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It shouldn't take a superhuman effort for disabled people to be treated as equals

By James Moore

Published 23/07/2016

Golden girl: disabled athlete Hannah Cockcroft looks set to add to her already impressive medal haul, but will she be remembered a fortnight after Rio?
Golden girl: disabled athlete Hannah Cockcroft looks set to add to her already impressive medal haul, but will she be remembered a fortnight after Rio?

A "badge of shame" is how the UK's Equality & Human Rights Commission has described the progress on disability rights in this country. That's if you accept that there has been any progress at all. Many, myself among them, would argue that we've been stuck in reverse gear for years now.

Channel Four is currently trumpeting its Paralympic "superhumans" in the run-up to the 2016 games in Rio. And, for a couple of weeks in September, disability will be everywhere. "Wow, look at what they can do. So inspiring."

Woo hoo. Who knows, bus passengers might even move to allow people on crutches to sit down, taxis might actually stop for those with wheelchairs or guide dogs. It might even be possible for people with disabilities such as myself to get out and about without people abusing us. And maybe it won't.

Even if there is a brief flowering of goodwill after Hannah Cockcroft picks up another circle of gold to add to her already impressive collection, in all likelihood it will be back to the way it is now a few weeks after the Games' conclusion.

As the commission appears to recognise, if you have disabilities to contend with you're not so much a superhuman as you are a subhuman. A second-class citizen in a country that claims it wants to offer opportunity for all.

That applies to the "superhumans", too, by the way. Only a year after the 2012 Paralympic Games in London, wheelchair racing legend David Weir had to take to the Press to shame housing chiefs into providing him with a home with a downstairs toilet.

Meanwhile, when Government becomes aware that disabled people exist and might need help, they are treated with suspicion. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard stories about people getting "disability" with a bad back. "We're not talking about you, but they do need to tighten up the rules," people tell me. This is not just about Government, however bad its recent record might be. It goes beyond that. The issue, as the report recognises, as the charity Leonard Cheshire Disability pointed out in its response, is societal and cultural.

The appalling Me Before You still sits in the box office top 10, having taken £9.1m in the UK alone.

The film's male lead, played by the able-bodied Sam Clafin of Hunger Games fame, kills himself after being left paralysed so as not to be a burden on his family, thus promoting the message that disabled people are a burden who have nothing to live for.

When they're not serving as props for weepies, disabled people are simply unseen. Yes, there is Frank Gardener on the Beeb and Gary O'Donoghue, too (he who won a discrimination claim a while back). But they're rarities.

And it's not just the broadcast media. There are only a handful like me working in print or digital news. And what about other sectors? Where are the guide dogs in boardrooms? Where are the wheelchairs in Westminster?

Employing disabled people can take a certain amount of thought and effort. But the fact remains: those willing to make the effort will be rewarded. If they weren't, well, I wouldn't be writing this would I?

Most of us don't want to be superhumans. The proportion of people with the capacity to compete as elite athletes is as vanishingly small in the disabled community as it is among the able-bodied. We're not asking for anything more.

We want to be able to work, and to enjoy life. To be able to get around and appreciate our great cities. To go to sports or cultural events without having to jump through a thousand different hoops.

It can be done. It needn't even cost very much money. All it would take is a little will from some of the organisations I've highlighted and for a little thought from our fellow citizens, for us to be treated as we deserve to be treated: as humans.

Belfast Telegraph

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