Hard on the heels of the Olympics come the Paralympics. Four years ago, the London games proved to be not just unexpectedly exciting but truly exhilarating. British TV audiences basked in the joy of the record-breaking swimmer Ellie Simmonds. The wheelchair racer David Weir was lauded by the Daily Mail as ‘one of the best athletes of all time’. Many of us were filled with awe by women and men whose disabilities might otherwise have produced in us a reflex of pity, unease, distaste or even fear. Channel 4 called them ‘superhuman’ (the astonishing promo for its coverage of Rio takes the idea even further).
Sadly, it turned out that none of this high esteem was available to the ‘ordinary’ disabled people of this country. Since 2010, government austerity seems to have targeted disabled people especially, so much so that the UN is now conducting an unprecedented inquiry into ‘systematic and grave violations’ of their human rights. ‘Cuts are savage and suffering is incalculable,’ said a powerful piece in the Guardian this week.
The media have proved to be no kinder. The Glasgow Media Unit found in 2011 that there had been a shift of late from ‘a largely patronising portrayal’ of disabled people as ‘tragic but brave’ to one that presented them predominantly as scroungers. Is it any wonder that reported hate crimes against disabled people have been rising steeply?
In 2012, Tanni Grey-Thompson, then our greatest Paralympian, talked to Third Way about a recent occasion when she had to crawl off a train because there was no one to help her. ‘I think the reaction to that story, especially online, was a litmus test of where we are as disabled people,’ she said. Although it’s ‘miles better’ than it used to be, she was still told that ‘people like you should be on cattle trucks at the back of trains so you don’t contaminate normal people’.
The gospels may not tell us explicitly how Jesus regarded disabled people, but one can certainly read between the lines. His characteristic response, I would suggest, was compassion. At root, ‘compassion’ speaks of fellow feeling. It doesn’t patronise or pity. It neither looks up to people nor looks down on them but looks across at them, recognising and respecting the humanity we share with them, imagining what it’s like to be them. And, if it moves us half as powerfully as it moved Jesus, it acts.
Huw edited Third Way’s monthly ‘High Profile’ interviews for 23 years and is now continuing the series independently at www.highprofiles.info