Watched the opening of the Paralympic games last night. The theme was enlightenment and it was quite spectacular. I know this post isn’t exactly going to be original because what I am about to say, though with different words, is being said by others at present. Steve Birrell’s article in the London Evening Standard, two evenings ago, is one excellent example. We might be giving Gold to our Paralympic champions from today, but in reality many disabled people are receiving Tin. This not just in financial terms, as benefits are squeezed and assessments for Disability Living Allowances become a mile field of impossibility, but in the attitudes of people and what opportunities those with disability really do have in society.
Steve Birrell told many facts I didn’t know. However, one of them, having recently worked with a child with Special Educational Needs, stood out for me. That only one in 12 adults will learning difficulties are actually in employment. Most people know very little about the real issues of those facing disability and may have never worked with, nor had an honest conversation with them. Last night, we saw amazing and brave people flying on trip wires with limbs missing and gliding through the sky with effortless simplicity. In reality, if you are in a wheelchair you have to face the problem of sometimes to few disabled parking slots and negotiating a mind field of obstacles; of pushing crowds too busy to stop or help another disabled person. It’s amazing what you find out when you have to actually do it for yourself. You are on two legs pushing the wheelchair or trying to find the parking pace in a popular tourist attraction. You quickly come into difficulty with frustration.
The question I want to ask is, do we really care about disabled people? Ask yourself that question honestly. An elderly friend recently returned from the Philippines was negotiating heavy luggage on the Tube on his way home. In the country where we had come from, a different kind of respect and tolerance is shown to the infirm and to those who need assistance. My friend had been back in the UK for only a few minutes when he was nearly trampled down by people pushing past his suitcase as he was hurled some insults about “getting out-of-the-way granddad” and he isn’t even classed as disabled. Do our society really champion those who don’t quite fit the “norm” in society or who appear weaker and infirm?
While I worked in the NHS there was a huge emphasis, within my mandatory training, on respecting diversity, equality and disability. In fact, on applications forms you are encouraged to declare your disability, even when it comes to mental health. Depression can now be on such a tick list, if you feel it has or does severely impact upon your life. Indeed, much has been done to potentially give equal opportunities to all disabled people with employment legislation. The promotion of an attitude, “you can come out of the closet and say how this disability has affected you and we will care and understand.” (However,whether you actually get the job or promotion is another matter)! There are aids for the disabled person that are imaginative and extremely useful like never before. My own father who is now registered partially sighted has discovered this and the support and practical help he has received has been excellent.
However, for myself, even with nearly 30 years of caring for others in the Health Service, it wasn’t until the last six months that I realised, even more the harsh realities, the struggle and for carers the loneliness of what living with disability can actually mean. I have said to most friends that the child I worked with in education taught me far more than I could ever teach him. The complexity of character, the uniqueness of the human being. The challenge of my own mind set of thinking of what I thought was “normal.” What is normal anyway? And how the blueprint of living is not the same, and to be happy can take on many facets. I learnt further patience, humility, compassion, new-found fun and laughter more than I had ever done before. It was an honour and a great experience to be part of that young person’s life and one, even though that period has now ended, of whom I shall still keep in touch with I hope for a very long time.
What has this got to do with the Paralympics? My message is simple. Examine your real attitudes towards those with disability as you watch those games. Really look closer at what the government is really doing to the lives of genuine disabled people and speak out against it. Go out and meet, connect with a disabled person if you have little or no experience of them. Look at the wider picture of how we treat people who may need help, or who appear frailer or weaker than ourselves. Acknowledge the incredible strength, character and fortitude of a disabled person but also the power of our minds to help us adapt when disability strikes. How we can overcome the most appalling circumstances and injuries to still survive and to live with purpose. How disability could open doors and new ways of living and thinking, not close them?
Most disabled people do not expect to get a Gold medal or are a Paralympic champion. They have no need to prove they are worth Gold as they are that already. But let’s not give them the medal of Tin, of being let down, ignored, marginalised and really on the edges of society. As we clap and applaud them over the next 11 days, let’s make sure that once all the hype has died down and all games packed away, that we continue to really give the disabled person the respect and the attention they deserve. For them not to go back into the shadows and be forgotten as we, the so-called “able-bodied”, get on with our lives.
I hope this blog will inspire you to think more about the lives of disabled people and how we can help them to achieve their full potential. Thank you for reading.
( The above image I know does not represent the Paralympic flag or movement but was the closest image I had, with an Olympic theme, to be appropriate for this blog’s content)