CONTENT NOTE: This piece will briefly touch upon the subject of suicide.
Last Sunday, I woke up to news on Malaysian social media that three Paralympics gold medals had been won at Rio. As a disabled woman with Malaysian roots, I felt very proud. This was a first – Malaysia doesn’t usually feature much in the Paralympics (or the Olympics).
However, it’s a different environment here in the UK (where the Paralympics is being broadcast on Channel 4, with its visually spectacular, slickly produced, and controversial trailer, We’re the Superhumans). Disabled activists, such as the group Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC), used the publicity generated by the Rio Paralympics to draw attention to the “disproportionate impact of austerity” on disabled people in the UK.
They planned a week of action; Rights Not Games, to draw attention to the cumulative impact of the cuts imposed by austerity. The intention was not to oppose the Games or criticise the British Paralympians, but to highlight the contrast in funding for the Paralympics with the benefit cuts and independent living support for disabled people.
There were reports that some of the police were heavy-handed at the Westminster Bridge protests, and a few people were arrested. The week of action finished with an international conference with speakers from Greece and Canada, Ireland, and Germany (via Skype) to a global resistance against austerity. The Shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, also gave a speech, promising support for the rights of disabled people in the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party.
Throughout the past week, we also learned that some of the British Paralympians, such as wheelchair racer Ben Rowlings, could have their support withdrawn if they lose their Motability cars in the event of being reassessed for their Personal Independence Payment (PIP) claim.
This is a reassessment I am facing myself. The idea that I am in the same plight as a Paralympian does not encourage me to see him in the light of being a “superhuman”. They may be superfast but out of the arena, they face the same discrimination and mobility issues. It would seem like winning in the Paralympics, the pinnacle of success as a sportsperson, does not award a magic wand to whisk away their mobility or discrimination issues.
Last Sunday, Parallel London gave me my first taste of joining in “the world’s first disability mass led participation fun run”, one that I took with my powerchair. I went in the 100 metres with the Alliance for Inclusive Education (ALLFIE) for fundraising. Apparently I did it in 4.06 mins. It was a heavily sponsored event, but I saw many diverse disabled kids gamely pushing their rollators.
There was a festival atmosphere, and I hugely enjoyed my time with the Allfie folks. Just as I enjoyed the Liberty Festival the day before, which had performances from some of my disabled artistic friends, such as Jacqui Adeniji-Williams, who can also be seen speaking on Channel 4’s No Go Britain, about fighting to stay up late because of issues with care agencies.
Alongside the Paralympics, the legacy of 2012 included the Unlimited Festival, part of the Cultural Olympiad at the South Bank Centre. I went to the Death Café and saw the wonderful Liz Carr at her new show, Assisted Suicide: the Musical. I both laughed and cried – such is the powerful message that Liz (who plays forensic examiner Clarissa Mullery in the BBC drama Silent Witness) portrays, living with disability when society often depicts disabled lives as a fate worse than death; the seductive lure of suicide as a solution to fix the perception of the indignity and pain of disabled life, disguised as a choice. A choice for disabled people to be seen as brave and acceptable, but a loss that should be prevented for anyone non-disabled.
This solution is more pernicious in the current time of austerity, where disabled people’s lives are seen as dispensable, because of the costs of keeping us alive with independent living.
There is also the fact that the Paralympics brings an international awareness of, and a visibility to, disabled people and our issues. For example, Japan’s Paralympic team members paid their respects to the 19 victims of the recent massacre at a care home for disabled people at Sagamihara. The killer expressed a view that “disabled people should disappear”.
For the UK’s Rio Paralympics coverage, there are a record number of Paralympics TV staff who are disabled. 58% of Channel 4’s Paralympic Games presenters are disabled, and 20 disabled people are on the production team.
So here lie the nuances of the Paralympics: On the one hand disabled people are placed on pedestals as “superhumans”, where the only disability that seemingly keeps you from achieving is a bad attitude; while on the other – which is closer to the reality – disabled people can only have unlimited aspirations if the support systems are in place.
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Eleanor Lisney is a founder member and coordinator of Sisters of Frida. She is an access advisor, an NUJ member on the New Media Industrial Council and the Equality Council. She is also on the British Council Disability Advisory Panel and the web team of the International Network of Women with Disabilities. Twitter: @e_lisney
There’s sport, and then there’s the Olympic and Paralympic Games. It’s an event like no other. Over the next few weeks this series, curated by Shane Thomas, will cover the medals, the nationalism, the competition, the corporatisation, the exploitation, and the sporting brilliance of Rio 2016.