A sting in the tail

Glenys ThorntonBaroness Glenys Thornton is Labour’s Shadow Equalities Minister in the Lords

I suspect Dr Guttman, the founder of the Paralympics would be so proud to see what had become of his brainchild. 

Dr Guttmann organised the first Stoke Mandeville Games for disabled people on 28 July 1948, the same day as the start of the London Olympic Games. He firmly believed that sport was essential for rebuilding lives and self esteem. 

My grandfather Tom Furness was one of his patients, paralysed from the chest down after being blown up in his tank in Germany towards the end of the War. Dr Guttman and Stoke Mandeville saved his life and enabled my granddad to live a fulfilling and active life until 1972, holding down a job, working and bringing up his children. Tom was not a sportsman, but like everyone else he did sports and learned archery at Stoke Mandeville.

There are so many reasons to be excited and proud that the UK is hosting the Paralympic Games in London. The UK has the earliest and most advanced protection and legislation supporting rights for disabled people. We should be proud that this is the legislation which underpins the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I hope that the IPC are correct that these Games and the related public interest will further shift attitudes to the disabled. Unfortunately the USA will only receive edited highlights instead of the wall to wall coverage we will enjoy for the next couple of weeks. 

We should be very proud of the facilities available – the best ever. We should also be proud of the tickets sold, or rather sold out. No Paralympics have achieved a sell out, in fact quite the reverse; even in 2008, at Beijing, there were only tens of thousands sold. This time, over 2.4 million have been snapped up. 

When Britain made its 2012 bid, the staging of the Paralympics was integral to the delivery – not an add one or after thought. And yes we have delivered. Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson says she has not had to do any “don’t forget us” for these Games. Meanwhile, Goalball athlete Anna Sharkey says it is great that the "average person in the street" was looking forward to it all.

The Paralympics will be contested by 4,280 athletes, slightly more than those competing in Beijing, from 166 nations (20 more than in 2008). Mentally impaired athletes are back at the Olympics for the first time since the 2000 Games in Sydney.

Our team will show the British public that funding and investment has been put to good use. This is investment that must continue. So let’s hear it for Dave Clarke in the 5-a-side football, Jonnie Peacock in the athletics, Hannah Cockcroft in the wheelchair racing, Ellie Simmonds in the swimming, Lee Pearson in the equestrian, Tom Aggar in the rowing, Sarah Storey in the cycling and the many other sporting heroes, who will thrill and delight us in the next couple of weeks. 

It seems even less likely that David Cameron and his ministers will get too much credit for all of this. 

The sting in the tail of what will be an amazing and joyful fortnight is that hundreds of thousands of our fellow disabled citizens are seeing their benefits cut or facing the prospect of diminished or eliminated aid. 

For example, new, stricter guidelines mean that people who can roll themselves more than 200 yards in a wheelchair or read Braille could be considered able-bodied enough to find a job.

At the same time, the government is sending letters to nearly all disability beneficiaries, including those gainfully employed, warning that they will soon need reassessments for other types of aid, including home health-care workers and wheelchair-accessible cars. Moreover, by 2015, the Coalition government anticipates a reduction of half a million people receiving primary disability benefit. 

Keep all of this in mind for when, inevitably, you see a government minister cheering on our Paralympians from the stands or hear them praise a medal winner in the media.

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