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Disabled by Society?

I'll be going to the Paralympics in London this summer. I'm really looking forward to it but, if I'm honest, this is as much to do with the fact that I couldn't get a ticket for the 'proper' Olympics.

I'll be going to the Paralympics in London this summer. I'm really looking forward to it but, if I'm honest, this is as much to do with the fact that I couldn't get a ticket for the 'proper' Olympics. And, if my reading of a poll conducted by the charity Scope is anything to go by, I'm not alone.

Only a minority of respondents, disabled people and their carers, could build up any enthusiasm for the games. Most didn't feel excited, or included or expected to feel 'empowered' as a result. They weren't convinced that the games would have any impact on participation in sport for disabled people, still less on improvements in transport or access to the workplace. Not even on changing people's attitudes to the disabled, a particular focus of campaigners.

Two thirds say they have 'experienced aggression, hostility or name calling'. Nearly half of respondents said attitudes towards them had worsened, and that they experienced discrimination. A majority said that people didn't believe they were really disabled, or assumed they didn't work. Scope argue that the 2012 Paralympics will help change attitudes and 'play a positive role in raising the profile of disabled people', a sentiment echoed by Chris Holmes, LOCOG Director of Paralympic Integration. The games might encourage the able-bodied to engage with the disabled and not worry so much about saying 'the wrong thing' he says. Holmes anticipates a 'step-change in attitudes towards and opportunities for disabled people'.

So are some people still disabled by society? Do they face increasing levels of discrimination? If so, why? Has society become more hostile, as some claim, or are we just more sensitive about the words people use? Are the disabled, like other 'vulnerable' groups, unfairly portrayed as helpless and dependent? There was a time when the disability rights movement fought for equality with the able-bodied. People weren't disabled by their bodies but by the way society and the urban environment was constructed, said campaigners. This go-getting and often radical movement contrasts with a very different view of being disabled today. Disability campaigners have sought not for access to the workplace, but for the continuation of benefits threatened by welfare reforms; not for the right of disabled people to have their say, or participate more fully in public life, but for the censorship of hurtful comments (especially so-called 'hate crime') in the street and comedians (i.e. Ricky Gervais) on Twitter.

Have things really got worse for people with disabilities? Levels of poverty among the disabled would certainly suggest that a much more generous settlement should be demanded. The standard of living of the disabled should not be further undermined by the austerity measures of the coalition government. The existence of institutional abuse revealed in recent scandals, points to the shocking treatment some disabled people still face. But this is very much the exception today. On the whole disabled people aren't 'locked away from society' as Tanni-Grey Thompson, former Paralympic athlete and a member of the House of Lords, recalls from her youth.

Still, there are barriers to disabled people participating more fully and reaching their potential. The welfare system, says Thompson, is about having to 'prove what you can't do to get support and actually for me it should be about what support you need to be able to do things, so you can get a job, you can contribute, and you can pay tax, and you can be in society in a different way'. Whatever your views on welfare reform - indeed those in favour of the reforms would no doubt say they agree with Thompson - or on whether or not Gervais' use of the word 'mong' is funny, there is a problem if disabled people are increasingly understood as vulnerable creatures. What is most troubling of all today, when so many gains have been made, is that it is hard to escape the view of disabled people as dependent on the state and tormented by abuse, not least because it is one reinforced by campaigners themselves. A view that I hope to challenge in a debate in Manchester after the Paralympics.

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