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Has the Paralympics Effect Started to Wane?

Submitted by on December 7, 2012 – 6:15 pmNo Comment

Jubilant crowds supporting athletes in the London Paralympics.

The Paralympics brought with them a positive change in attitudes towards disabled people, yet there is still a long way to go.

The French company Atos, contracted by the Department of Work and Pensions (DWP) to reasess the situation of 2.6 million people on incapacity benefits by 2014, was one of the sponsors of the Paralympics. The government claimed that over £600m were overspent on benefits each year for people who no longer qualified for them. The company’s treatment of those it deemed “fit for work” resulted in some suicides as claimants benefits were taken away. This also resulted in some deaths where people who were terminally ill, yet deemed fit by Atos, could not physically cope with work given. In May 2011, charities urged the government to make the working capability assessement (WCA), the process for receiving further incapacity benefits, fairer for patients. However, nothing has changed.

That same year figures from the Association of Chief Police Officers (ACPO) stated that in 2011, hate crimes against disabled people in England, Wales and Northern Ireland went up by 33%. Campaigners for disability charities were outraged, blaming the government’s new targeting of the majority of disabled people which inadvertently portrayed them as benefit “scroungers”, as the reason for the increase.

A lot of hope was pinned on the 2012 Paralympics. Before the event, a survey by the disability charity Scope said: “[The Paralympics are a] once in a lifetime chance to improve the public’s attitudes towards disability.” The survey also mentioned that 6 out of 10 disabled people believed that the sold-out event would change society’s views about them for the better.

Gauging the effect the London Paralympics had on disability hate crime is a difficult task, especially so soon after the event, as a spokesperson for ACPO said: “We do not have data on the number of reports of hate crime after the Olympics. We have annually collected and published hate crime data from 2009- 2012 while the Home Office was preparing to take over publication of the data in 2012. Their data is for the financial year 2011/2012, so it is the most recent. We do not have data to analyse whether disability hate crimes went up after the Olympics.” Yet immediately after the Paralympics, an Ipsos Mori survey was published which showed that attitudes towards disabled people had improved due to the event, stating that “eight in ten (81%) of British adults say that Paralympics 2012 has had a positive impact on the way disabled people are viewed by the public.”

Dan Mazliah, a spokesperson for Scope, sees the poll results in the “immediate aftermath” of the Paralympics as a good sign. He said: “The big question is whatever has happened, has it contributed to something permanent? I think that’s a really interesting question. You can’t change attitudes in a fortnight and the job now is to look at how we can continue to do the things the Paralympics did so well, like how it made disabled people more visible and how it got people talking about disability.”

Scope will be producing a new, nine page survey on attitudes towards disabled people, to be released in a few days. This would have allowed more time to elapse to check just how powerful the Paralympics effect has been in the longer term. The charity’s methodology of polling is different as they don’t look at statistics of hate crimes, but instead over the last couple of years have been asking disabled people whether they have experienced much hostility such as name calling and abuse. This is referred to in the Equality Human Rights Committee’s (EHRC) summary Hidden in Plain Sight, which states that if “left unmanaged, non-criminal behaviour and ‘petty’ crime has the potential to escalate into more extreme behaviour.” In an interview with a spokesperson from the EHRC about these crimes not going unnoticed she said: “One of the key recommendations from the inquiry was to increase the level of reporting.”

Yet there is the additional problem of how the issue is portrayed in the press. In the last few days, some tabloids ran with stories about the large amount of so-called disability “scroungers” taking advantage of the system. However, this focus shows an inflated view of statistics. According to figures published by the government, only 0.5% of the expenditure on Disability Living Allowance (DLA) went on fraudulent claims.

On the other side of the spectrum, the press has created a view of Paralympians as “superhuman”, compared to other disabled people. A story on a website called Disabledgo mentions Tony Hines, the owner and editor of the weekly Helston News and Advertiser in Cornwall, who wrote two editorials about users of motability vehicles. Hines said that they should “hang their heads in shame” in comparison with medal-winning paralympians.”

Last week a George Osborne speech highlighted people on benefits. He said: “Where is the fairness, we ask, for the shift-worker, leaving home in the dark hours of the early morning, who looks up at the closed blinds of their next door neighbour sleeping off a life on benefits?”  This did not go down well with disabled charities. Mazliah said: “They are consciously using terminology like the guy with his blinds closed to make the case for cutting benefits. Our polling shows that disabled people feel that George Osborne talking in this way feeds this narrative. The high street is tinged with this type of language. It includes things like, ‘Oi scrounger’, or ‘you faking it?’ I actually spoke to a [disabled] person today who experienced this. There is a climate where disabled people are being questioned and they see it day to day on the high street.”

Brenda Atuona from the University of Kent, Medway does development work in the field of disability. She shares Mazliah’s view. She said: “The public’s perception towards disabled people, whilst progressive in the UK, has been dictated by archaic views of difference. Difference, underscored with a lack of understanding can lead to misconceptualisations which result in negative stereotyping. I believe that the social reinforcement of these negative stereotypes have driven the public’s perception of disabled people and have up until recently remained unchallenged.”

There seems to be no easy fix for problems of this nature in society. All statistics can really do is show changes in trends, and all that big events such as the Paralympics might be able to do is get people excited about something that is happening at the present moment. It seems that although things have come very far, there is still a long road ahead before something like the Paralympics effect permanently affects people’s attitude towards disabled people on a day to day level in a wholly positive way.

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