OPINION: Sport is a means to integrate

PETER STANFORD, a writer and broadcaster. He chaired the trustees of the national disability charity Aspire and now sits on various trustee boards

In this sport-soaked summer, my family has been glued to the Commonwealth Games. There are many positives at play in Manchester, not least the decision to include disabled athletes as full-members of the various teams, with whatever medals they gain counting to the final total for each nation.

The extent to which the remarkable Tanni Grey-Thompson has become a household name is such a positive sign that longstanding prejudices about disabled people as a group apart from the mainstream are finally subsiding.

But in the euphoria over such progress, we shouldn't lose sight of the shortcomings of sport as a means of integration. The symbolic importance of the developments at Manchester is great, but I will always remember meeting a young television news producer who had just suffered a spinal cord injury. He told me, angrily, that he had never been interested in sport before his accident and he resented the fact that everyone he met subsequently had assumed that he would now be hot-wheeling it down to the athletics track.

And for all the show of team togetherness, the disabled athletes in Manchester are competing in separate events from the able-bodied. The distances and disciplines may be roughly equivalent, but the races are distinct. You could argue that the Commonwealth Games is as much a symbol of the work that still needs to be done in breaking down barriers between able-bodied and disabled people as it is of the progress so far made.

If what we want is full-integration, then there are other arenas where it finds fuller expression such as the work of the leading British dance company CandoCo. Several of its performers are - to impose categories on them - disabled, while others are able-bodied. But when they perform their new programme, currently touring the UK, they are equal and as one on stage. The wheelchair is as much an object of beauty as the pirouette, and by the end of the show you have forgotten who can do what and who can't. Now if we could all get to that state of mind.

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