What do disabled people really think about the Paralympics?

"If some think they can be the next Tanni Grey-Thompson then good luck to them, but the Paralympics represent disability in a very different way to the experiences of some disabled people."

These are the words of Charlie Willis, 25, a charity worker who has cerebral palsy. A Scope poll of 1,000 disabled people has found although disabled people believe Paralympic coverage can change attitudes, less than one in three said watching made them feel better about their body image or gave them a greater sense of belonging in society.

Edd Dracott spoke to three Britons living with disability, Charlie, Sarah and Jack, to illuminate what the Paralympics means to them and others alike.


Man films campaigners for Paralympic talent day
The Paralympics is viewed by millions (Nigel French/EMPICS Sport)

Charlie: "London 2012 increased the visibility of disability."

The Scope poll found 77% of disabled people thought coverage of the Paralympics had improved perceptions of disabled people in the UK.

Sarah Troke, 22, a disability activist living with psoriatic arthritism: "The most important and successful thing about the Paralympics is that it challenges the narrative that disabled people should be pitied. In some ways though the Paralympics perpetuates the idea that to be disabled your impairment must be visible and often associated with mobility aids.

Sarah Troke
Sarah's condition is invisible to onlookers but causes swelling in her joints, impairing her movement and causing her pain (Scope/Sarah Troke)

"This perception can negatively affect people with invisible disabilities, as it can prevent them from getting adjustments and overcoming barriers. As someone with an invisible disability that fluctuates watching the Paralympics makes me feel empowered as part of the disabled community, but also left out."


Tanni Grey-Thompson crosses the line in her wheelchair
With 11 golds Tanni Grey Thompson is one of Britain's most successful athletes (Gareth Copley/PA)

Sarah: "Watching the Paralympics makes me feel empowered. The Paralympics in 2012 were very important to me, even though I am by no means an athlete, as they helped me accept my impairment and realise it is society's barriers that disable me."

Although Sarah feels this way, Scope's poll found less than a third of disabled people felt watching the Paralympics made them feel better about their body image or more accepted in society.

Jack Welsh, 23, who works with organisations which support both young and disabled people, and is on the autistic spectrum: "Claims of how 'inspirational' or 'special' someone is who competes in a sport and is disabled aren't always helpful.

Jack Welsh
Jack is a campaigner for Scope's 'Scope for Change' programme (Scope/ Jack Welsh)

"They create the attitude you have to be exceptional to be able to and this puts a lot of undue pressure on disabled people."

Charlie: "The message has always been Paralympians are superhumans, but realistically Olympians are superhumans too. It is not because they have a disability Paralympians are superhuman. It devalues the whole thing."


Kyron Duke during the Men's Shot Put F40 at London 2012
Getting to training can be difficult for people with disabilities, even for Paralympic athletes (David Davies/PA)

The Guardian reported in April this year that Paralympic Athletes may have put people with disabilities off exercise.

Sarah: "For me, the Paralympics made me more enthusiastic about exercise, but it was difficult finding a type of exercise that I could do with my disability that wouldn't make my condition worse."

Charlie Willis
Charlie Willis, of the charity Independent Lives, tried wheelchair racing for almost a year (Scope/Charlie Willis)

Charlie: "I did exercise because of my own drive and because it was accessible, not because I wanted to be a Paralympian. If there were more funding for groups to set up their own clubs that would be an awesome thing, but as with people without disabilities not everyone wants to compete at an Olympic or Paralympic level.

"At school I did not feel as integrated into PE lessons as I wanted to and I understand it is difficult to get this, but more clubs appropriate for disability could help with this."

The Disability News Service recently reported the Government had stripped some Paralympians of their vehicles which are part of the Motability scheme.

Ben Rowlings competes in wheelchair racing
"There have been Paralympians who have been told that they are too able to claim Motability" said 20-year-old Paralympian Ben Rowlings. (Chris Radburn/PA)

In Scope's poll 70% saw protecting disability benefits from further cuts as their top priority for new Prime Minister Theresa May and her cabinet.

Charlie: "Access to training can be difficult and when even Paralympians are becoming unable to reach training by losing their vehicles it does not encourage others."

Jack: "Government cuts to grassroots facilities, like leisure centres, and investing more on competitive sport alone will not help encourage disabled people to be more active."

Change and the future

Paralympics in Rio with mascot
"You aren't going to change perceptions fully through the Paralympics" says Charlie, what difference might Rio make? (Silvia Izquierdo/AP)

Scope's findings indicated more than 70% of disabled people felt there had been no change in the way people act towards them since the London Paralympics. This included the way people talk to them and the awareness people had of their needs, while four-fifths thought accessibility to public transport, restaurants, clubs and shops had also not improved.

Sarah: "I think perceptions of disability have changed quite a lot in some respects, but also very little in other ways. Now there is a conversation about disability, and it's about rights rather than charity or pity. There is also much more representation of disabled people in the media. Although I do think there is a long way to go.

"In the future I would like to see more athletes with chronic conditions and less visible impairments in the Paralympics."

20-year-olds spell out 2020 in Tokyo
Tokyo's Paralympics in 2020 will bring disability back into the spotlight, but should this happen sooner? (Kenji Shimizu/AP)

Charlie: "Disabled people and their identity is individual. Even though two people may have the same impairment on paper their experiences are very different.

"Ultimately anything that challenges perceptions of disability is a good thing, but there needs to be other conversations about disability and ones which don't happen only every four years."

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