The Paralympics celebrate the strength of disabled people – and so do all the protests that accompany them

The Paralympics celebrate the strength of disabled people – and so do all the protests that accompany themPosted on September 1, 2012 by JJ

By SONIA POULTON PUBLISHED: 17:36, 30 August 2012 | UPDATED: 20:01, 30 August 2012

In a dazzling and, at times, death-defying display, Paralympics 2012 opened in spectacular style as the images whipped around the world for the pleasure of billions.

For those who were previously concerned that the ceremony would be a poor man’s version of ‘the main event’ – The Olympics – such thoughts were deftly dispelled with the sheer scale and artistry before us.

It was a visual, and heart-warming, feast that challenged perceptions from the off.

Who, for example, could have imagined paralympian Baroness Grey Thompson arriving air-bound into the Olympic Stadium in her chariot-chair?

Dazzling: The opening ceremony of the Paralympics was a voyage of discovery, aptly called 'Enlightenment' and featured disabled gymnasts suspended from the stadium

Dazzling: The opening ceremony of the Paralympics was a voyage of discovery, aptly called ‘Enlightenment’ and featured disabled gymnasts suspended from the stadium

How the event managed not to be cheesy or patronising I have no idea – but it did.

Directed by Jenny Sealey, who is deaf, the opening ceremony was bold and brave with larger-than-life theatrics and all-round good spirit that filled the Olympic Stadium once again.

By the time it closed, several hours later, I felt that same buoyancy and pride that swept the world a few short weeks ago during Olympic fever.

It was one of awe and of witnessing humanity at its best. A time when the human spirit is capable of pushing itself to unimaginable heights through sheer hard graft and tenacity.

The Paralympics, as countless observers have been quick to tell us, are the epitome of such human courage and fortitude.

Leaving aside the questionable prejudice of such a thought, many able-bodied people do view Paralympians as a type of ‘Superhuman’ – a widely regarded perception that Channel 4 capitalised on for their advertising – as opposed to the common-or-garden, regular athlete, that is.

Inspiring: Celebrating GB’s previous Paralymic successes, former Paralympic athlete Tanni Grey-Thompson made a show-stopping entrance into the stadium

It’s a seductive idea. The premise of a disabled athlete – that of someone who will pursue their goals despite the obstacles that may surround them, including the limitations of their own bodies – is a figure of great admiration for most wide-eyed observers.

But let us be under no illusion. A paralympian is no more like a regular disabled person than I am like Usain Bolt or Rebecca Adlington. Paralympians, just like Olympians, are unique in their field and should be regarded as such.

So, to be clear, paralympians are not a representation of the majority of disabled people. Even if Cameron and Co. would like us to buy into that belief.

That aside, last night’s Opening Ceremony has left many people salivating over the coming few weeks where human endeavour will be displayed in all its finery.

How bizarre, then, that at the same time we are celebrating the achievements of disabled people worldwide, including our own GB team, thousands more disabled people are forced to campaign around the UK for what amounts to the most basic of human rights.

Sporting heroes: GB wheelchair tennis player Peter Norfolk carries the flag during the Opening Ceremony. GB are expected to notch up over 100 medals at the Games

For, despite the clear pride towards paralympians, and nowhere is that more evident than amongst the UK’s disabled population, there is the proverbial elephant in the room that people cannot ignore and are no longer prepared to tolerate.

This year, despite widespread revulsion and opposition, David Cameron’s Coalition has forced through some of the most punishing and harsh measures – via the Welfare Reform Bill – that disabled people have experienced in my lifetime.

Financial life-lines have been severed and state-assistance stripped back, and in some cases completely withdrawn, as disabled people are forced into a system that will lessen personal independence and increase state dependence. This will almost certainly result in ‘disabled homes’ up and down the country.

So, during the Paralympics, the anger and sense of betrayal felt by thousands of disabled people, and mostly contained within social network sites and on blogs, has erupted onto our streets and is refusing to be quiet.

For the next fortnight, the UK will witness numerous protests around the UK and led by hard-working campaign group, Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC).

From London to Wales – and all points in between – campaigners, many of them disabled, are taking to the streets and shouting loud about the name they deplore the most (and are sponsors of the Paralympics), Atos.

For the uninitiated, Atos International is the French IT company behind the Coalition’s controversial fit-to-work test, the Work Capability Assessment (WCA). It is considered the enemy of thousands of sick and disabled people and those who care for them.

In the year 2010-2011, Atos conducted approximately 738,000 WCA’s, on behalf of the Department for Work and Pensions. The contract is a substantial one, and together with other Government departments, Atos enjoy a 3billion pounds deal with our country.

The WCA, a tick-box system has severe limitations, as outlined in a recent Channel 4 ‘Dispatches’ programme and BBC’s Panorama, and the problems are legendary. I am no fan of it and have outlined why in a previous piece.

Difficulty: The Welfare Reform Bill has been the subject of extensive criticism, and has been described as the most punishing measures introduced for decades

The upshot with WCA is that severely ill and disabled people are being ruled as sufficiently fit to be in gainful employment – although with over 2million unemployed and with the Coalition closing down Remploy factories, designed specifically for disabled workers, it would be interesting to see to which jobs they are planning to put these people.

The problem with Atos is that their system is instrumental in classifying people as fit-to-work when many patently are not.

According to research conducted by the Daily Mirror 32 people die each week in the UK after they have been ruled as fit and able to work.

For many people, subject to WCA and first introduced by Blair’s Labour, the inclusion of ATOS as sponsors at the Paralympics, and in a role they have enjoyed for the past 10 years, is simply too much to bear.

This coupling – that of ‘Superhuman’ and ‘killing machine’ – is viewed as little more than Coalition-sanctioned propaganda – and on a global scale at that.

Some observers, failing to see the big picture, have asked why blame Atos when it is Chris Grayling’s DWP who are responsible for the misery caused to disabled people?

They say it is the DWP who pay to retain the service of Atos so surely it is the DWP, solely, who should be on the receiving end of public opprobrium?

Frankly, that misses the point – and by a long and unintelligible one. It is not the DWP who are conducting tests to ascertain whether someone is capable for work or not, it is Atos and no-one has forced Atos to do it and rake in billions while they are about it.

Using the argument that they are only supplying a service and obeying orders is not dissimilar to the one trotted out by Nazi officers as they shepherded human beings into gas chambers. They were said to be merely conforming to requests, and they were, but it didn’t clear them of their role in the barbaric treatment.

I support an abolition of the Work Capability Assessment. I believe we need a better and more robust system. To this end, I have launched my own appeal, and counter-signed by six thousand people, to Labour leader Ed Miliband to oppose the Coalition’s use of WCA and Atos. It can be found here.

Campaign: For the next fortnight, the UK will witness numerous protests around the UK led by campaign group Disabled People Against Cuts (DPAC)

However, Atos sponsorship of the Paralympics is not the only reason people have turned out onto the streets to protest. They are also doing so out of fear.

For, aside from the all-out assault on disability rights from the Coalition, there is now the issue of how public perception is impacting disabled people.

Several hours before the opening ceremony of the Paralympics, Dr. Mark Bush, head of policy at disabled charity SCOPE, told SKY News that attitudes towards disabled people have ‘hardened’ in the last six months.

This is not just a deliberately emotive statement concocted for a soundbyte generation, but a fact that is backed up empirically where new statistics tell us that physical and verbal abuse towards disabled people is at its highest figure since records began.

So it is that one particularly pro-active member of the disabled community, Adam Lotun, has decided to take matters into his own hands and stand as a Prospective Parliamentary Candidate in the Corby by-election.

This position has become available following the resignation of out-going Tory MP Louise Mensch and Adam, despite his disabilities and sometime ill-health, has grasped the baton thrown down by Mensch – and is going for it.

As a front runner for disability issues and numerous direct action campaigns, Adam Lotun has his own physical and mobility impairments to contend with, including the use of a manual wheelchair. He uses two hearing aids, has Obstructive Sleep Apnoea – which requires a machine to help him sleep – and he has Crohn’s disease.

Despite all this, I have seldom known more of a worthy or determined contender who deserves election to the House of Commons. A place that could benefit immeasurably from his personal knowledge and experience.

Disability is not theoretical to Adam, which it so patently is to the vast majority of the Coalition who remain embarrassingly ignorant of the issues.

Understanding: Adam Lotun is a front runner for disability issues and numerous direct action campaigns

Lotun knows what it is like to not be able to use public transport because his disability has failed, yet again, to be accommodated. He knows what it is like to turn up for another parliamentary debate only to find that he is obstructed from taking part because there are problems with wheelchair access. Most poignantly, he knows what it is like to try and support his young family despite the savage cuts he, and other disabled people, have experienced.

He told me: “I have decided to stand because I am disillusioned with the derogatory rhetoric and falsehoods that are spun out to the press. This has led to disabled people being demonised and vilified in the eyes of General Society.”

Indeed it has but the fightback from disabled campaigners is under way and the spirit of people is a sight to behold.

Take for example, Pat Onions, a feisty campaigner, who despite her own disabilities, has collected a phenomenal 43,000 signatures opposing Government cuts. Pat wanted to create a place where home-bound people could oppose George Osborne’s lethal austerity measures and how they effect those who need assistance. Pat’s Petition can be signed here.

So, let us remember, along with our cheers for the great human spirit that is the Paralympians, and away from the splendour of the Olympic Stadium, our disabled people have been treated as anything but heroes.

And, frankly, there is no time like the present to make amends for that.

More from Sonia Poulton…- Empathise with ‘outsider’ Julian Assange if you want, Mr Galloway, but don’t diminish sexual assault while doing it22/08/12

Sonia Poulton