At the one-year anniversary of London’s Paralympics – back in 2013 – I wrote for the New Statesman that, far from the optimistic promises of a “legacy” made at the time of the Games, things appeared to be getting worse for disabled people in Britain.
This, if you recall, was the era of unprecedented cuts to disability support. Against the backdrop of public adoration for Paralympians, new policies like the Bedroom Tax and the abolition of Disability Living Allowance (DLA) – as well as less publicised measures, such as time limits on sickness benefits – were spawning widespread private misery.
As the Rio Games draw to a close this weekend, and we celebrate Team GB bringing home a gold medal haul that surpasses even London 2012’s success, it’s particularly grim that when it comes to the wider treatment of disabled people in this country, years on, we find ourselves in no better state.
Not only have policies like the Bedroom Tax not been repealed, the choices of successive governments mean they’ve been joined by others. From the continual gutting of social care, which is leaving people without help to get to the toilet, to the impending £30-a-week reduction in benefits for some disabled people who are too ill to work, the cuts just keep on coming.
To put that in context, the UK is currently being investigated by the United Nations for alleged grave and systematic violations of disabled people’s rights because of these so-called “welfare reforms” – notably the first country in the world to receive such an ignominious status.
There are indications that public attitudes to disability have improved since London 2012, as Dame Anne Begg MP, the first full-time wheelchair user in the House of Commons, told me back in 2013.
But equally there are fears that – fed by negative government rhetoric around “scroungers” – the Games helped build “a false impression of disability”. One where if certain disabled people can do great things, any disabled person can, and judgment of why they are not soon follows. If a Paralympian can do it, why can’t you?
The binary division between Paralympians and ordinary disabled people – one as striver and the other as skiver – isn’t simply a means to beat the latter with a stick but goes to the centre of a damaging cultural understanding of disability that is affecting all disabled people.
It’s the myth that enables the simultaneous adoration for Paralympians and vilification of disabled people generally. Success comes from how hard the individual tries, and failure from how lazy they are. As Channel 4’s own Paralympic tagline this year has told us: “There’s no such thing as ‘can’t’.”
In reality, what a disabled person can do is rooted in something as mundane as whether or not the state deems them eligible for help to lease a car. The government’s abolition of DLA, replaced by the widely-criticised Personal Independence Payments (PIP), is currently seeing 400-500 cars removed from disabled people each week. That includes Paralympians.
Carly Tait, a wheelchair racer who came sixth in her race in Rio last week, was the first to speak out about having her “lifeline” car removed. Hannah Cockroft, one of the poster girls for London’s Paralympics, has talked of being “scared” that she would lose her independence when reassessed for PIP.
As Theresa May wishes “inspiring Paralympians” luck and now talks of an extra-long honours list to reflect Britain’s sporting triumphs, the government is making social security cuts that could well impact on their success in the future. Won a gold medal in Rio? Hoping to do the same in Tokyo? Sorry, we’re taking away the car you need to get you to training.
That should matter to all of us – and not because disabled people should have to be Paralympians in order to deserve support. But because, four years on since London 2012, it’s a startling insight into where the cuts have led us.