Do the Paralympics put extra pressure on disabled people?

Philippa Willitts and Frances Ryan debate whether being told to be an inspiration is any easier than being called a villain.

Philippa Willitts: As someone who is normally indifferent, at best, towards sport, I was surprised by how engaging and entertaining I found the Olympic Games. There was something about the best athletes in the world doing incredible things with their bodies that was simply captivating. As a result, I am now looking forward to the Paralympic Games, to continue to see elite sports people performing seemingly superhuman feats.

However, I do fear that the commentary, while helpful to listen to during the Olympic Games, will instead be a source of frustration and annoyance during the Paralympics. The narrative which often underpins disability sport is one of "inspiration" but not for the athletes' sporting achievements. Instead, they are praised for managing and coping with their impairments, something which they have little choice in doing.

Oscar Pistorius was the first amputee to ever participate in the Olympic Games, and the commentary which accompanied footage of him was centred, at times, around the circumstances of his impairment. I did not hear about the childhoods of any of his fellow sprinters but for Pistorius it was an inevitable feature. Will we hear details of the "tragedies" which befell every Paralympian who takes part in the games, do you think?

Frances Ryan: I think there’s often a craving for "tragedy" – it’s human nature, and certainly the nature of the media. The Paralympics can’t help but feed it. Set on a world stage, we get the disabled, on mass, triumphing over adversity. To broadcasters, this isn’t just a sporting event. It’s a movie. Oscar Pistorius is this year’s star. But like in any good movie, the stars have to play the role the audience wants to see. The tagline to Channel Four’s (otherwise incredible) Paralympic advert says it all: they are the "superhumans".

Perhaps now more than ever, this feels worryingly like playing to society’s need to portray the disabled in ways that makes everyone else comfortable. To categorise them; whether it’s negatively as a "scrounger" or positively as an "inspiration". One isn’t better than the other for me. I want disabled people to be viewed as "heroes" no more than I want them to be viewed as "villains". Equality comes when you’re just people. Not special, not worse, but like everyone else.

The Paralympics has always seemed confused on this point. Is it disability pride to see disability not ignored, but focused on? I’m not convinced it’s empowering to be viewed as an inspiration, or inclusion to, rather than be part of the Olympics, be separated.

PW: I agree: the "inspiration" narrative isn’t much better than the "scrounger" one. Both place us in a position of being "other" which then keeps us separate and different.

It is refreshing, whenever the Paralympics comes along, to see lots of different disabled people represented on mainstream TV, and not as a one-off in a soap or the butt of jokes in a comedy show. It can be helpful, particularly for disabled children, or newly-disabled adults, to see people "like themselves", but it may also create unrealistic expectations, or feel alienating. If you are an amputee with no interest in pushing your physical limits and the only time you see other amputees is when they are doing amazing feats of strength or endurance, the shared impairment is no guarantee of a sense of recognition between the two.

Because non-disabled people can have such a reductive view of what disability is, the Paralympics could even create a strange expectation for all disabled people to become international athletes. This pressure is already even coming from Paralympians themselves. Athlete Jerome Singleton told the Guardian:

“We all know somebody with a disability and now we can point to the Games and ask them: 'Why aren't you seeking to become a Paralympian?'”.

It has been in the news recently that disability hate crime is at an all time high, it will be interesting to see if the Paralympics, and the way they are reported and commented upon, affects the public’s view of disabled people.

FR: Asking a disabled person why they aren’t trying to be a Paralympian is as much use as asking every woman why she isn’t trying to be Jessica Ennis. It will also generally get you the same answer: I don’t want to and/or I can’t. Unfortunately, in the case of the disabled, it’s an answer that (somewhat bizarrely) risks being held against them. There’s a growing need to prove yourself as a disabled person, whether that’s being weak enough to really be disabled or putting enough effort in to not be. Britain has become a paradox that simultaneously wants its disabled ‘needy’ to deserve benefits and ‘super able’ to deserve respect.
The person in all of this gets lost – and once we de-humanize, hatred is always going to come next. That’s what hate crime is, really. A hatred of something that you are, deemed to define a person to such a degree that they are simply that thing.

It results in murder. It results in even a Paralympian like Tanni Grey Thompson speaking of how she had to crawl off a train and being greeted, not with empathy by the public, but abuse. We can trace it to fear, we can call it ignorance, but I’m still left asking how this is happening.

PW: I think there has been an increasing narrative, from the government and certain parts of the media, which demonises disabled people. There has been so much talk of benefit cheats and abuses of the system that people who don’t know any better have started to believe that that is the sole defining feature of disabled people, despite the statistics not backing that up (0.5% of DLA claims are fraudulent, according to the government’s own figures).

I fear Paralympians will be held up as examples of disabled people being able to achieve superb results because they put their minds to it, further fuelling attitudes that all disabled people should at least be able to work, thus increasing criticism of those who can’t. Many people won’t realise that a significant number of the British Paralympic team will be recipients of Disabled Living Allowance (DLA) themselves, so any perceived disconnect between Paralympians and benefit claimants will be an inaccurate one.

FR: Many people don’t even realise what DLA is. It shows the ignorance we’re working with when claiming a benefit that has nothing to do with unemployment – and in fact helps disabled people stay in work – leads to abuse of “get a job!”  

The country’s biggest selling national newspaper proudly runs a "Blitz the Fiddler" campaign. The Work and Pensions Secretary calls a system where 0.5 per cent of claimants are not genuine “riddled with abuse and fraud”. We’re in a climate of ignorance, fed by scare-mongering and lies propagated by those in positions of power. Running alongside an unequal, failing economic system that breeds fear, need, and self-protection, it is potent.

For all the concern that the Paralympics could exacerbate this, there has to be hope there too. Perceptions of disability can only improve when the masses get their images, not by reading headlines, but by seeing disabled people. It has to go beyond the sporting arena, to public services, the media, and Parliament.

Disabled people need to start being viewed as people. Only then can empathy and understanding start. A society that feels, not fear, but a responsibility towards its own members? That will be "superhuman".

Frances Ryan is a freelance writer, writing predominantly on disability, feminism, and LGBT rights. She is currently completing a doctorate on equality of opportunity. She tweets as @frances__ryan and blogs here. Philippa Willitts is a freelance writer and proofreader. She tweets as @philippawrites and her website is here.


Team GB's David Weir competes in the Paralympics test event earlier this year. Photograph: Getty Images
Photo: Getty Images
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What's to be done about racial inequality?

David Cameron's words on equal opportunities are to be welcomed - now for some action, says Sunder Katwala.

David Cameron made the strongest, clearest and most high profile statement about ethnic inequalities and the need to tackle discrimination ever yet offered by a British Prime Minister in his leader’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in Manchester.
“Picture this. You’ve graduated with a good degree. You send out your CV far and wide. But you get rejection after rejection. What’s wrong? It’s not the qualifications or the previous experience. It’s just two words at the top: first name, surname. Do you know that in our country today: even if they have exactly the same qualifications, people with white-sounding names are nearly twice as likely to get call backs for jobs than people with ethnic-sounding names? … That, in 21st century Britain, is disgraceful. We can talk all we want about opportunity, but it’s meaningless unless people are really judged equally”, said Cameron.
While the proof of the pudding will be in the eating, this was a powerfully argued Prime Ministerial intervention – and a particularly well-timed one, for three reasons.

Firstly, the Prime Minister was able to root his case in an all-but-universally accepted appeal for equal opportunities. It will always prove more difficult in practice to put political energy and resources behind efforts to remedy discrimination against a minority of the population unless a convincing fairness case is made that values cherished across our whole society are at stake. Cameron’s argument, that any party which tells itself that it is the party of the ‘fair chance’ and ‘the equal shot’ must have a response when there is such clear evidence of discrimination, should prove persuasive to a Conservative Party that has not seen race inequalities as its natural territory. Cameron argued that the same principles should animate responses to discrimination when it comes to race, gender and social class. Put like that, wanting job interviews to be fair – by eradicating conscious and unconscious patterns of bias wherever possible – would strike most Britons as offering as clear a case of the values of fair play as wanting the best baker to win the Great British Bake-Off on television.
Secondly, Cameron’s intervention comes at a potential "tipping point" moment for fair opportunities across ethnic groups. Traditionally, ethnic discrimination has been discussed primarily through the lens of its impact on the most marginalised. Certainly, persistent gaps in the criminal justice system, mental health provision and unemployment rates remain stark for some minority groups. What has been less noticed is the emergence of a much more complex pattern of opportunity and disadvantage – not least as a consequence of significant ethnic minority progress.

Most strikingly of all, in educational outcomes, historic attainment gaps between ethnic minorities and their white British peers have disappeared over the last decade. In the aggregate, ethnic minorities get better GCSE results on average. Ethnic minority Britons are more likely, not less likely, to be university graduates than their fellow citizens. 

As a result of that progress, Cameron’s intervention comes at a moment of significant potential – but significant risk too. Britain’s ethnic minorities are the youngest and fastest-growing sections of British society. If that educational progress translates into economic success, it will make a significant contribution to the "Great British Take-Off" that the Prime Minister envisions. But if that does not happen, with educational convergence combined with current ‘ethnic penalties’ in employment and income persisting, then that potential could well curdle into frustration that the British promise of equal opportunities is not being kept.  Cameron also mirrored his own language in committing himself to both a ‘fight against extremism’ and a ‘fight against discrimination’: while those are distinct challenges and causes, actively pursuing both tracks simultaneously has the potential, at least, depolarise some debates about responses to extremism  - and so to help deepen the broad social coalitions we need for a more cohesive society too.

Thirdly, Cameron’s challenge could mark an important deepening in the political competition between the major parties on race issues. Many have been struck by the increase in political attention on the centre-right to race issues over the last five to ten years. The focus has been on the politics of representation. By increasing the number of non-white Conservative MPs from two to seventeen since 2005, Cameron has sent a powerful signal that Labour’s traditional claim to be ‘the party of ethnic minorities’ would now be contested. Cameron was again able to celebrate in Manchester several ways in which his Cabinet and Parliamentary benches demonstrate many successful journeys of migrant and minority integration in British society. That might perhaps help to ease the fears, about integration being impossible in an era of higher immigration, which the Home Secretary had articulated the previous day.

So symbolism can matter. But facial diversity is not enough. The politics of ethnic minority opportunity needs to be about more than visits to gurdwaras, diversity nights at the party conference fringes and unveiling statues of Mahatma Gandhi in Parliament Square. Jeremy Corbyn’s first speech as Labour leader did include one brief celebratory reference to Britain’s ethnic diversity – “as I travelled the country during the leadership campaign it was wonderful to see the diversity of all the people in our country” – and to Labour bringing in more black, Asian and ethnic minority members - but it did not include any substantial content on discrimination. Tim Farron acknowledged during his leadership campaign that the Liberal Democrats have struggled to get to the starting-line on race and diversity at all. The opposition parties too will no doubt now be challenged to match not just the Prime Minister’s rhetorical commitment to challenging inequalities but also to propose how it could be done in practice.

Non-white Britons expect substance, not just symbolism from all of the parties on race inequalites.  Survation’s large survey of ethnic minority voters for British Future showed the Conservatives winning more ethnic minority support than ever before – but just 29 per cent of non-white respondents were confident that the Conservatives are committed to treating people of every ethnic background equally, while 54 per cent said this of Labour. Respondents were twice as likely to say that the Conservatives needto do more to reach out – and the Prime Minister would seem to be committed to showing that he has got that message.  Moreover, there is evidence that ethnic inclusion could be important in broadening a party’s appeal to other younger, urban and more liberal white voters too – which is why it made sense for this issue to form part of a broader attempt by David Cameron to colonise the broad centre of British politics in his Manchester speech.

But the case for caution is that there has been limited policy attention to ethnic inequalities under the last two governments. Restaurateur Iqbal Wahhab decided to give up his role chairing an ethnic minority taskforce for successive governments, unconvinced there was a political commitment to do much more than convene a talking shop. Lib Dem equalities minister Lynne Featherstone did push the CV discrimination issue – but many Conservatives were sceptical. Cameron’s new commitment may face similar challenges from those whose instinct is to worry that more attention to discrimination or bias in the jobs market will mean more red tape for business.

Labour had a separate race inequalities manifesto in 2015, outside of its main election manifesto, while the Conservative manifesto did not contain significant commitments to racial inequality. The mid-campaign launch in Croydon of a series of race equality pledges showed an increasing awareness of the growing importance of ethnic minority votes - though the fact that they all involved aiming for increases of 20 per cent by 2020 gave them a slightly back-of-the-envelope feel. 

Prime Ministerial commitments have an important agenda-setting function. A generation ago the Stephen Lawrence case opened the eyes of middle England to racist violence and police failures, particularly through the Daily Mail’s persistent challenging of those injustices. A Conservative Prime Minister’s words could similarly make a big difference in the mainstreaming of the issue of inequalities of opportunity. What action should follow words? Between now and next year’s party conference season, that must will now be the test for this Conservative government – and for their political opponents too. 

Sunder Katwala is director of British Future and former general secretary of the Fabian Society.