Sunday, 9 September 2012

Lengthening the legacy

Watching the Paralympics has been a wonderful experience. For some athletes, their adaptation to their impairment is so good that one has to look hard to figure out what their’s is. For others, you simply have to applaud how well they have coped with huge disabilities.

I have particularly enjoyed the swimming, where the water allows many of the swimmers to find a grace of movement that being on dry land robs them of. I imagine that for many of them, being in the water offers them a true escape from the rigours and trials of the real world. I wonder if it is the only that place that some of them feel unencumbered by disability. I know that most of the swimmers  I have seen can motor through the pool I great deal quicker than I can.

Over the last two weeks, we have immersed ourselves in the Paralympics, and become used to treating the vision of people with all sorts of disabilities and deformities as normal. Many of us perhaps felt some discomfort at the first sight of many of the athletes, but I would be surprised if there are not millions of us who now feel a lot more comfortable with it all than we did before.

And this is one of the great things about the games: it has opened up the reality of disability to many of us who have very little day to day experience of it.

But will it last? Look how quickly we have adapted to it. Will we decondition away from it as quickly again, or will then change sustain itself?

This is perhaps the most telling aspect of the whole paralympian endeavour: we will have to wait and time will tell. But I have a perspective on this, which may well help.

For a long time, I have felt that one of the main problems with the care of the elderly in the UK, is that we are not used to having them in our daily lives. Loneliness, as I have written before, is an affliction of old age, and too many of our elders live in social isolation, which means that when they do interface with society, it is often overwhelming for them, and it is often unfamiliar for the people they are dealing with.

There are periodic reports which bemoan the care of the elderly in both care homes and hospitals, which are usually followed by the same promises to improve training, oversight and standards. If only it were that simple: part of the challenge of ensuring dignity and respect in the care of our elderly involves integrating them into real life. If the elderly are valued and respected in everyday life, then they will be valued and respected when they enter care homes and hospitals. The level of care that the elderly receive in institutions is a reflection of the importance that society in general places upon it.

In a similar vein, there must be a lot of paralympians, and other people with disabilities, who wonder what the future impact of these games will be. If the Paralympics have been a vision of what could be, they perhaps also offer a stark contrast with what real life is actually like for these people. Life at the Olympic park has been an other-worldly vision of accessible living for people with disability, and for many the experience has been bitter sweet: if it can be this good, then why can’t it be this good all the time?

Watching elite sport is compelling: the physical tussle, the skill levels and sometimes the sheer bloody mindedness of the competitors makes it enthralling.. The paralympics is slightly different: many of the people that we have been watching would not have been elite athletes if they did not have disabilities. This has fuelled some scepticism on my part about the value of the Paralympic Games to people not directly involved with them. But these doubts are buried for ever: while the paralympics may not always be about watching the best in the world, they have been a salutary tale in what it means to overcome obstacles, to adapt to change, and a reminder that as a society we are not always very good at dealing with people who are different.

We may not see Paralympic sport on TV for another four years. The risk is that when we switch on to Rio, we will be starting from scratch, and relearning what we learned this year. All of these Paralympians will be re-entering real life next week, and for many of them it will be a good comedown. Perhaps it will make it better and easier if they notice that the peope around them are somehow different, that they make eye contact with them, that they are not uncomfortable being around them, and hopefully, that they are a bit more helpful and inclusive. That part, I guess, is down to each of us.

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