At the opening of the 2012 Paralympic Games, there is a justified expectation that following on from the Olympics, there will be a resumption of world class sport in London. These Paralympic Games, with 4,200 athletes from 166 countries will be the largest ever. Clearly, disability sport has moved on a great deal from the first 'Wheelchair Games' held at Stoke Mandeville in 1948. Similarly, the discourse on disability is unrecognisable now from that era, as the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, also agreed in 1948, made no mention of disability rights. Following such a successful Olympic Games in London, the Paralympics will now place disability on a global podium. But how will the various disability issues rank at these games and which medals should be awarded to them?
The hot favourite for taking gold will be positive images. We are about to witness incredible physical performances, the elation of victory and the heartbreak of defeat as dedicated, professional, accomplished athletes compete. Yes, athletes. Not disabled people. Of course there will be the inspiring and emotional back stories about the struggles and hardships of lifelong or acquired impairments, of commitment to sport at the highest level and the challenging realities of everyday life for people that are disabled by a non-inclusive society. But for a rare moment the spotlight will be on what Paralympians can achieve, not what they cannot. The focus will be on the person, not their disability. This is a huge opportunity for creating positive images that can be used to challenge discrimination.
Such positive images of disability are, unfortunately, very necessary. Although 10% of the world's population is disabled, in many countries stigma and misunderstanding still prevail. Many disabled people are therefore kept hidden away at home, as disability is seen as a curse which brings shame upon a family. Children who are deaf may be considered intellectually impaired; those with autistic spectrum conditions may be institutionalised as parents do not understand their child's condition; and even many development programmes fail to include the needs of disabled people.
Coming in with a silver in the medals table, and some way behind the golden gleam of positive images, will be the human rights focus. Rights relating to sport, recreation, leisure and play remain on the margins of human rights debate. But sport and its potential is not a marginal issue for many disabled people. While abled bodied people can choose whether or not to participate in sport, non-inclusive facilities, practices and attitudes have taken that choice away for many disabled people.
This means that only a small proportion of people with disabilities will get to participate in sport at all and only a tiny fraction of these will play at an elite level. This is despite sport being a cost effective form of rehabilitation that can build strength, endurance, coordination and confidence for people with disabilities. Sport also provides interaction for disabled people, which reduces isolation and segregation, as well as helping develop teamworking skills. Sport should not be a luxury for disabled people. Taking part in sport and being physically active is a way of reducing further mobility restrictions that can come from inactivity.
The public perception of sport as a human right for disabled people needs to match the legally binding rights that disabled people have for accessing sport, as set out in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. In this Convention, which was adopted in 2006, Article 30 reads, "States Parties shall take appropriate measures to encourage and promote the participation, to the fullest extent possible, of persons with disabilities in mainstream sporting activities at all levels".
However, the reality is that in many developing countries, where 80% of the world's disabled population reside, most disabled people cannot even access basic education and health services or engage in employment opportunities. Even participation in rudimentary sporting activity is severely limited for most disabled people, and the actual medals table at these Paralympic Games will undoubtedly reflect this. At the 2008 Beijing Games, the top ten performing countries (all high or middle income) took 57% of all the medals on offer.
So while we can expect these Games to produce useful positive images of disabled people, and we can hope that the issue of a human right to sport for disabled people is drawn out, trailing a long way behind in bronze place will be an examination of the role poverty plays in causing disability. Yet this issue should not be overlooked.
For example, 1.4 billion people globally are affected by neglected tropical diseases, many of which cause disability. It can cost as little as 5p for preventative treatment, yet millions of people become disabled every year for lack of effective health programmes. Yes, we should be celebrating the successes we see at the Paralympic Games, but we should be equally outraged that so many people will have their opportunities in life reduced through the acquisition of preventable disabilities.
Britain is likely to appear near the top of the medals table at the Paralympic Games and the country can be proud of its domestic disability legislation and support for disability sport. As a result of these Games, many more British Paralympians will become household names, each one helping reduce stigma and promote understanding of disability issues.
But to really make these Games a success we need two things: a global acceptance of the rights of disabled people to participate in sport, and momentum to be generated for efforts to reduce preventable disabilities, particularly in developing countries.
Of course, we should all cheer at each medal awarded during the Paralympic Games but we should also remember all those people with disabilities who have not had the chance to participate in sport, let alone compete at the highest level.