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After Paralympics are disabled people invisible again?

In London in the summer of 2012 disabled people were suddenly in the spotlight during the Paralympics. But a year on, have they gone back to being invisible? For The Editors, a programme which sets out to ask challenging questions, Alison Holt Social Affairs Correspondent at BBC News, decided to find out.

Along with many others, I spent the summer of 2012 glued to the wall-to-wall coverage of the Olympics and the Paralympics.

It was thrilling seeing individuals achieving the goals for which they had worked so hard.

For those weeks people were judged on what they could do, not what they couldn’t do.

When I was a teenager I loved horse riding and dreamed of being a top class eventer or dressage rider, so watching Lee Pearson on his horse, Gentleman, narrowly missing out on his 11th Paralympic dressage title was for me a nail-biting moment.

I felt like I was with him every stride of the way – I certainly appreciated his expertise.

These were games that brought us all together. As the last athletes headed home from the Paralympics, there was talk about how there was a greater understanding of disability, but how much understanding is there now?

Thirteen months on, many of the disabled people I speak to feel they are as invisible as ever.

Ouch has already featured the social media hashtag #heardwhilstdisabled and these everyday comments made to disabled people are at times breathtaking in their lack of sensitivity, even their cruelty.

Examples include,

“If she was my kid, I’d have her walking by now,” and “I’d do anything to be sick like you and thin.”

When I meet disabled people from different walks of life, nearly always the first issue they raise with me is welfare reform.

Some will tell me they understand why welfare is being examined at a time of austerity; most feel attitudes towards them have hardened as a result of the debate around reform.

It’s left many feeling they are viewed as benefit scroungers.

Francesca Martinez is an award-winning comic, who also happens to be what she calls wobbly.

Francesca, who has cerebral palsy, says: “Attitudes have been polarised and disabled people are either brilliant athletes or work-shy scroungers and of course there’s a huge group who lie in-between those two… this scrounger rhetoric is not really based in reality.”

She believes disabled people really want to work if they can, but they do have extra needs which should be recognised.

The government maintains it is targeting help at those who need it most.

In a statement the Department for Work and Pensions insists: “We are world leaders in support for disabled people and continue to spend around £50bn a year on disabled people and their services.”

Another constant theme among the people I’ve spoken to is the day-to-day frustration of getting out and about.

Every journey takes planning and despite more than 40 years of disability legislation, access to some places is still difficult.

The sculptor, Tony Heaton, created the giant wheelchair sculpture that adorned the Channel 4 building in London during the Paralympics.

A wheelchair user himself, he is often frustrated by the difficulties of getting about.

“It’s amazing that in 1969 we as a society managed to put a man on the moon and yet we still can’t get a wheelchair user from one railway station to another nearly 50 years later… You have to come to the conclusion that it is a lack of will to create a more accessible world, not lack of technology or design skills.”

Also, when he sees people stacking their luggage in the wheelchair spaces on trains or drivers who are not blue-badge holders parked in disabled parking bays, he feels it is a sign that generally people don’t care.

Like everyone else, the more than 11 million people with disabilities in Britain achieve many different things and contribute to the society in which we live, in many different ways. There has been a lot of progress, but there is some way to go.

During the warm glow of the Paralympics we had an inspiring glimpse of a world where people are celebrated for what they can do. The challenge now is to build on that.

Article taken from BBC Ouch on the 28th October. To view  the article and watch a clip from Alison Holt’s programme please click here.