Will the Paralympic after-glow go global?

“They always loved you John, I just gave them permission“.  Thus spoke film director Quentin Tarantino who, according to legend, felt the need to explain to his star and sometime muse John Travolta just why the latter’s career was hitting the stratosphere a in 1994 after languishing in Hollywood doldrums for what seemed like aeons . . .wasn’t he the one in that musical whaddyamacallit, Haircream? people would quip as John meandered aimlessly from flop to flop evenutally hitting rock bottom with the “Look Who’s Talking” series.

As a symbol for the post-Paralympic euphoria currently  sweeping the UK it’s quite apt — the latent appreciation of the struggles that disabled people feel on a daily basis was always there, it just needed someone or something to grab a spanner and clunk the valve from ‘look the other way’ to ‘whoa, there they they all are’. Travolta had Pulp fiction to fire him back into the public consciousness, the disabled had the London 2012 games.

We’ve come a long, long way.  When I first heard that London’s Olympic stadium would likely be sold out for the Paralympic closing ceremony I had to stop and reread it. Surely they mean’t one of the other lesser venues? ‘Memba how when old Wembley was still standing you’d hear of bands claiming to be ‘playing Wembley’ only to find out in the small print it was actually Wembley Arena, admittedly a lovely venue, but hardly on a par with the awe-inspiring, twin-towered, vastness of the actual mothership? But no, as Paralympian Chris Waddell said on the night of the closing ceremony:  “in 1992 it was friends and family, tonight we’ve paying customers.”

Some in the UK, notably the novelist and self-confessed Cassandra, Will Self, have noted that this powerful sense of oneness, while very welcome, just might not have legs. We’ll see. Here’s where I hope the by now rather tired  Travolta comparison falls down — John went on to make Phenomenon which I had the misfortune to nearly see in a Dutch cinema some years ago (the projector went on the blink just 10 minutes into the flick and we were all refunded. As I stepped out into the a chilly Venlo evening I vividly recall the feeling of having dodged a bullet). Here in the UK attitudes towards disabled people have been scraped, chiselled and machine-tooled into something nearing respect over a period of decades ever since those first games back in 1960. It’s not perfect, I myself reached over a wheelchair user in a canteen a couple of years ago to grab some sugar because I couldn’t be bothered waiting for them to finish up first . . . I remember the loud ‘tut’ — sharper than any elbow in the ribs. And yes, you still get the odd bus wheelchair ramp that doesn’t quite work and ends up a few inches from the kerb but these days a paraplegic is far more likely to find a helpful soul or two willing to help them on board rather than be faced with a double-decker’s worth of indifference. And when I think back to the sheer verbal brutality of what went on in the playground of my 1980’s Scottish primary I think we can at the very least claim to have made a difference. Children still taunt disabled people I’m sure but these days there’s a punishment to match and they at least know they’re doing something wrong. Back then calling someone a ‘Joey’ seemed as natural as chucking a snowball and was just as free of retribution.

So if the UK gets a good-must-do-better what about the rest of the world? Thanks to a recent edition of Newshour we know a bit about how things went down far from the rosy glow of these isles. During the Paralympics there was near zero coverage and awareness in Japan, ditto Ukraine despite that country coming 5th in the medals. There was low coverage in Nigeria although owing to the sharp contrast with the poor showing of their able-bodied athletes, many there were well aware of Paralympian success; one man called Nigeria’s disabled “those we abandoned”.

The global test however, will come in Rio 2016. Brazil’s deputy sports minister Luis Fernandes has said the country is working on various infrastructure projects to ensure access for disabled people in 2016 but all eyes will be on how or if Brazilians can re-engineer attitudes. I don’t claim to know much about Brazilian culture but there is some info out there (page 73) and after having spoken to one prominent Brazilian sports journalist a few times about this it seems to me that right now, if you had a choice, it’d be far better to be disabled in the UK than anywhere in South America. A friend who works with severely disabled children in Uruguay (they sent one swimmer to Para 2012) tells me that there was no coverage in the media and “nobody really cares . . . the mentality here hasn’t changed that much. I guess things are getting a bit better,but very slowly. Even accessibility is rubbish”.

 

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