As the 2012 Paralympics opens, disabled people are asking questions that go beyond the athletes and the competition; and those questions are directed at the International Paralympics Committee and its unholy partnership with AtoS. AtoS is the French multinational whose AtoS Healthcare subsidiary is charged by the UK government with carrying out the Work Capability Assessment to decide if disabled people are eligible for Employment Support Allowance, and which will soon also be carrying out the testing to determine if disabled people are eligible for PIP, the replacement for Disability Living Allowance, the benefit that recognises the extra costs imposed simply by living as a disabled person, whether you are in work or not. The reputation of AtoS on WCA testing is little short of appalling, around 40% of people refused benefit appeal, around 40% win their appeal, far more with appropriate support; so one in every six disabled people AtoS refuse benefit to successfully wins at appeal. Yet that appeal process can take up to a year, putting AtoS’s victims under near unbearable stress, and many disabilities are markedly worsened by stress. It is estimated that 32 disabled people a week are dying after having been declared fit for work by AtoS.
Nor it is solely disabled people who are paying the price for a failure rate that would be considered catastrophic in any other industry, fixing AtoS cock-ups costs the UK Taxpayer £50m/year over and above the more than £100m/year AtoS are paid for their ‘performance’. Given the expansion of AtoS responsibility to include PIP and as the DLA to PIP transition is defined by around one in five current DLA recipients (i.e. c500,000 people out of 2.5m) losing their eligibility for the benefit, the situation is likely only to worsen.
Unfortunately the failures of AtoS go far beyond the simple execution of the WCA. Staff attitudes have repeatedly and all but systematically proved wanting, with disabled people subjected to disablist slurs, homophobic rants, attempts to browbeat them out of giving vital information and just about every failure of a customer facing organisation you can imagine; completed assessment reports have repeatedly been found to contain accounts of tests that never took place and other outright falsehoods, to the point that the BMA found it necessary to issue a reminder to their doctors that simple honesty is a professional requirement. Even simply making eye contact with their victims is beyond many AtoS medical professionals. Yet AtoS executives persist in denying that there is any problem with their performance or that there are targets for denying claims implicit in their disciplinary practices.
On the physical level, AtoS have consistently refused to meet even the most basic of disability accessibility requirements, with many centres failing to feature disabled parking spaces or to be wheelchair accessible. Nor is this simply a problem with older buildings, AtoS have actually opened new centres which fail to meet the most basic accessibility needs. When challenged on this, AtoS claim their buildings meet legal accessibility standards, which more closely reflects the weakness of the Equality Act, which leaves enforcement to disabled people finding the physical, mental and financial resources to sue a multinational, rather than any willingness on the part of AtoS to do any more than the bare minimum. Nor is accessibility AtoS’s only resort to the legal defence, as disabled people started to organise and document their failures via social media, AtoS lawyers forced the shutting down of several disability forums, at least one of them solely because a user had posted a link to an article on another site which AtoS claimed breached their trademark.
So that’s AtoS, and their attitudes to disability are clear enough, but what does that have to do with the Paralympics? It started with computers, AtoS are primarily a computer company (disabled people would say it shows) and have the Olympic and Paralympic IT contracts. And, having considerable negative publicity to overcome, they decided to build on that linkage to become an official sponsor of both Olympics and Paralympics. And then something strange happened, the International Paralympic Committee and its Chairman, Sir Phillip Craven, decided that this disability hating company was not the worst possible partner for them, but instead the ideal partner for the IPC. The IPC’s Strategic Plan dedicates the IPC to “Change perceptions about people with a disability and existing stereotypes,” the opposite attitude to disability to that perpetuated by AtoS, yet it seems that when money talks, morality walks.
Nor did it stop there, the IPC’s reputation descending into French farce as it sank ever deeper into bed with AtoS. Not content with making them a ‘Worldwide Partner’, in August 2011 it took the unprecedented step of co-opting the former AtoS CEO, Bernard Bourigeaud, onto its governing board, despite the fact that Bourigeaud has no links with disability sport other than AtoS’s sponsorship of the IPC.
Faced with sustained criticism from disabled peoples’ organisations for its ever deepening ménage a trois with AtoS and Bourigeaud, the IPC reacted defensively, claiming AtoS shouldn’t suffer for the actions of its subsidiary and suggesting that in abusing disabled people AtoS were simply ‘doing their duty’. The ‘they were only following orders’ defence did little to impress disabled people.
And then it got stranger still, with Sir Phillip Craven, head of the IPC, going out of his way to defend AtoS, stating : "I am very happy with our relationship" and that AtoS were "very much a part of the International Paralympic Committee" while the Communications Director of the IPC, Craig Spence, dismissed the overwhelming opposition of British disabled people as ‘a small minority’ and said that people should take up their differences with the Department of Work And Pensions, apparently having forgotten (or desperately trying to ignore) that people and organisations are judged by the standards and behaviour of those they choose to associate themselves with – ‘You can tell a gentleman by the quality of his friends’.
The British Paralympic Association, effectively the local IPC subsidiary, tried to run for cover, issuing a confused statement that simultaneously claimed that it wished to “inspire a better world for disabled people” and that it did not want to “comment on wider, non-sport related disability issues”.
To compound everything else, a handful of days before the opening of the Games Sir Phillip Craven astonishingly demanded that the term ‘disabled’ should not be used in relationship to the Paralympics, claiming it was like saying disabled people were ‘broken’, yet, as Craven should well know, the overwhelming view of disability subscribed to by the British disability movement is the Social Model of Disability, which specifically defines our disability as the discrimination we face as the result of society’s refusal to adapt to our needs. Or to put it more simply: deny my disability, deny me.
There’s something very wrong when the International Paralympic Committee allows the core values of the Paralympics to be prostituted out in the hope of allowing a company with the literal blood of disabled people on its hands to wash the evidence away behind the cover of the Paralympic flag. At every step the IPC and its senior officials have revealed themselves to be out of step with disabled people to a degree that beggars belief, yet simultaneously willing to lie back and think of
whenever a sponsor waves a large wadge of cash under their nose. England
Perhaps it is time for a change of regime, and for the IPC to return to its roots as an organisation that actually cared about the rights of disabled people.