In a rather more politically-charged Thought for the Day than usual on this morning’s Today programme (07.49), Giles Fraser - former St Paul’s anarcho-canon who resigned over last year’s Occupy v CofE standoff – challenged our view of the disabled, in light of the Paralympics.
He voiced his reservations about the “dominant narrative of heroic achievement and disability bravely overcome”, arguing that it was unfair to take Paralympians as representative of disabled people, many of whom suffer “pain and loneliness”, which we collectively are unwilling to confront.
As the Paralympics take off this week, there are deeply political rumblings along these lines both about the government’s rhetoric on disabled people, and the controversial position of Atos as an official sponsor.
Amid the heady distractions of last night’s illuminated umbrellas and mass fruit consumption, a pressing debate has been sparked.
Take disability rights campaigner Nicky Clark’s comment in the Huffington Post that the government’s “ track record on language around disability and attitudes around disability seems to be set in stone”, asserting that we should dispel “the picture of disabled people as heroic saints or helpless,” and calling the Department for Work and Pensions (DWP) the “real problem.”
Another activist in the same piece said if politicians capitalised on “Paralympian heroes”, it would “stick in the throat”.
This opprobrium apparently stems from the government’s decision to abolish the Disability Living Allowance (DLA), highlighted in a Guardian piece yesterday, and also from Iain Duncan Smith’s plans to shake up the disability benefits system, to slash costs.
Campaigners are seeing the government’s celebration of Paralympians as a cynical move to stress their dedication towards the disabled population.
This view is an unfortunate and unnecessary politicisation of sport – politicians should vocally support our Paralympics entrants, and would be hounded if they didn’t.
But frustration at the irony of Atos sponsoring the event certainly sticks.
I spoke to anti-Olympics activist Kerry-Anne Mendoza, of the protest group Our Olympics, before the Games begun, who told me “the irony is not lost on us” that “the company that is doing this computerised ‘fitness-to-work’ test is Atos, having all these people’s benefits withdrawn and putting them under pressure, the same company that’s sponsoring the Paralympics – what is supposed to be the pride of the disabled community.”
Use of the private company contracted to do controversial ‘fitness-to-work’ benefits assessments – seen by many as patchy and riddled with inaccuracies – as a sponsor was rather short-sighted and inevitably provocative.
Politicisation of the Paralympics is uncomfortable, but the only way to allay all this fraught sniping is to have a measured debate about how best to assess for disability benefits, taking the hostility towards Atos' scheme into account. Or else in autumn, when Iain Duncan Smith is due to announce new eligibility criteria for disability handouts, this opposition will return - emboldened particularly if the Paralympics are a success.