Challenge for Paralympics to change lives and perceptions

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Wheelchair basketball medallist Ade Adepitan praises transport aid that is threatened by cuts
Ade Adepitan and Jonathan Edwards
Ade Adepitan, a wheelchair basketball Paralympic medalist, with Jonathan Edwards at the Olympic and Paralympic Village. Photograph: David Poultney/PA
Ade Adepitan, a wheelchair basketball Paralympic medalist, with Jonathan Edwards at the Olympic and Paralympic Village. Photograph: David Poultney/PA
Sun 20 May 2012 15.12 EDT

There's a sense of fizzing excitement around this summer's Paralympics. The games are "coming home" – the first forerunner to the Paralympics took place in Stoke Mandeville in 1948 – and for Team GB supporters there are expectations of an avalanche of golden moments to match the second place in the medal table achieved in Beijing.

But it's not just about sporting spectacle, human drama and podium glory in what are predicted to be the biggest Paralympics, with 165 countries set to compete, compared to 146 in Beijing.

As with the Olympics, the Paralympics bears responsibility for a series of expansive legacy promises, including a vow to "change the lives" of 10 million disabled people by "increasing participation in sport and physical activity"; and to transform "attitudes and perceptions of disabled people" in wider society.

"It will change people's perceptions of disability, and not just able-bodied people," predicts Ade Adepitan, the wheelchair basketball Paralympic medallist who will help anchor Channel 4's coverage of the games.

"If you are a disabled kid and you see someone like you competing, who also happens to be a great athlete, imagine the confidence boost that will give and the impact on your life."

Sprinter Sophia Warner, who is targeting medals in the 100m and 200m at the Paralympics, and is ranked no 2 in the world, is equally optimistic. She says the games can address the "lack of understanding in society" that she believes represents the "biggest challenge to being a disabled athlete or being a disabled person".

She says: "[The Paralympics] will educate people and … will intrigue people. Instead of disabled people taking a backseat, we've all chosen to put ourselves out there in the limelight, in an exhibition if you like. The Paralympics will put us all out there for people to make their own judgment and their own understanding."

Such optimism is widespread. But athletes and disability campaigners alike are also wary of the weight of legacy expectation placed on the games. "It's an amazing spectacle, there's a good message, it shows what disabled people can do," says Lady Grey-Thompson, Britain's best-known Paralympian. "But it puts a lot of pressure on the Paralympics to change attitudes."

Grey-Thompson, who as a cross-bencher in the Lords, spoke out against the government's welfare reform bill earlier this year, points out that the games take place at a time when financial pressures have increased on many disabled people as a result of widespread cuts to disability benefits and social care budgets – the social supports that give disabled people the opportunity to participate not just in sport but in society generally.

She says that changes to the disability living allowance (DLA), a payment worth between £20 and £131.50 a week which helps disabled individuals meet extra costs of transport, food and other special requirements, could undermine the legacy aim of involving more disabled people in sport. Government figures suggest that up to 500,000 disabled people will lose out when DLA is replaced by Personal Independence Payments in 2013. DLA is essential to meet the higher costs of transport and sporting equipment so vital to sports participation, says Grey-Thompson.

Adepitan says DLA enabled him to acquire an otherwise unaffordable car through the Motability scheme to get himself to training and competitions. Public transport was largely inaccessible, and when early in his career he temporarily lost DLA he was forced to propel himself to training by wheelchair, a 12-mile daily round trip along the pavements of east London. "Without DLA I would not have been able to do what I did, or be a top athlete," he says.

On Monday, Grey-Thompson will help to launch an £8m Sport England fund to improve levels of participation in grassroots sport among disabled people. While about 38% of non-disabled people aged over 16 participate in at least 30 minutes of sport a week, that figure drops to 18% for disabled adults.

Sport England chief executive Jennie Price admits that it is "an uncomfortable truth that disabled people enjoy fewer opportunities to get involved in sport".

If the UK is to capitalise on the potential surge in interest generated by the games it has to overcome the access problem that Sport England identifies, says Ben Rushgrove, a Paralympian sprinter and silver medallist at the Bejing games.

Not just access to leisure facilities and sports clubs, but to the kind of expert coaching and knowledge of the emotional and psychological needs of disabled youngsters that he received at his specialist school. "That's the biggest barrier," he says.

He adds: "I have been lucky. I had a great school, and my parents were amazingly supportive. I'm afraid that others won't get the help and support that they need."

Geraint Richards, GB wheelchair tennis head of performance, hopes that the games will "open the eyes not only of the public but of local authorities", which run or fund many public sporting facilities.

Council leisure services budgets are coping with unprecedented cuts. But it will be local grassroots facilities that deliver the games' legacy.

"The big beauty of wheelchair tennis is that you don't have to play against other wheelchair players. I'd like to see every tennis club in the country open its doors to disabled players … It's the most inclusive sport around and there's no reason why existing facilities can't be opened up to wheelchairs," says Richards.

Changing wider public attitudes towards disabled people, generally regarded to be deteriorating, will be a tough legacy task.

Liz Sayce, chief executive of Disability Rights UK, says: "The Paralympics could be a real opportunity, a great platform for showing what disabled people can achieve and contribute to society. But it's not a panacea. Attitudes towards disability are hardening.

A recent survey by the MS Society of 2,000 British adults revealed that a fifth of those surveyed felt disabled people "need to accept they cannot have the same opportunities in life as non-disabled people". One in seven disabled people felt that negative public perceptions of disability had hardened as a result of the use of the phrase "benefit scroungers" by politicians and the media, according to The Papworth trust, a disability charity.

Some Paralympians, such as nine-times dressage gold medallist Lee Pearson, have called on their fellow athletes to use the games as an opportunity to educate the public about their disabilities and the challenges they face.

But others argue that their only responsibility is to their sport. They hope that by bringing home medals, they can inspire change. Asked about Paralympic legacy aims, Jamie Burdekin, a Liverpudlian wheelchair tennis player who won a bronze in the doubles in Beijing and is ranked fifth in the world, says: "I don't get mixed up in any of that kind of stuff. I just turn up on the day and play tennis. It's a healthy lifestyle, you go around the world and I'm delighted to be in it."

Sporting achievement, understandably, is the primary focus of the athletes.

For two exciting weeks this summer, legacy concerns will evaporate. As Adepitan says: "Life does not get much better than when you are competing in front of thousands of people, you are wearing your country's shirt, and playing the sport that you love."