Belfast Telegraph

Saturday 25 October 2014

Not all disabled people can be superstars like Bethany

In the Olympic Stadium on Saturday, among 80,000 exuberant men, women, girls and boys, I watched with wonderment as Paralympians jumped, ran, threw, clapped, waved, laughed and cried.

After the first hour, you didn't even notice the missing arm, the metal blades, the shakes. Richard Whitehead, winner in the 200 metres, became a Grecian God, the finalists in the men's triple jump were breathtakingly graceful; Bethany Firth was magnificent in the 100m backstroke.

And don't forget Houssein Omar Hassan, from Djibouti, who came last in his 1500m heat - seven minutes behind the field. He had injured his ankle, but as the only representative of his country and for his own pride he finished with honour. He was given a standing ovation.

The superhuman participants have pushed their bodies and minds beyond all limits, as the organisers keep emphasising.

The competitors are not victims, not physically and mentally deficient, not grotesque, not abnormal, but gifted and determined.

They don't expect pity or special pleading. They are winners. And that is exactly how the spectators saw them. These responses are both fantastic and problematic. Just because Paralympians have triumphed over disabilities doesn't mean that all the rest of the disabled can - or must.

And the Games are not evidence of the end of discrimination against these humans.

I come not to bury the Games, but to caution against naivete and those who will exploit the glory and turn it to their advantage. A small number of protesters have come out against the private French firm Atos, a Games sponsor, which assesses the work-fitness of people on disability benefits - like jobs are queuing up for such applicants.

Remploy factories where people of disability had jobs and dignity are being closed down by the Westminster government.

Workers began a series of strikes yesterday against these heartless decisions. I don't know which is more cynical - to offer sponsorship, or to be approved.

Then the German company Chemie Grunenthal, manufacturers of the drug Thalidomide, which caused thousands of people to be born limbless, have just apologised and paid for a statue of a child without arms and legs.

Harold Evans, legendary editor of the Sunday Times when it uncovered the Thalidomide disaster, responded at the weekend to the nauseating gesture: "[Chemie Grunenthal] remains silent still on adjusting compensation for inflation and the dreadful effects on victims - the men and women in adulthood, many now without parental support."

Evans, thankfully, uses the 'V' word. It's all very well to celebrate heroes, but hundreds of thousands of incapacitated people must feel bewildered in this suddenly victimless environment they are told is all around them.

The public has been brainwashed; now the danger is that they will be treated as if they are the same as everyone else and expected just get on with it.

After the closing ceremony, disabled people may find themselves living with a more pernicious, invidious kind of inequality as they are forced to march under the banners of aspiration and victory.

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