Tuesday 21 August 2012

Living in Fear of Being Labelled Inspiring

Now don’t get me wrong, I’m looking forward to the Paralympics, I’ve even made holiday plans around them, but something inside me cringes every time that I see a Paralympics trailer on TV.

There are two main culprits, Channel 4, the Paralympics broadcaster, for this little number “Meet the Superhumans,” and Sainsburys with “Here’s to extraordinary”. 

A quick look at the #Paralympics hashtag on Twitter shows that they are drawing a positive response:

“Love the Sainsburys paralympic games ad!”
“the paralympics advert is amazing #superhumans #paralympics”
“Anyone else get tears in their eyes watching the #sainsburies ad for the #paralympics”
“The C4 #Paralympics advert is class, can't wait for it to kick off. #channel4”

So why the cringing you may ask? Aren’t these ads saying something positive about disabled people? Aren’t they spreading the word that we can do everything that non-disabled people can do?

Well sort of.

There are actually two interrelated problems. The first is that true equality doesn’t demand we be seen as ‘superhuman’ or ‘extraordinary’, quite the reverse; it demands that our disabilities be no more notable than, say, our hair colour. I don’t personally believe there is anything uniquely inspiring about Paralympians, they are elite athletes, just as the Olympians are. The fact they are going through life with disabilities doesn’t say that they are somehow more worthy than an Olympian, or than any other person, disabled or non-disabled. There’s nothing special about being disabled, we get up, we do our stuff, we go to bed, just like any other person. I might need crutches to walk any distance, but there’s nothing remarkable about that, I pick them up just like I put on my shoes and pick up my keys, and occasionally I find myself standing outside the front door, thinking “I know I’ve forgotten something….”

And so every time I see a disabled person being labelled ‘inspiring’ I cringe, because that person isn’t being seen as normal, or even necessarily as a person, they’ve been reduced to a symbol, a Tiny Tim-like emblem that says non-disabled folk are okay to feel good about themselves for thinking we’re something special.

And then there’s the second problem, the one from the darker underbelly of our attitude towards disabled people. The one articulated by people like Cristina Odone in this Daily Telegraph article  which demands “Aren't the Paralympics proof that even the most physically challenged can achieve awesome feats?” while castigating us for protesting against the Work Capability Tests conducted by Paralympics sponsors Atos, which have included such recent triumphs as finding a sectioned, catatonic man fit for work, and having 32 disabled people a week dying after being told they are fit for work. You can read about my own experiences with Atos here and here. That ‘if they can do it then every disabled person can’ attitude sponsored by Odone’s article and others like it is incredibly pernicious, we see it in the rampant claims that there is massive disability benefit fraud (the actual rates are 0.5% and 0.3%, the lowest of any benefit except the pension), and the outright and open jealousy that is displayed towards disabled people who are recipients of the Motability Scheme and the Blue Badge Scheme.

Worse, we see it in the soaring rates of disability hate crime, with most disabled people now reporting recent incidents of harassment, many if not most targeting us as supposed ‘scroungers’. As noted in this Guardian article recorded hate crime rates have doubled since 2008, and the government believes that the real rate may be 30 times higher, at 65,000 incidents a year, nearly 180 every day, with charities putting the rate as much as 50% higher than that. Or to put a more immediate figure onto it, during the 12 days of the Paralympics, the government estimates that almost 2140 British disabled people will be abused for no reason other than their disability. My own experiences back those figures, with my personal count of incidents now into double figures, most verbal abuse, but including one physical assault and one attempt to frame me for benefit fraud.

And so, no matter how I much I am looking forward to watching the Paralympics, that anticipation is tinged with fear, because there are many, many people out there who will watch the Paralympics and say that ‘If they can do that, then any disabled person who claims they are too sick to work is clearly a scrounger,” and a distinct percentage of those people will then take it on themselves to ‘chastise’ the next ‘scrounger’ unfortunate enough to cross their path. There’s something profoundly sick in the likelihood of the Paralympics being used as a justification for disability hate crime, but recent history shows that it is a reality that disabled people will have to live with.

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