The greatest ever Paralympic Games are in prospect.
Even before the start of the Olympics, ticket sales for the Paralympics, which begin today, have broken all records. Following the success of Team GB at the able-bodied games, there is pressure on Paralympics GB to reach the target of 103 medals, one more than in Beijing. It is a tough challenge but the target is a healthy sign of the esteem in which the Paralympics are held.
That is a welcome development. But while the sporting achievement and personal triumph of almost 5000 athletes will be a cause for celebration, these Paralympics must also be judged on their legacy for all disabled people. Much has been made of how the Olympics have inspired people to take up sport. The potential of the Paralympics to transform lives, not only in terms of fitness but in raising self-esteem, is even greater. Sports facilities must be made more available to disabled people if the opportunity is not to be lost. But it is even more important that, in the enthusiasm for the athletic prowess of our Paralympians, we do not lose sight of the fundamental needs of disabled people.
The protest by disability activists over sponsorship of the Paralympics by Atos, the company carrying out tests for sickness benefits, demonstrates the disconnect between the achievements of elite athletes and the daily lives of most disabled people. Many fear their benefits will be cut when the Welfare Reform Act is introduced next year.
Unless the Government recognises that benefits such as Disability Living Allowance are necessary for disabled people to participate in society, the inspiration which ought to flow from the extraordinary achievements of our Paralympians will be lost in the struggle to make ends meet.
It was Dr Ludwig Guttmann's belief in the power of sport to motivate people traumatised by severe spinal injuries that prompted him to stage an athletic competition for his patients at Stoke Mandeville Hospital. This was to coincide with the 1948 London Olympics. Sixty-four years on, the 11-day spectacle of sporting achievement, skill and courage will be testament to the power of focusing on what individuals can do, not what they have lost. The 2012 Paralympians will rightly be applauded but we should not forget the thousands of other disabled people who have an equally heroic struggle just to lead as normal a life as possible.
Dr Guttman said his aim was to make disabled people taxpayers. Yet more than half a century on, employers remain reluctant to take on disabled employees and those who succeed in gaining employment often face daunting challenges to get to and from work.
Making all public transport accessible to people with disabilities would be a significant help.
In London, disabled Paralympians will demonstrate an athleticism on a par with their able-bodied counterparts and in a spectacle every bit as thrilling. They should be recognised for their abilities, not their disabilities. That would be a fitting legacy.
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