Saturday, 1 September 2012
Will Paralympians remain content to be part of the Cameron-Atos Show?
I was privileged to attend the Paralympic opening ceremony. A triumph of wonder and illusion. Wheelchairs flew with grace through the air, twirling, unfettered by earthly restraint.
It was a defiant call to a nation, a call for true acceptance. As the song reminded us, "I am what I am" no more, no less. Just as we all are. Spasticus Autisticus, banned just a few decades ago, showed how much more comfortable we have all become in our own skins. How much less we are prepared to tolerate.
But will the Paralympics remain an illusion, a magical few days where theatre and spectacle hide the many desperate realities facing sick and disabled people in the UK today?
Will our politicians take the stage, basking in a glory they have no right to claim? Will the public realise that every last athlete is human and fallible, just like them? Not superheroes or scroungers at all, but flesh and blood?
For all the smoke and mirrors, I'm sure this glorious spectacular was not free. It took cold, hard cash to light the lights and set the stage. Acrobatic paraplegics and soaring amputees were suspended by wires and harnesses, not thin air after all.
And to be all that they can be, every sick or disabled person needs support.
Just like illusion, you may not see it, you need not even really understand it, but it is our social security system that enables equality, participation and inclusion.
Politicians may claim our welfare state can be run on thin air and illusion, but it can't. Cut the wires and the show falls apart.
I hope, more than anything else, that the athletes, so privileged to represent our country before the world, will dare to stage a theatre of their own. Whether on podiums or in television studios, surely they will remember that they are part of a wider disabled community? The soldier who lost a limb in Afghanistan and received months if not years of intensive physio and support to win gold, will be only too aware that others who lose limbs will not have the same access to facilities and care.
The athlete with a broken spine, who relied on DLA to get to training sessions or to pay for the wheelchair they needed to compete, must surely want paraplegic children, today to have the same opportunities?
No-one exists in a bubble, however great the fantasy of the opening ceremony, it was not magic, it was illusion. The great feats we will see over the next week or so are not superhuman, they are born of blood and sweat, tears and opportunity. Opportunity, say it again. The luck to be in the right place at the right time. To be born to the right parents, with the right attitude. To have steely will and defiant fortitude. To be selected to compete at all. To have the cold hard cash to get to training or buy the right food you need to compete.
Athletes painfully aware of the selection process and categorisation of Paralympians, must surely see the irony of a "selection process" more arbitrary, more cruel, run by Atos but designed by government? Fit for work, classified to compete, both cause pain and disappointment, but one affects thousands, the other millions. We are all part of the same show, whether star or extra.
And with baited breath, today, millions of sick and disabled people in the UK wait to see if the stars will stand with the unknown, the unseen. The frightened and the forgotten.
Will they turn to the limelight or look beyond the set, designed so carefully to seem like reality? Will they raise their fists in salutes of protest? Will they tell the media our stories? Will they stand with us, as a community, aware as no-one else can be what it takes to achieve equality and inclusion?
We are only part of the way through the first Act. There is plenty of time.
No-one knows how the show will end but the athletes.
Will they dare to change the script?
I hope they do. The world is watching.