Which Paralympian legacy?

Issue section: 

The Paralympics were, it is universally agreed, the most successful yet. All the venues sold out, and Channel 4's coverage reached just shy of 40 million people.

Almost eight million viewers in the UK watched the closing ceremony.

Organisers hailed "the seismic effect in shifting public attitudes" to disability sports, claiming the games had changed public perception of disabled people forever. A poll taken immediately afterwards found that eight out of ten British adults thought that Paralympics 2012 had had a positive impact on the way disabled people were viewed by the public.

But then came a new report, showing that "hate crimes" against disabled people rose by more than a third last year. Last year 2,095 hate crimes were recorded against disabled people compared with 1,559 the previous year. Surely both polls cannot be true?

A good place to start explaining the apparent contradiction is a statement by Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee. Just before the Games started, he called for the word "disabled" to be dropped from the coverage. "You know what the word 'disabled' means," he said. "It means something that doesn't work, doesn't function...just drop it." It should be stressed that Craven's call for more positive attitudes was strictly about Paralympian athletes - hardly representative of most disabled people.

In the same speech, Craven went on to defend sponsorship of the Paralympics by Atos - the biggest disability deniers of all. The very few benefit claimants accepted as "genuinely disabled" by Atos in its notorious "fit for work" tests are by definition not "able", while those deemed fit for work are - and by implication not disabled at all. Responding to recent press reports about a Paralympic athlete whose claim for Disability Living Allowance was rejected, a DWP spokesperson said the benefit was designed for "severely disabled" people - a patently false and misleading claim.

Disability has been redefined by the ideologues behind the welfare to work schemes. The "biopsychosocial model" helps in presenting the main problem of disability as disabled people themselves - too "dependent on welfare" or in sheltered employment "ghettoes" like Remploy. Ministers even use the language of disability rights, such as "control" or "independence", to justify the cuts. For the Tories, disability is more about a state of mind, or an issue of terminology, and less about the inconvenient one of social and economic discrimination. Relentless media scapegoating has also helped to associate disabled people (despite all the evidence to the contrary) with either benefit fraud or "unsustainable" state handouts.

Reports of attacks on disabled people have risen steadily since disability hate crime was legally defined as a separate category in 2008. But it is a crude term defining a more complex issue. Many attacks on disabled people are carried out by people they know, including relatives or carers. Some groups are more at risk than others, especially those who are learning disabled, or have mental health problems. Perpetrators, like their victims, are likely to be socially isolated and marginalised, and may even be disabled themselves.

Charities have suggested the rising figures could reflect disabled people's increased willingness to report crimes. Other reports have shown that disabled people have in general become more visible in society, more self-confident and aware of their rights.

The Paralympics may well have had a positive impact on public perceptions about disabled people, but they will have no influence whatsoever on the huge and brutal assault on social spending on disability. It is the latter which has polarised social attitudes; so some reports show more support for disability rights, and others indicate greater intolerance or hostility towards disabled people. A vital consideration in both these issues is building a united fightback against the austerity cuts, in which organisations of disabled people have already played an important part.