‘Inspirational’ label hides the truth

Comment by students at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds ANL-151025-114649001
Comment by students at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds ANL-151025-114649001
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The Paralympics are over. Our time in Rio resulted in Great Britain bringing home a magnificent grand total of 147 medals and finishing second only to China, names like Hannah Cockcroft and Gordon Reid reverberating as incredible examples of athletes.

Such achievements mean that the words ‘inspirational’ and ‘superhuman’ are once again being deployed to describe Paralympians.

There is no doubt that we have seen remarkable achievements, and it is a credit to our nation that these athletes achieve such feats and gain so much support. But I wonder whether there’s a problem with the way their success is being reported. Does what we assume to be complimentary actually set disabled people apart? By labelling them ‘inspirational’, might we make them seem something other than simply human.

Equating disability with inspiration declares that disability is automatically a tragic obstacle that must be overcome. It implies that no one can be happy in their circumstances. It might even imply that whatever strength or success disabled people experience, it is simply a means to make able bodied people feel good about themselves.This misrepresentation of disabled people can be deeply patronising. We see it in the viral videos of popular girls asking classmates with Down’s Syndrome to the prom. Or of pictures of Stephen Hawkins with a motivational quote above his wheelchair.

It’s the ‘Tiny Tim’ philosophy – presenting disabled people as courageous yet somehow needing our pity. It suggests that they are partly there to provide non-disabled people with a better outlook on their own lives.

Most importantly, lazy stereotyping of Paralympic athletes can distract us from the day-to-day realities for many disabled people – especially in the light of government cuts to benefits.

It may be said that the Paralympics spread a message of hope. It’s all well and good steering disabled people towards sport, but competing in the occasional game of wheelchair rugby or getting in the pool every once in a while will not fix their living standards.

The Equality and Human Rights Commission is planning to release a report on welfare reforms. It warns that disabled people are being treated like second-class citizens, with recent reports of reductions in funding for disability-supported housing and homeless accommodation.

There is a danger of politicians hiding behind Paralympics GB’s ‘inspirational’ achievements to cloak these cuts in benefits and other support. What we should not allow is for a fortnight of celebrations to shift attention away from disabled rights in Britain. Politicians like nothing better than to be associated with success. Our para athletes are a tremendous success story.

It’s time to stop calling disabled people inspirational, and start making it possble for all of them to be treated as humans, with equal civil and human rights. That’s when we will start to make real progress in our social attitudes.

-- Lucy Howard is a student at King Edward VI School, Bury St Edmunds