Hiraku Misawa of Japan competes in the men's standing downhill ski event at the Winter Paralympics. Reuters
Liz Johnson, The Independent
There’s nothing like a countdown to get the heart racing. As a Paralympian, I spent two decades of my life racing the clock, plunging into pools in the small hours to shave seconds off my time, willing my muscles to work harder, faster so that my hand could touch the side first. I’ve seen time freeze through a splash of water before climbing on a podium to have a medal looped around my neck.
This Sunday marks the beginning of a new countdown, the turning over of a 365-day sand-timer for the world, because 25 August marks exactly one year until Tokyo 2020 and the quadrennial Paralympic Games. Across the globe, athletes are training hard and completing time trials, and Japanese construction teams are logging hours to get their venues completed on schedule. As the days trickle down the year-long hourglass, Paralympic excitement will fully start taking hold.
I’ve always loved the countdown to the Paralympic Games, although Tokyo will only be the second time I’ve not competed since the age of 18. I eagerly check off the days until this phenomenal celebration of human excellence and the rare chance to bring nations all over the world together. It’s also fantastic to see disabled people being valued on a world stage: recognised for our skills and abilities and appreciated as humans with hopes, ambitions and fears. In many ways, the Paralympics can’t come soon enough.
But this year’s countdown to Tokyo 2020 still also serves as a stark reminder. The attention beginning to circle the games and GB athletes is making my heart race with excitement but also sink for those outside of sport. My attitude to the Paralympics has not changed – not one iota – but I’m increasingly aware and frustrated that the wider acceptance of disability hasn’t kept pace with our admiration for our phenomenal Paralympians.
As a society, we’ve settled into a steady rhythm around disabled people. Every four years we celebrate inspirational Paralympians and marvel that they’ve somehow “managed”, against all odds, to “suffer” through their disability and make it mean something. Suddenly, disabled people are on TV and on posters and our voices are being listened to. The 13.9 million people with disabilities in the UK finally get to see a positive narrative around our identity – that is, until the Paralympic two weeks are up.
When the fireworks fall silent after the closing ceremony it’s business as usual for our treatment of disability. This translates to constant discrimination both at a direct and indirect level, affecting every area of life. From lack of access at music festivals right through to physical and verbal abuse, disabled people are routinely shamed and disadvantaged for difference and valued below those we consider non-disabled. It’s the invisible discrimination and prejudice which is most insidious, however. Society fences in the disabled community with barriers that stop us progressing and then shakes its head in consternation when we’re not being able to get out.
This prejudice might seem intangible but it has very real effects. The view that disabled people are less valuable strengthens the barriers placed around us. Some of the biggest barriers the disabled community face are those in employment.
One year until Tokyo 2020 should be a wakeup call for our nation. It needs to be a countdown to more than just the games, but to a future where all disabled people are treated like Paralympians in whatever their chosen field. So, what are we waiting for? The clock is ticking.
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