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Going for gold in the offensive tweet Olympics

WE live in a world of gaffe-prone politicians, trolls and provocative comedians, so we could hardly expect to get past the Paralympics opening ceremony without a few acid blurtings from the realm of Twitter.

Edwina Currie's mid-ceremony tweet last week – "Italians are gorgeous even in wheelchairs. Love 'em" – was a stand-out, however, because it seems that, in her own patronising way, she thought she was saying the right thing.

The former Tory politician wasn't even trying to offend. Serial tweet offender Frankie Boyle is in a different league. Before these Games began, the question was not whether, but when, he would deliberately over-shoot the boundaries of acceptable taste. And of course, Boyle delivered. "Apparently the Saudi Arabian Paralympic team is mainly thieves," he tweeted (referring to criminals having their hands removed). Still more crassly, he wrote: "Sadly our Paralympian in the high jump isn't expected to match his personal best. But I hear it doesn't count as it was Taliban assisted."

Currie's error was more blundering, but nevertheless excruciating. One can imagine her watching the passing crowd of handsome Italians, and experiencing the Damascene revelation that, yes, these disabled people were hot. She wanted to tell the world about it. Instead, her tweet suggested that previously, she had assumed that someone in a wheelchair is unlikely to be gorgeous.

Both the Currie and Boyle tweets illustrate one of the problems with how we discuss the Paralympics, and how as a society we relate to the disabled. All is well, when we orchestrate a staged event, when the presenters are given their lines, and everyone is relatively on-message.

Then, it is possible to look on at a grand, celestial ceremony, featuring great minds such as Stephen Hawking's as well as immensely fit bodies, and imagine that Great Britain is an enlightened country in which the disabled are nurtured, admired, fancied and loved. They are some of us, and they are also the best of us. However, as soon as we tune in to the clumsy, provocative, awkward, deranged and sometimes inspired talk at the periphery, whether that be through Twitter, general conversation or internet comment strings, we are revealed as a country uncomfortable in our relations with the disabled.

The shameful truth, for instance, is that, when it comes to attitudes about the disabled and sex, Currie is not alone. An Observer survey found that 70% of us would not consider having sex with a person with a physical disability.

We should remember this when we puff with pride over last week's ceremony. We should remember too that in the four years since we began recording disability hate-crime, rates have risen. And we should reflect on political rhetoric that in recent years has written off those people with disabilities drawing benefits as scroungers. Outrageously, ATOS – a firm involved in the harsh and demeaning assessments of whether people with disabilities are fit for work, is also an official sponsor of the Paralympics.

Are these games a good thing then for disabled people in Great Britain? Over the past week, I've been quizzing my local disabled rights community.

One might expect them to revel in an event that casts the disabled as heroes rather than victims, scroungers or outsiders, but in fact there are mixed feelings. Disability rights activist Sasha Callaghan described Wednesday's opening as "the most progressive ceremony there has ever been". She noted that by including works like the giant facsimile of Mark Quinn's monumental sculpture of Alison Lapper and Ian Dury's Spasticus Autisticus – a yell of outrage, once banned by the BBC and written as a protest against the International Year of the Disabled – it engaged with "many of the major debates within the disability rights movement".

But she and others were also sceptical. Leith activist George Lamb pointed out: "This Games underscores the difference between 'them' and 'us': them being the super-crips who are seen as the heroes, and us being the scroungers, who struggle in our own way just as Paralympians do, but no-one recognises it".

Even those people who were once Paralympian heroes can, several years down the line, be re-stereotyped as possible "scroungers"; or as Lamb puts it, make the journey from "saint to sinner".

Former Paralympian medallist Tanya Flood, for instance, was one of the many who this year saw a letter drop onto their doormats asking them to come for assessment to judge whether they merited receiving their benefits.

It seems to me that, despite the bloodiness of Boyle's remarks, our society's real anxiety with regard to disability is not about physical impairments, but about dependency. Fit and able athletes who can deftly slide down zip wires, win swimming races, and pelt the tracks in their blades – even if they are dependent in other aspects of their lives – are easy to adore. Indeed, one of the obsessions of the recent Paralympian tweet-fest has been with just how mighty, as well as sexy, these athletes are. As the disgraced Boyle put it: "Wow, Austrian Paralympians seem a lot more able-bodied than most regular Scottish people."

Last Friday, he defended his tweets, arguing: "Nobody thinks it's a good thing to laugh at the disabled. But it is a genuine problem that we're not allowed to laugh with the disabled." He added that his jokes were "celebratory, non discriminatory, pretty funny".

At the start of the Paralympics ceremony, Boris Johnson commented on how far we had progressed in the last couple of decades. Many within the disabled community would argue the reverse: that the recent few years of welfare reform have represented a regression.

The evidence from Twitter certainly seems to support the notion that society has a mixed-up, sometimes troubled relationship with disability. But it would be wrong to quash this chaotic clamour of discomfort and anxiety and pretend it was not there – to attend only to the official Channel 4 line on disability in Britain.

We should revel in this fresh opportunity for debate and discussion on an issue too often confined to the margins of our media. We may receive no medals, but at least, then, we will have truly taken part.

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