Thanks to the Paralympics disability may suddenly have become mainstream, but while wider society may be openly talking about those who are disabled I still fear it is not listening to what we have to say.
The papers have veered from castigating disabled people as state scroungers to elevating them as a source of inspiration of how to live life properly. It is great that we can use this spotlight on disability to highlight the unfair cuts to benefits that disabled people are currently facing but this focus on welfare shows just how far society has to go until disabled people are seen as part of everyday life. Inevitably the discussion around disability remains centres around issues of economic value because society struggles to understand the value that disabled people contribute elsewhere.
Disabled people, whom these days I count myself amongst after my degenerative illness Cystic Fibrosis has scarred my lungs to such an extent that I now find it very difficult to walk, don’t actually want to be venerated or viewed with suspicion - we just want to be seen as the normal people that we are. Yes we have extra needs that we need help with but we want to contribute to and impact on mainstream culture in the same way that other numerical minorities such as gay people and black people do.
At the opening ceremony, David Cameron said the fact that competing Paralympic athletes “overcome disadvantages” would help “change people’s minds” about disability, but the games alone cannot be expected to widen perceptions, given that they focus on only a tiny niche of those with a disability. Instead I fear it will just impose a different set of able-bodied expectations onto the disabled community.
The discourse around the Paralympics from scrounger to hero unfortunately shifts stereotypes from one of being a drain on taxpayers (always forgetting that many disabled people are also taxpayers) to one in which the disabled must “overcome” their disability to earn respect from society. Yet locked into this very logic of ‘overcoming’ is the assumption that to be able-bodied it better than to be disabled. Edwina Currie’s unfortunate tweet during the opening ceremony that the Italian team were “gorgeous even in wheelchairs” epitomises the concept that disability is something to be looked past, not something that in itself could be attractive.
But ask disabled people if they would prefer to be able-bodied and you won’t get the answer that you expect. Cystic Fibrosis is slowly overwhelming me, yet I can’t say I would rather not have it because everything I have achieved, everyone I love, everything I am, is bound up with my identity as someone who has Cystic Fibrosis. I can find creative ways to accept and navigate my limitations, I can find happiness in doing so, but I can’t ‘overcome’ my illness - it is incurable.
If we want perceptions to change, then society needs to learn from our acceptance of our disabilities: it needs to learn to accept them, too and embrace the added diversity we can bring to communities because of our disabilities not in spite of them.
In a society in which our differences were appreciated and valued, we would be more welcomed by employers, find more thought given to accessible transport, and generate more outrage at benefit cuts that threaten the independence of disabled people. The fantastic Channel 4 Paralympic advert features a lyric by Public Enemy which resonates with me: “Thank you for letting us be ourselves”. The Paralympics may have got the debate started but we have a long way to go until society’s perceptions will truly allow this.