I take great pride in the eleven day spectacle which is the Paralympic Games and the array of athletes who participate from around the world. In the United Kingdom we have produced some amazing talent over the last 12 years, from Johnny Peacock to Ellie Simmons and Sophie Christiansen, who have become house-hold names in their own right. There are lots of things I enjoy about the games; the sport I most look forward to watching is the dressage. At age ten I began horse riding and loved every minute of it. There was something freeing about the whole experience. It allowed me to get away so from the physical limitation of being a disabled person for an hour or so.
I have vivid memories of the London 2012 Paralympic rowing events at Dorney Lake. The occasion was filled with a real sense euphoria - you could almost taste it, and not just at the venue, but across the length and breadth of the country. Many of the news broadcasters at the time really picked up on this and words such as talent and ability replaced the more familiar labels we associate with disability. As a disabled person, it's my feeling that labels should be stuck onto jars, not onto people. For eleven days we all feel like we too have been invited to the ball, but before we know it, its midnight and the golden carriage has already begun to turn back into a pumpkin.
But what about the remaining 3 years and 354 days? Most disabled people don't want a gold medal, they want to be taken seriously and to be valued in society. Statistics from Disability in Britain, 'Then & Now', survey by Scope (2015), shows that forty-two percent of disabled people feel they lose out on job opportunities because of the way employers perceive their impairment. Currently, non-disabled people are moving into work at a faster rate than disabled people and, as a result, the gap between the employment rate of disabled people and the rest of the population has widened. (Office for National Statistics, January to March 2016) My own personal journey as a disabled person trying get into employment reflects these statistics. I have been searching for employment for the last six years and have never gained a position despite attending numerous interviews for jobs I am qualified to do. In every case the successful applicant was a non-disabled person.
In order for this to change, the right infrastructure needs to be put into place. Employment agencies designated to support disabled people, such as Remploy, Enable and Shaw Trust, should be given greater funding from central government so that they can build stronger networks with both large and small businesses. It is crucial that funds are sufficient to allow continued dialog, both with the client and the employer. Again my own experience highlights the need for this. I applied for a position with a small local business who were initially were very keen to meet with me to discuss the job opportunity. However the moment the employment support agency that support me contacted them the job vacancy evaporated. Disability doesn't go away when someone lands a new job, neither should the support. Education is the key to this. Employers need regular training and support so that they are much more aware of disability and are helped to see the possibilities rather than the perceived cost. And our voices and the choices we make should be taken just as seriously in all aspects of life - from education to independent living.
In 2013-14 there were 1,985 disability hate crimes recorded by police in England and Wales (DWP, Office For Disability Issue, 2014) which was an increase of eight percent on the year before. As a child I went to a mainstream primary school that had a SEN (Special Educational Needs) unit. My peers and I were included all parts of school life from sports days to trips to outward bound centres. As a result, non-disabled students were a lot more accepting of disability. I firmly believe, alongside the charity Mencap, that all students of primary and secondary school age should be taught disability awareness and to understand why it is just as wrong to target a disabled person as it is an able one. It's about normalising disability and accepting it as part of the spectrum of society. To this end, the criminal justice system needs to treat disability hate crime as it does any other form of hate crime.
The Paralympic Games illustrate that when a disabled person has the right support, is valued and, importantly, listened to, they can succeed to the best of their abilities. If we put a little of this philosophy, enthusiasm and energy into supporting disabled people every day, not just every four years, all disabled people could feel that they too can achieve and make a valued contribution to society.
Talk is free, action comes at a cost - but we have to ask ourselves what kind of society we want to live in. Don't give me handouts, give me a job and the support to do it well.