Brian Lamb: It's up to the sector to capitalise on changed perceptions of disability

Let's use the Paralympics as a springboard to shift attitudes, says our columnist

Brian Lamb
Brian Lamb

It is wonderful that the status of the Paralympic Games and our Paralympians has grown enormously with London 2012. What is perhaps even more exciting is that the crossover between the Olympics and the Paralympics has been more apparent than ever, with past stars such as the wheelchair racer Tanni Grey-Thompson commentating for the Olympic Games and Ade Adepitan, the Paralympian basketball star, as a key member of the Olympic bid team.

What's more, there has also been a crossover of competitors between the games with, for example, the able-bodied rowing cox Lily van den Broecke representing Team GB in the Paralympics and the double amputee Oscar Pistorius being accepted to run in the Olympic 400 metres using carbon-fibre blades. His inclusion in the able-bodied competition has helped to disrupt our perceptions of what is possible with the right prosthetic support.

Challenging notions

The American athlete, model and activist Aimee Mullins also challenges our notions of beauty and athleticism by wearing blades to enable her to participate in sport, and by being photographed for fashion shoots where the blades are seen as integral to her beauty, helping to redefine how we perceive disability.

Human interest stories have abounded throughout London 2012. Martine Wright, a victim of the London bombings of 2005, is now a Paralympian in the women's sitting volleyball - she is a prime example of refusing to allow a disability to become an obstacle to personal fulfilment and achievement.

Sports coverage lends itself to stories of triumph over adversity. The obvious danger of Paralympic coverage is that it could take our rightful wonder at the skills of these athletes at the height of their sporting abilities and turn it into just another triumph-over-tragedy story - reinforcing, rather than challenging, this dominant narrative on disability.

Narrative shift

Much has been said about the legacy of London 2012. The Paralympics clearly provide a massive opportunity to challenge stereotypes and give a generation of talented athletes the opportunity to receive popular acclaim and admiration. But this opportunity will happen only if the sector also takes the opportunity, now the games have come to an end, to reframe and shift the narrative around disability in the way these athletes are doing.

There is also a bigger prize to be gained by using the games to help turn around the media narrative on disability. The constant assault on disabled people over the past few years as part of the welfare reform agenda - they have often been portrayed as welfare cheats - has hugely damaged any gains in positive public perceptions of disability. The consequences have been increased levels of bullying and discrimination, which has provoked criticism from the Equalities Commission.

We must not have one deserving group of disabled people while the rest of those with disability fear for their support and often cannot go out without fear of abuse and bullying. Everyone concerned with disability has a major opportunity to use the enormous wellspring of Paralympic goodwill to build a lasting legacy that goes beyond the bricks and mortar of the stadiums to people's hearts and minds.

Brian Lamb, a consultant and chair of the NCVO's campaign effectiveness advisory board

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