also revealed that negative attitudes towards disability had actually INCREASED by more than 7% in the 2 years after London 2012. Talk about shooting yourself in the foot.
My interrogation of this report indeed mirrored the polls and survey's previously undertaken in mid-2013 by organisations and charities such as Scope. Polls that indicated that more than 80% of disabled people had not noticed any improvement in attitudes towards them since London 2012, with many believing that attitudes had actually deteriorated.
Additionally, by 2014, 25% of disabled people within London were reporting (via similar polls and surveys) that they had actually suffered abuse, harassment and violence motivated by their perceived disability since London 2012. This year, a new London scheme actually saw the number of disability hate crimes officially recorded by police increase by 500 per cent within a few short weeks of its launch. So, some legacy eh?
Will Rio 2016 finally change attitudes towards disability within Britain, for ever?
That's a very big ask, but I am optimistic.
Firstly, London 2012 gave rise to a number of positive things. Unfortunately, it also came at a time when both government and media rhetoric had arguably contributed to a highly toxic environment for disabled people to live in. London 2012 saw disabled people of all descriptions competing in sporting events and achieving amazing times or distances not far off their abled-bodied counterparts in the Olympics. But in a society where British disabled people were being increasing scapegoated for being lazy scroungers or for 'faking' their impairment completely, something had to give under this bombardment of very mixed and competing messages.
Secondly, Britain's media coverage of London 2012 was largely excellent (as indeed it should be) particularly the TV coverage presented by Britain's Channel 4 and the amazingly irreverent 'The last leg'. Sports coverage and programmes that are often presented by disabled people themselves. However, Britain's media perhaps went a little over the top in presenting disabled athletes in almost a comic-book like fashion - as super human or super heroes. Positive imagery I grant you, but one that may also mimic the 'freaks of nature' view of disability that medical science has unfortunately lumbered disabled people with over the years. Imagery that still works to distance disability from the realms of 'normality'.
I can recall many comments from some of the able-bodied who actually attended the London 2012 games, comments that did seem to paint disabled people as almost being half-human/half-robotic 'Sci-Fi' life-forms. A new and highly interesting life-form but one still very alien (and deviant) to the rest of us 'normal' people.
However and despite the criticism, such media attention and its associated TV programming did help at least to propel disability and disability sport into our living rooms, not only by focusing on the extra-ordinary achievements that disabled people were making via sport, but empathising how disabled people are just ordinary people like you and me, except with a back story to tell. A good thing, particularly at a time when Britain's able-bodied would often cross over the road rather than meet with or talk with somebody who had a disability.
Therefore, of course London 2012 was highly inspirational and motivational, it would be churlish to say otherwise. But sorry London, you didn't change attitudes forever, at least not within the UK at least. And for that you need to thank our former Prime Minister David Cameron, as well as the dreadful George Osbourne and the equally dreadful, Iain Duncan Smith. However, Rio 2016 may be able correct some of London's failings retrospectively, now that the political toxicity manufactured around disability has dissipated a little.
Not just 'little' Britain, but divided Britain
Britain is a deeply divided society. Anti-Semitism is on the increase, so is racism, Islamophobia, homophobia, sexism, domestic violence and disablism. That is without debate. However, this summer's 'Brexit' result also saw Britain's political system pretty much implode, with the Prime Minister having to resign and the main opposition party leader battling to defeat a major political coup within his own party. The toxicity that has artificially and deliberately been created around disability remains, but it is perhaps over-shadowed at the moment by the stench of racism, racial violence and political uncertainty that the 'Brexit' debate and result undoubtedly unleashed.
However, we still have a Conservative government in power, but we now have one with a new Prime Minister (Theresa May) and one who arguably needs time to find her feet (for want of a better expression). Someone who has also intimated that there may be a slightly softer approach to 'austerity' on the cards, compared to the brutal butchery initially adopted by David Cameron & Co. Whether that includes a softer approach to disability, only time will tell and it is unlikely that Mrs May will go as far as to reform all of the 'reforms' that have continuously violated the human rights of disabled people since 2010. But until the smoke of Brexit clears and that may take some time, there may be a window of opportunity where the positivity created by the recent 2016 Rio Paralympics, seeps into British society in a way that it was never really given the opportunity to do so in London 2012.
Interestingly, the run-up to the Rio 2016 Paralympics was not promising. The 2016 Rio Olympic Games itself was largely signified by consumer apathy, high ticket prices and empty stadium seats. All of which was conducted in an atmosphere of significant political turmoil within Brazil, and in an atmosphere of not only complete disinterest towards the Games themselves, but open and active hostility. Something highlighted by the public rioting and clashes that accompanied the arrival of the Olympic flame as it entered Rio.
Those who brought tickets for the Rio Olympic games where in essence arguably similar to those who bought tickets for London 2012 and Beijing before it. People from the relatively affluent middle classes, and people who could arguably afford to travel the globe quite comfortably in order to take in such sporting events. In contrast, Brazil has immense poverty and most Brazilians could not even dare to think about paying the exorbitant ticket prices often on display at Olympic Games. Just days before the 2016 Paralympics themselves began, little more than 10% of its tickets had been sold.
However and remarkably, the Rio 2016 Paralympics turned out to be highly successful and arguably more successful in terms of noise and colour than the Rio Olympic Games themselves. What motivated this huge turn around was arguably the last-minute slashing of ticket prices that gave both able-bodied people and the disabled from the poverty stricken favelas and similar areas, a rare chance to see live international 'sport' of any description. And the Brazilian crowds went wild for it, something that also came across incredible well in the living rooms of us Brits. Not just wild for sport, but arguably the first time ever that Paralympians have largely been treated, not only with the kind of respect, appreciation and hero-worship that abled-bodied athletes often take for granted, but also as 'normal' athletes.
Certainly, Paralympians are inspirational and motivational, people who often have a remarkable back-story to tell, not only one of resilience, determination and drive. Athletes not only with disability of various degrees and types, but sometimes with debilitating or even terminal illnesses. And four years on from London 2012, such athletes were not only competing against each other and breaking Paralympic and World records in the process, but sometimes out-performing the abled-bodied in equivalent events.
Disabled people are therefore creating sporting icons that are not just motivational to other disabled people but also to the able-bodied. In this group we can certainly include Paralympians such as Brazil's Daniel Dias (already a national hero to both disabled people and the able-bodied in Brazil), New Zealand's Liam Malone (the world's fastest man on 'blades') and Great Britain's most successful female Paralympian of all time, Dame Sarah Storey. But such icons are not just coming from those competing in Paralympian sport itself, but from those also presenting and promoting it. Becoming recognisable celebrities within the wider world, something that can only help to reduce negative attitudes towards disability over time. Particularly in the UK.
TV presenter of 'The Last Leg', Britain's Alex Brooker, made a poignant point recently by remarking that as a child he often thought that he was the only disabled person within the world, simply because at that time you just didn't see disability upon British TV. Thankfully that is now slowly changing, painfully slow at times, but it is changing. And arguably, that is the only legacy that will really change attitudes towards disability within the UK, forever. More disabled people on TV, more disabled people in employment and visible occupational roles, and more disabled people within British politics itself.
Rather than making disabled people more visible, the antics of Britain's politicians of both Conservative and Labour camps have not only undermined and rolled back disability rights in their ideological stampede to 'redefine' what disability is, but have also pushed disabled people back into the invisible margins of society. Britain therefore has a lot to do to correct the last six years of political and media hostility directed towards disabled people, as well as its systematic withdrawal of state support. No good will ever come by the systemic violation of people's human rights, be they disabled or not disabled. So, are you listening Mrs May? Let's hope so.