I am not disabled, and neither is anyone is my family. I won’t pretend I know anything about living with a disability, because like the majority of the British public, I have no idea.
But jumping amongst 80,000 people in the Athletics Stadium on Sunday night shrieking and clapping David Weir around the track to win Gold in the 5000m was a step for me, like many others, to understanding one thing; it hasn’t changed the way I think about disability, I’m still none the wiser about what it’s actually like to live with a disability everyday. But it sure has changed the way I think about ability.
The Paralympics will hopefully profoundly influence the nation’s perception of what it means to have a physical disability, and the phenomenal psychological ability to overcome that disability in order to, in this context, achieve sporting success. The most poignant way I’ve come to understand disability is because it’s been made personal.
We are lucky enough to live in a country that is devoting 150 hours of prime time television to disabled sport, compared to the meagre coverage in the states, and the non-existent recognition of the Games throughout much of the rest of the world. More people will watch the Games on TV than they will in the flesh, so the broadcasting pitch was more important than ever in providing a platform for attitudes to disability to be indelibly changed forever. The way they’ve done that is to make it personal, and it is perhaps that alone which is the greatest change in public perception that’s happened so far.
Who could fail to be moved by the stories of Martine Wright who lost both her legs in the 7/7 bombings, who now plays sitting volleyball for team GB, or Derek Derenalagi, discus thrower, who had both his legs blown off in Afghanistan 5 years ago. Who could fail to be moved to tears by Ellie Simmond’s emotional speech after she won her first Gold in the pool, not because you pity her, but because you truly admire her as an athlete and as a genuinely lovely girl?
Understanding these people’s journeys and asking how they came to be disabled doesn’t undermine or patronise the respect you can have towards them as athletes, it should only enhance your admiration. The stories of how many of the athletes became disabled through birth, injury or illness is what’s captured the hearts of the nation, but not out of pity. The public have connected with the Paralympic athletes’ feats of endeavour because they have understood their stories, their journeys, and the barriers they’ve had to overcome to achieve their successes.
Stephen Hawking opened the Paralympics by saying, “Look up at the stars and not down at your feet. Be curious.” And I think curiosity about disability in all its forms, but more importantly about ability in the face of incredible adversity, is what’s going to shape our generation’s attitude to reforming funding and public services for disabled people.
As I left the stadium, a little girl pointed at the prosthetic leg of one of the spectators getting on the Tube. Her mum, instead of hushing her daughter’s curiosity, let her point, quietly acknowledging that her daughter could grow up with the curiosity to wonder, “what can he do with that amazing contraption, rather than what can’t he do with it”.