Rio 2016 Paralympics: yes I can, but only if I can get there

Disability Horizons’ social commentator Fleur Perry, and editor of our new sister site, Disability United, tells us why she’s not wholeheartedly excited about the Paralympics, and how it is a stark reminder of how inaccessible our society still is for disabled people.

Anyone else not all that up for the Paralympics? For me, I’m just not that into sport. This may have something to do with distant memories of Boccia at school – there was no opportunity to add glitter, no chocolate for the winners, and none of my friends played, so the 8 year old me really wasn’t all that interested.

But not being excited about the Paralympics is about much more than that. For a start, I’ve never understood why the Paralympics and Olympics are two separate entities. Could we not have one glorious inclusive celebration of sporting achievement?

Second of all, Paralympians are made to seem so extraordinary. But they face the same issues we mere mortals do. Likewise, I believe every disabled person is an ‘athlete’ in his or her own discipline, but they need the right chances to succeed. You need the athlete’s village (i.e. your own home, tailored to your needs), the right equipment, the right support team behind you, a means of getting to the arena (or work, or shopping or anywhere!), the right training and finally, the opportunity to succeed.

Put an athlete on a racetrack and watch them go at high speed, but if that athlete can’t get to the racetrack, you won’t see their talent. Nobody can get a gold medal if they’re not in the stadium.

Outside of the Paralympics, it’s the same thing: if a person is prevented from reaching the start line, they’re not going to showcase their skills. And for many disabled people, there are a lot of locked doors and roadblocks that need karate kicking out of the way to us all to the same start line as everyone else.

The brick and concrete world around us, otherwise known as the ‘built environment’ and currently being examined by the Women and Equalities Committee, mostly pre-dates disability discrimination legislation, which means a lot of the buildings around us are not conforming to modern accessibility standards. But in my lifetime, I’ve also seen building regulations and codes of practice improve, and a gradual improvement in the accessibility of the world around us.

This combination means access is patchy, provision of information in alternative formats is patchy, installation of hearing loops is patchy – I could go on. Now, there are two ways of thinking about this.

  1. It’s terrible that two decades after the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 was put in place, I could still rock up to a cafe and be told I can’t come in. Admittedly, I could sue them afterwards, but that feels like a lot of hassle for a cup of Earl Grey and a muffin [NB: this doesn’t mean I wouldn’t do it anywaycafes of the land beware].
  2. Or, access is now the default, i.e. there are more cafes I can get into than I can’t. ‘Level access’ is the standard and ‘no access’ stands out as it’s less common. In a little over a generation the progress that has been made in accessibility of the retail environment is extraordinary.

Hundreds of years of exclusionary architecture doesn’t vanish overnight, but if we take in the whole story, businesses doing moderately well. Business open and close fairly frequently – farewell BHS. With this high rate of changing hands and continuous refit programme, the drive to improve customer experience and comply with the rules for access pushes businesses towards continually improved performance.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. Public spaces might be improving, but the housing industry is most certainly at the bottom of the table when it comes to accessibility. The housing shortage means that builders have no trouble selling houses that don’t have accessibility features because there are plenty of buyers, not in need of accessible houses, champing at the bit.

Complying with the legislation is therefore the only driver towards progress, and as houses typically have use-by dates of 50 to 500 years, progress is going to be painfully slow. Properties built before the Disability Discrimination Act 1995 could still be hanging around without visitability features until 2495 and beyond. Of course by then these properties will be rebranded as “charming, harking back to a simpler time” when builders didn’t have to think about 1 in 5 of the population.

And we can’t just knock buildings down and start again – demolishing a ton of 1970s eyesores and rebuilding them properly is sadly very expensive. Instead, adaptation of current buildings is going to be key to improving this sector of the built environment. So at Disability United we recently launched a petition to encourage funding for housing adaptations – check it out and sign to help make a difference.

Every single move towards the goal of universal accessibility and equality takes effort, dedication, continual learning, persuasiveness and a good helping of attitude.

To that end, although I’m not excited about the Paralympics, the Superhumans certainly do deserve gold for raising the profile of disability rights within the media. Let’s hope that when given space within the public sphere, they grab that microphone and use it to say something useful. Whether it’s mentioning benefit cuts, rail accessibility, or any other issue disabled people face. Anything mentioned will move it into the consciousness of people who may never have thought about it before – and these ideas will come wrapped in a sugar-coating of national pride, just to add that sweet aftertaste.

But, like so many different essentials that disabled people rely on to succeed, the Paralympics has suffered a funding shortage. Ticket sales for the Rio Olympics were to provide a sizeable chunk of the funds for the Paralympics, but it seems no-one thought to create a contingency plan for the possibility that tickets just might not sell. As a result, fewer events may be held, fewer will be televised, and some athletes might not get there at all.

I’m pretty sure the athletes will have something to say about this, and my heart goes out to whoever has the job of telling a martial arts champion who’s been training for 4 years that they can’t go to Rio.

By Fleur Perry

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Tell us how you feel about the Paralympics, and accessibility today. Get in touch by messaging us on Facebook or tweeting us @DHorizons using the hashtags #Rio2016 #Paralympics, or leaving a message below. 

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