Towards the end of the London Paralympics, in which I had participated with the ParalympicsGB blind football team, I sent the following tweet: “The ephemeral beauty of the #Paralympics hangs in the air over London like a gossamer cathedral. Can we preserve its delicate grace, Britain?” A month after leaving the utopia of the Paralympic village behind me, that question still gnaws at my mind. I returned to my home town full of hope that this might be the start of something, not the end.
Some things have indeed changed. There is now a lot of talk about “legacy”, about “creating more grassroots opportunities”. And a lot of good technical work is going on to establish frameworks, partnerships, and initiatives – webs of opportunity.
Don’t get me wrong, legacy is important. “What happens next?” is the single most important question to ask following an event like the Paralympics. As someone who couldn’t access sporting opportunities for years because of barriers and practical problems, I have a keen passion for this area.
But I’m even more interested in the question of how we preserve the spirit of the Paralympics: that warm and open-hearted felicity that fostered in our oft-degraded species a glorious and blissful fellowship. If I wallow in hyperbole, you’ll have to forgive me, but from an athlete’s perspective it really was that good.
Suddenly all the shackles had gone. The scales had fallen from our eyes. Conversations about disability were less “icky”. People felt liberated to ask open and honest questions, to inquire, to seek, to understand, and others were happy to answer. It was a genuine dialogue, free from all the “should I” and “is it OK to”. These things were discussed freely and openly, and then set aside. Dealt with and then left, because once the talking is done, it’s time to compete.
Maybe I was naive to assume that this kind of feeling would last. Back at home, I have rooted around for the last flickering of the Paralympic flame. As yet, I have not been able to detect it anywhere … and it’s not like I’m not trying. Perhaps, if I had won a medal, my post-Games experiences would have been very different.
I’m not looking for a personal indulgence, but attitudes, behaviours and inclusive spirit. It’s no use just opening the door to sport for disabled participants if we can’t give them a big, warm, fuzzy Games Maker welcome too.
In fact, why stop at disabled sport? At its heart, the Games operated like some mythical utopian society: everybody had a job, and every job linked directly to an immediate need. As a result, people felt fulfilled and their labours were appreciated by all, regardless of status. It’s a model that would benefit many areas of society, not just sport. At the Games it came easy. Mass-participation events excite in a way that 9-5-ing it in a soulless office somewhere can’t. So we will have to work at it, but surely it’s worth the effort.
A young disabled person who receives poor or prejudicial treatment, no matter how unconscious or unintended, at the hands of society, is less likely to feel empowered to become a positive participant in that society. This is a tragedy beyond measure. If we want greater participation in disabled sport for the future, then we must also ensure that we are creating a society in which disabled people feel positive, empowered and ready to participate in life in general. Sport would benefit from such a shift, but sport can also help create it.
We need Games Makers for life, not just for sport, and not just for London 2012. It’s a social responsibility of every citizen in this great nation to examine themselves and their own perceptions, and see if there’s not work that they can do to have a positive impact. That might just mean responding politely next time a blind person asks you which bus has just pulled up at the bus stop. After all, that blind person might be a Paralympic superhuman of the future.
The biggest challenge of all is not to get more people participating in disabled sport, it’s to get more people feeling empowered to participate in society as disabled people, because we have built a society that respects and accepts difference.
If the London Paralympics can contribute in any small way to altering public perceptions, or providing some much needed impetus so that stigma, misconception, and prejudice can be driven shame-faced in to the shadows, then that’s a real legacy worth shouting about. The sporting legacy appears to be healthily underway; now, can we ensure a social legacy to match?