David Cameron hopes that the Paralympics will change our attitudes to disability. In the interview he gave to Channel 4's Alex Brooker just before the opening ceremony (which I cannot for the life of me find a clip of), the Prime Minister said that he wanted us all to focus on what was possible rather than what was impossible with regards to disability. A laudable aim? Not necessarily, when you consider his government's record on disability.
The government's policy of cutting benefits and trying to move more disabled people into work has been a miserable failure. Hundreds of people died last year after being declared "fit to work" by Paralympics sponsor ATOS, while over 50,000 people (over one third of all claimants delcared fit for work) have had their Work Capability Assessment overturned on appeal. Yet by framing the Paralympics in the narrative of "what is possible" David Cameron continues to steer us all down the line of believing that there are only two options for the disabled: be a Paralympic athlete or be a benefits scrounger.
Having spent the last two weeks watching disabled people break world records and achieve the seemingly impossible, we can perhaps be forgiven for falling for the "what is possible" narrative. We have, after all, acquired a whole host of new heroes: Ellie Simmonds, Alex Zanardi, Kylie Grimes, Sarah Storey, Johnny Peacock, Hannah Cockroft, David Weir, Terezinha Guilhermina have all become household names synonymous with courage and perseverance in the face of adversity. It is a hugely empowering story for the disabled and able-bodied alike. Arguably though, it is not the full story, and the question we should be asking is not "what is possible" but "how is it possible".
Throughout the Paralympics, we have seen glimpses of where the narrative breaks down. We saw Mirjam de Koning-Peper not start at the S6 100m freestyle because her condition - which is variable - had deteriorated. We heard athletes thank a dozen people - coaches, physios, funders - who have supported them and enabled them to get to where they are. We saw Ade Adepitan demonstrate how he could actually turn his wheelchair in the bathrooms in the Paralympic village - the first Paralympic village with that particular feature! We saw, albeit briefly and only on Channel 4's brilliant The Last Leg, armless athletes struggle to get out of an Olympic swimming pool with no ramps. No matter how much courage and perseverance you have, individual achievement does not happen in isolation.
Unfortunately, we still live in a society where the odds are overwhelmingly stacked against disabled people. With the government's sustained two-year campaign of painting anyone on any kind of benefits as a scrounger, we have seen disability hate crime soar. People are having their benefits taken away, being declared fit to work in an economy with an unemployment rate of 8% and with no support to help them make a successful transition into work. They are being put through extremely stressful assessments which often exacerbate their conditions. By all means, our attitudes to disability should change - but the first people to change their attitude should be David Cameron and his cabinet.
Yet we have also seen how the right support and the right investment can enable anyone to achieve their full potential. Lottery funding and the rare corporate sponsorship have enabled athletes like Hannah Cockroft to shine. Channel 4 has invested £600,000 in training and developing their amazing team of disabled presenters. In these rare and exceptional cases where we have bothered to create an even playing field, we have managed to all but obliterate the boundaries between the disabled and the (temporarily) able-bodied. Yet that takes time, it takes investment and dedication from all of us as a society. Can we all commit to doing that? Can you, Mr Cameron?