THE BLOG

What Difference Does a Day Make?

03/12/2014 13:13 GMT | Updated 01/02/2015 10:59 GMT

Today, we mark the International Day of Disability, a UN initiative to "increase public awareness, understanding and acceptance of people with disability and celebrate the achievements and contributions of people with disability."

We now have a number of days and weeks to "raise public awareness": they are pointers in the calendar to bring together voices and opinions, and to encourage the public to take notice of the issues raised.

However, do such days have the perverse effect of also bringing media attention to points of difference: do awareness days divide as well as include?

For every time International Women's Day is upon us it generates sarcastic comments on social media asking when the corresponding day is for men, which are routinely rebuffed with the line that every day is "International Men's Day".

Days such as International Day of Disability remind us how far we have to go to make every day one in which the needs of disabled people are prioritised; while also celebrating the incredible achievements and successes of disabled people around the world.

There is no doubt that the Paralympic movement showcases just that. Still fresh in my mind is the fantastic day I spent at the London 2012 Paralympic Games with my daughter and her friend, who, with the rest of the world, were utterly transfixed by the outstanding sporting achievements they witnessed. From David Weir to Sarah Storey and young Ellie Simmonds - these outstanding athletes had the British public shouting from sitting rooms, at screens and of course in the stadium. It was competitive, nail-biting and inspirational. At the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games, disabled athletes competed in the same programmes as the non-disabled competitors, which felt like a real step forward in inclusion.

The Paralympics is more than celebrating and marveling at elite athletes at the top of their game. It is about changing the way we view disability. It captures our imagination and attention: during London 2012, again in Sochi and in Glasgow earlier this year.

But what does this all mean in the long-term? The Paralympic Games are fleeting moments featuring extraordinary people doing extraordinary things, they act as a trigger in our public perception, but what is the impact?

In the UK, National Paralympic Day, held at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park this summer saw 30,000 descend on London to watch Paralympians take to the track or pool once more; with more going to similar events in Liverpool, Glasgow and Birmingham. With over 90% of attendees saying they would go to a similar event in the future - it seems the thirst for Paralympic sport is still very much there. Would there have been this level of interest without the 2012 Games happening here?

The Southbank Centre held a second Unlimited Festival in September - celebrating and showcasing Deaf and disabled artists across a diverse range of platforms and disciplines. Unlimited is another product of London 2012, and it goes from strength to strength as it supports disabled artists and campaigns for art venues to be more inclusive.

Creating opportunities in sport, arts, volunteering and public life are incredible tools to empower people, and I am proud to be part of facilitating that in my role at Spirit of 2012. However, they cannot provide the answers to everything. They can never alone solve the practical problems faced by disabled people on a daily basis.

Half of non-disabled people surveyed by the English Federation of Disabled Sport said their perceptions had been changed by the London Games; yet in 2013, Scope found over 80% of disabled people saw no difference at all.

This is a troubling of course; how can we ensure that inspirational and positive events don't just create a sparkling moment, but lead to long-term change?

Challenging and changing the way we view disability is not about the flashing cameras, finishing lines or fanfares. It is about creating platforms and projects that provide equal opportunities to participate in daily life - from fun, rewarding activities to simply enabling people to get from A to B easily and employers giving everyone a fair chance.

I helped set up Spirit of 2012 late last year: we were established by the Big Lottery Fund to extend and sustain the spirit, values and opportunities from the London 2012 Games to individuals, communities and organisations across the UK. We invest in projects that enable people to participate in a wide variety of activities with a focus on sport, arts and culture and volunteering and social action because we believe that participation can improve the health and well-being of people, can help to improve perceptions towards disability and lead to greater social cohesion.

It is a broad and challenging remit: our vision rests on the idea of events being catalysts, but we know they are only the trigger, the flicker - and that the spark of inspiration needs to be fed and supported to grow into more profound, meaningful change.

We, and other funders, charities, campaigners and organisations need to put a real emphasis on learning and knowledge: to find out what works and what doesn't, to share resources, to ask people and each other to be more frank about the challenges faced to ensure everyone is equally able to participate in the world around them.

There is no way our investments can lead to all the answers; but with help from our UK-wide partners, and from listening, learning and understanding, we hope our funding can go some way to give people across the UK opportunities to participate in some of the activities we saw during London 2012 - becoming more physically active, taking part in arts and culture, and volunteering.

Our hope is that this investment can help demonstrate a fairer, equal society in which disabled people can access the same opportunities as everyone else, even after the closing ceremony is done.