Disability History

The Paralympics: A Lasting Legacy?

The opening ceremony of the 2012 Olympic Games was a historical pageant, which told the story of the British nation from the industrial to the digital revolution. The opening ceremony of the Paralympics was a celebration of science, with the apple that had inspired Sir Isaac Newton’s discovery of gravity, and the 1948 United Nations Declaration of Human Rights used to chronicle an international story of enlightenment, which had led to recognition of the rich diversity of human life. As Sally Alexander has argued with reference to the Olympic ceremony, such visions are ‘a description of the present in which new lives, voices… and… new political choices are to be made.’(1) In the case of the Paralympics, this potential for social change was embraced with fervour by the sporting and political communities alike. ‘We… want to use the power of the Games to deliver a step change in public attitudes to disability’ (2), pledged Lord Sebastian Coe, chair of the London Organising Committee of the Olympic and Paralympic Games (LOCOG), while prime minister David Cameron hoped ‘that one of the great legacies of the 2012 Paralympic Games will be… a society in Britain where disabled people are fully integrated and valued for their contribution.’  But with the first anniversary of the Paralympics approaching, disabled people are facing massive cuts in their state benefits. So how do we explain the contradiction between rhetoric and reality?

Athletes and spectators

The Paralympic Movement has come a long way in a short time. In 1948 – when Dr Ludwig Guttmann organized the first games at Stoke Mandeville Hospital near Aylesbury in Buckinghamshire to coincide with the opening of the London Olympics – sixteen war veterans with spinal injuries competed in archery on the lawn. In 2012 there were over 4,000 athletes from 140 nations taking part in twenty sports over a twelve-day period (3). The number of spectators also far exceeded previous Paralympics with a total of 2.7 million tickets being sold. In addition, television coverage was extensive. Channel 4, which paid approximately £5 million for the television rights, offered over 500 hours of viewing (4) and this achieved record audiences of 37 million people across the Games (5).


In a Channel 4 poll conducted by BDRC Continental and YouGov immediately after the Paralympics, two-thirds of the 2,000 surveyed said that the coverage had had ‘a good impact on their perceptions towards people with disabilities and disabled sport’. Jay Hunt, Channel 4’s chief creative officer, was thrilled with these results. ‘Over the last week and a half’, she enthused, ‘the superhuman achievements of the elite athletes at the London 2012 Paralympic Games have captivated the British public.’ It was wonderful, she said, that the channel’s coverage had ‘played a part in delivering a lasting legacy in changing people’s perceptions of both disability and disabled sport.’ (6)

Sixty days after the Paralympics, the disability charity Scope carried out an online survey to see if there was indeed a longer-term effect. Of the 400 disabled people who responded, 72% detected ‘a positive impact on attitudes’. Simultaneously, however, 54% said that they regularly experienced discrimination, while 84% felt patronised (7). A shift in public attitudes did not necessarily produce the integration to which David Cameron aspired.

Sport and integration
Integration had been at the heart of Ludwig Guttmann’s rationale for disabled sport since the 1940s. In his 1976 Textbook of Sport for the Disabled helping to re-establish ‘contact with the world’ was thus one of the three functions of sporting activity, along with the curative role of complementing ‘conventional methods of physical therapy’ and the recreational role of encouraging a ‘passion for playful activity’ that nurtured the ‘psychological equilibrium’ necessary for coming to terms with ‘physical defect’ (8). But there are problems in using sport to achieve integration. First, not all disabled people find sporting activities an enjoyable recreation in which they want to join; and, second, not all disabled people are capable of performing sport, especially the majority who are elderly and have the degenerative conditions associated with old age (9). Moreover, even those willing and able may be uncomfortable with a competitive environment.

Guttmann regarded participation as pivotal to disability sport, with the individual disabled person in ‘contest with himself to improve his performance’ (10). Therefore, at the first Stoke Mandeville Games, the archery competitions were graded from ‘beginner’ to ‘medium’ and ‘top’ so that everybody could take part. Guttmann continued to believe that focusing on elite sport would destroy mass participation (11). Over time, however, the recreational, rehabilitative approach has gradually given way to ‘a broad-based pyramid of competitive sport that has ultimately led to the elite level of the Paralympic Games’ (12). For Josie Pearson, who was a member of the wheelchair rugby team in the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, this was a welcome development. ‘There has been a stereotypical view that taking part is all that counts. But people are realizing we are elite athletes and we train like any other athlete in the world. I don’t do this for fun: I want to be an elite athlete.’ (13)

A language of inspiration
The extent to which this goal can be realized depends upon how disability is socially constructed. Disability studies scholars have pointed out the stereotypical ways in which disabled people are seen as either conquering heroes or pathetic victims (14). Sport confers heroic status. Therefore, The Times described the 1948 Stoke Mandeville Games as a ‘most surprising’ event in which ‘two teams of spinal-paralysis patients… shot their arrows with remarkable and consistent accuracy, while seated in their self-propelled chairs.’ (15)

A similar sense of wonder pervaded stories of the 2012 elite Paralympians who achieved superhuman feats thanks to gargantuan effort. Moreover, this heroism was reinforced through a language of inspiration. But, as disabled comedian Laurence Clark reflected during the Games, inspiration is a relative and not an absolute value: ‘I came to realize,’ he wrote, ‘that the less fortunate you are perceived to be, the less you have to achieve before you’re labelled “inspiring”. It was a polite way of people telling me they thought I probably wouldn’t amount to much, but had somehow surpassed their low expectations.’ (16) By implication, the plaudits heaped on elite disabled athletes may be no less patronizing than praise for merely taking part.

Disability and work
The heroic sporting stereotype is indicative of an individualized understanding that overlooks the effects of economic and political factors in shaping responses to disability. First, for a capitalist economy to flourish, the labour market must be organized to deliver maximum efficiency, productivity and profitability with social integration being dependent upon full economic participation (17). Medicine has long been geared to returning disabled people to employment. At the eighteenth-century General Infirmary in Bath, for example, the work imperative was evident in letters of recommendation for patients like Newton Highhorn, who had been ‘greatly afflicted with the colic or dry gripes and has so far lost the use of his hands as to be disabled from working at his trade or earning his bread’ (18).

Twentieth-century warfare generated new and urgent, new challenges for medicine – from orthopaedic injuries during the First World War, and from the neurological injuries that Guttmann encountered at Stoke Mandeville during the Second World War. Sport was optimistically harnessed for the purpose of economic integration. ‘There is no doubt,’ argued Guttmann, ‘that an employer will not hesitate in appropriate circumstances to employ a paralysed man confined to a wheelchair when he realizes that this man is an accomplished sportsman.’ (19)  However, the post-war employment record of disabled people suggests that neither this type of medically inspired rehabilitation, nor the raft of special policies introduced in 1944, optimized their economic potential. By the late 1960s, 72% in a government survey judged that their work options had been restricted by disability, whilst four people in every ten held jobs that did not exploit their skills and qualifications. And rising unemployment only made a bad situation worse (20).

Disability and welfare
With this employment profile, many disabled people of working age – together with those in retirement – relied on the welfare benefits system and hence fell prey to political decisions about its operation. Welfare bolstered the work ethic, with benefits communicating the message that talent and effort were materially rewarded. Therefore, fear of voluntary idleness encouraged a strategy of ‘less eligibility’ which had obsessed British social security since the Tudor poor law; and benefits were pegged down to cajole the low paid into seeking and remaining in employment (21). As a result, Peter Townsend’s famous study of poverty found that in the late 1960s ‘58 per cent of those with an appreciable or severe incapacity, compared with 24 per cent of the non-incapacitated, were in households with incomes below or close to the… supplementary benefit standard’ – the official standard of poverty. For elderly people, the figure was 64 per cent (22).


In the intervening years, governments across the political spectrum have struggled to get to grips with financial support for disabled people, whose complex and varying impairments make them vulnerable to accusations of malingering. In the 1992, for example, the Conservatives introduced a non-contributory, non-means-tested Disability Living Allowance which, just before the last election, Labour sought to trim by applying a more stringent – and much maligned – ‘fitness to work’ test. However, this is small fry compared to the current Coalition government’s plan for Welfare in the 21st Century: a radical overhaul of the benefit system, intended to save £18 billion by making work pay and banishing unacceptable dependency.

Four changes are particularly damaging to disabled people:
• The Disability Living Allowance is now being replaced by a Personal Independence Payment, which has tighter assessment criteria;
• Unless exempt, those in social housing are penalized by the notorious under-occupancy rule or ‘bedroom tax’;
• The Employment and Support Allowance will be merged into a new Universal Credit from October 2013, which is more flexible but offers very little assistance to disabled people with lower levels of impairment; and
• The Independent Living Fund will be abolished by 2015.

Being precise about exactly how these changes will impact is difficult. However, it has been estimated that 450,000 people in the UK will be worse off when the Universal Credit is introduced (23).

So why, given the political ambitions for the Paralympics and the claims about changing public attitudes, has there been no public outcry against the imposition of this savage retrenchment? In the first place, the Paralympics is a commercial enterprise. Astonishingly, Atos – a private company appointed to implement recent changes in disabled people’s benefits – was ‘a central sponsor’ of the Games. Zoe Williams, reviewing the year in the Guardian Weekend, concluded that this sponsorship ‘looked like active provocation’. She wrote: ‘If there is another company in Europe that has waged such a considered, unrelenting war against the disabled, such an unaccountable, cheese-paring, suspicious-minded erosion of disability’s already meagre compensations, I can’t name it.’ (24) However, Sir Philip Craven, president of the International Paralympic Committee, was insistent that involvement with Atos was ‘very positive’ and part of a broader commercialization agenda (25).

More serious are the limited parameters of social change. In the Official Programme, much is made of the accessibility of the Olympic Park and the future advantages that will follow for disabled people (26). This emphasis is in line with the 1995 Disability Discrimination Act, which made it unlawful to discriminate against disabled people in relation to education, employment, transport, and the provision of goods and services. But although this legislation has improved engagement in community life, the right to freedom from discrimination is less threatening to society’s core economic values than financial assistance. Therefore, disabled people’s social inclusion has a pre-requisite: their integration through the labour market where the rewards are unequal and unstable (27).

Recent historiography has rightly warned against a beggared history in which disabled people are inevitably located amongst the poor and dispossessed (28). However, in modelling alternative socio-cultural histories, it is important to appreciate the durability of economic and welfare policy barriers. Their persistence explains the modest legacy of a cultural phenomenon like the Paralympics.


(1) S. Alexander, ‘Danny Boyle’s interpretation of history’, History Workshop Online, accessed 29 May 2013.

(2) London 2012 Paralympic Games, Official Programme (London: Haymarket Network, 2012) pp. 12, 18. LOCOG was the London Organising Committee of the Olympic Games and Paralympic Games.

(3) M. Polly, The British Olympics: Britain’s Olympic Heritage, 1612-2012 (Swindon: English Heritage, 2011) pp. 166, 168, 170; London 2012 Paralympic Games, The Official Book (London: Carlton, 2012), pp. 8, 14-15, pp 24-91.

(4) M. Brown, ‘C4 invests £600,000 in band of reporters with disabilities’, Observer, 19 August 2012.

(5) ‘Paralympic Games shifts attitudes towards disabilities’, accessed 28 May 2013.

(6) ‘Paralympic Games shifts attitudes towards disabilities’.

(7) ‘Disabled people say Paralympics have improved public attitudes’, accessed 28 May 2012.

(8) L. Guttmann, Textbook of Sport for the Disabled (Aylesbury: HM and M Publishers, 1976) pp. 12-13.

(9) See, for example, G. Lafortune and G. Balestat, Trends in Severe Disability Among Elderly People: Assessing the Evidence in 12 OECD Countries and Future Implications (OECD Health Working Papers, 2007), DOI: 10.1787/18152015.

(10) Guttmann, Textbook, p. 12.

(11) C. Wood, The True Story of Great Britain’s Paralympic Heroes (London: Carlton, 2011) pp. 26, 63.

(12) S. Bailey, Athlete First: A History of the Paralympic Movement (Chichester: John Wiley, 2008) p. 2.

(13) Wood, Paralympic Heroes, p. 13.

(14) C. Barnes, G. Mercer and T. Shakespeare, Exploring Disability: A Sociological Introduction (Cambridge: Polity Press, 1999) pp. 20-31.

(15) Polly, British Olympics, p. 168.

(16) L. Clark, ‘My life as a superhero’, Guardian, 27 August 2012.

(17) A. Borsay, Disabled People in the Community: A Study of Housing, Health and Welfare Services (London: Bedford Square Press, 1986) pp. 4-5.

(18) A. Borsay, ‘Returning patients to the community: Disability, medicine and economic rationality before the Industrial Revolution’, Disability and Society, 13 (1998): 653.

(19) Guttmann, Textbook, p. 13.

(20) A. Borsay, Disability and Social Policy in Britain since 1750: A History of Exclusion (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2005) pp. 133-8.

(21) Borsay, Disabled People, pp. 5-6.

(22) P. Townsend, Poverty in the United Kingdom: A Survey of Household Resources and Standards of Living (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979) pp. 738, 787.

(23) Bevan Foundation, Cap in Hand? The Impact of Welfare Reform on Disabled People in Wales (Caerphilly: Disability Wales, 2013) pp. 2-4, 30.

(24) Z. Williams, ‘Sending George Osborne to the Paralympics’, Guardian Weekend, 29 December 2012.

(25) O. Gibson, ‘Paralympics chief says it’s time to phase out that word “disabled”’, Observer, 26 August 2012.

(26) Official Programme, pp. 14, 16, 18.

(27) R. Levitas, ‘The concept of social exclusion and the new Durkheimian hegemony’, Critical Social Policy, 16 (1996): 5-20.

(28) B. Gleeson, Geographies of Disability (London: Routledge, 1999) pp. 22-4.

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