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Still a race to be run for rights of disabled

Looking forward to the Paralympics?

Even a few weeks ago, I wasn't sure. I'd admired Blade Runner Oscar Pistorius and diminutive double Paralympic swimming champion, Ellie Simmonds, but felt conflicted about the Paralympics as a spectator sport. Was it a form of voyeurism? I could hear my mother's voice from half a century ago: "Don't stare at that poor boy, Anne. It's rude." Alongside lingering guilt, there was an element of fear: fear of the unknown, fear of "difference", and fear of causing offence by saying or doing "the wrong thing".

Of course, my mistake was in seeing the disability first, rather than the person or the achievement. I witnessed the rise of the disability rights movement of the 1970s. No longer hidden away in institutions, disabled people had had enough of pity and charity. Activists got together in the Disability Alliance and campaigned, often angrily, for welfare reform and anti-discrimination legislation. They won. Around 1988 I spent an inspirational day at Aberdeen University with an undergraduate who was one of the first beneficiaries of the Independent Living Fund, which became a passport to freedom and independence for thousands. Then the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act obliged employers and service providers to make "reasonable adjustments" to accommodate the needs of disabled people. Slowly, the playing field was getting more even.

Now that the Coalition is hounding as many of the disabled as possible off benefits altogether, it's hard to remember that both these pieces of landmark legislation came from the Tories. It suited the Conservative principles of individualism and self-determination.

Since then, people who once would have endured a bleak existence in residential care (or never left home) have begun to take their place in public life, in the workplace, in the arts, in the shops and on public transport. We've learned to watch our language. Out went unthinking journalistic shorthand like "blind" and "wheelchair bound", which emphasised disability, in favour of the more neutral "partially sighted" and "wheelchair user".

I made these changes unconsciously and developed close friendships with several severely disabled people without ever truly changing my perceptions to focus on disabled people's abilities. So hats off to Paralympics broadcaster Channel 4 for their epic advertisement depicting some of the stars of Paralympic TeamGB, intercut with scenes of how they came by their disabilities, including a car crash, an explosion in Afghanistan and a heavily-pregnant woman. The pounding backing track is Harder Than You Think, by Public Enemy. The sports stars' disabilities are neither hidden nor emphasised and there's not a trace of self-pity. Rather, they stare defiantly at the camera and perform feats of extreme athleticism most of us could never aspire to. Now I can't wait for the games to begin.

The supreme irony of all this is that it is taking place against a backdrop of gargantuan cuts in the disability benefits budget, cuts that threaten to rob some GB medal winners of their independence and prevent the next generation of Paralympians from ever getting to the starting line. After two decades of solid progress, the disability rights movement is reduced to trying to protect what it has achieved. A process supposedly designed to make them more independent is in reality returning them to victimhood. Simultaneously, a Tory narrative that depicts benefit claimants as "scroungers", is exposing disabled people to a rising tide of verbal and physical abuse.

It gets worse. Atos – the French company that has generated so much anger and despair by telling thousands of disabled people that they aren't disabled at all – is even a sponsor. It's like al Qaeda sponsoring Miss World.

Let's enjoy the Paralympics but use it to tell the Coalition that disabled people have higher living costs and cutting their benefits jeopardises their ability not only to compete but to live a decent life.

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