Melanie Phillips

3 September 2012

Triumphing over the culture of victimhood

Published in: Daily Mail

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Who could have watched Ellie Simmonds’s astonishing gold medal win at the Paralympics without a lump in the throat?

For any able-bodied swimmer to streak ahead of the race leader after the turn into the last length  would be challenge enough. For a swimmer disabled by  dwarfism, this was simply a magical moment.

In the water, she ceased to be a disabled person. She was simply a champion swimmer.

Of course, this was merely one of countless unforgettable moments we’ve already seen at these Paralympics. Whose heart would not have leapt as the blade-runner Richard Whitehead suddenly stormed ahead from last place in the 200 metres final to take gold — and break his own world record?

And this despite the fact that, as a double above-the-knee amputee, taking the bend in that race is so difficult that previously he has snapped his blades no fewer than five times trying to manage the turn at full speed.

With virtually every event, one’s mouth has dropped open at the courage, stamina and ingenuity of these Paralympians.

The archer using only his toes and mouth to shoot his arrows and hit his target — and even lead the field. Or the dressage equestrian with twisted legs who is nevertheless able to direct the delicate steps of his horse.

Truly, these Paralympics are a revelation. Most of us never realised that disabled people could be capable of such astounding physical achievements — well beyond the scope of most able-bodied people.

Surely these astonishing feats of athleticism, along with the exuberant joy and deafening enthusiasm of the spectators, will have quashed most of the uneasy qualms some have felt about  the Paralympics.

Despite the tidal wave of emotion, however, it would be dishonest to pretend that all such qualms have been laid to rest.

Such reservations arise from the suggestion that these Games are somehow no different from the Olympics — when clearly they are not the same at all. Not only do they comprise different sports, but they also observe necessarily different rules to ensure fairness between different levels of disability.

In some of these sports, the nature of competition itself seems to have been effectively redefined.

For example, with just six competitors in the women’s F40 discus event, each had a 50/50 chance of a medal. And at least one spectator has suggested that goalball, played by teams of visually impaired athletes rolling a ball back and forward, is less sport than a form of therapy.

Nevertheless, the amazing levels of strength, courage and ruthless competitive determination to push the human frame to the utmost at these Games cannot but inspire unqualified admiration.

Indeed, the impact of this most extraordinary spectacle is likely to be more profound and longer-lasting than the Olympics. Without a doubt, it is changing the way people think about disability.

No longer are disabled people to be pitied, condescended to or pushed out of sight. These Games are teaching us that even those with extremely serious disabilities are capable of doing great things with their bodies.

Of course, there is now a danger that all disabled people will be assumed to be capable of overcoming their infirmities, though many find even the simplest of tasks all but impossible.

And even these superb Paralympic athletes themselves have to cope with the kind of physical frustrations and hardships in their daily lives which those of us fortunate enough to be able-bodied can scarcely imagine.

Nevertheless, what the Paralympics have exposed is the lazy equation of disability with incapacity. They show us that this need not be the case — not just through exceptional talent, but even more importantly through a refusal to be defined by disability and a determination instead to conquer life rather than be conquered by it.

This has inevitable implications for official policy on disability. The Government is already committed to stop the abuse of disability benefit, under which some people who could work despite their ailments are instead being signed off ‘on the sick’ to sink into lives of welfare dependency.

The Paralympics have deepened controversy over this policy — particularly because the French company Atos, which has a government contract to assess how many of Britain’s 2.6 million claimants of sickness benefit are actually fit for work, is also a sponsor of the event.

With Atos being accused of making inhumane assessments of some sick or disabled people as being able to work, its role in the Paralympics has been derided as a sick joke. It is regarded as doing ministers’ dirty work in ‘demonising’ disabled people.

Surely, though, this is looking through the wrong end of the telescope. Of course, if Atos has wrongly assessed claimants who really are too infirm to work, that is a worrying situation which should be addressed.

But we know that far too many people have indeed been claiming disability benefit when they are, in fact, fit enough to work.

This has long been a scandal. But with the Paralympics it becomes an outrage. For it is an insult to these athletes who have overcome truly terrible disabilities to achieve so much.

The point of the Government’s reform is to enable many people who inappropriately claim these benefits to escape the trap of permanent dependency.

It needs to achieve that by distinguishing between disability claims that are true and those that are false.

The failure to make that crucial distinction lies at the heart of what is termed ‘political correctness’, which assumes that any claims made by a designated ‘victim’ group must be true.

There is a predictable chorus by PC-minded folk that, contrary to its bad press, political correctness has been shown by the Paralympics to be nothing other than good manners and tolerance of difference.

But these are merely the necessary characteristics of any civilised society. By contrast, political correctness uses such essential decency as a fig-leaf to stamp out differences of opinion and turn values  upside down.

Once certain groups are designated as victims, political correctness then deems them to be beyond reproach, however they may behave. But because it taps into a genuine desire to be more tolerant, anyone who objects is promptly damned as a heartless bigot.

The Paralympics have shown up such attitudes as both stupid and offensively condescending. These competitors are not victims: they demand, and deserve, to be judged on their merits and achievements like everyone else.

At the other extreme, it is notable how American TV stations which provided saturation coverage of the Olympics have all but ignored the Paralympics.

Almost certainly, this is because the U.S., the ultimate land of ‘can-do’, divides people into winners and losers. Such a ruthless Darwinian ‘survival of the fittest’ attitude recoils from bodily imperfection.

This unpleasant approach surely reveals a hollowness at the heart of the American dream of opportunity. For if anything is a triumph of ‘can-do’, it’s surely the Paralympics.

And there’s no doubt that these Games have released something rather wonderful in British society, which has responded with such overwhelming generosity to these inspiring athletes — who have humbled us by displaying the astonishing strength of the human spirit to overcome any physical limitations.

About Melanie

Melanie Phillips is a British journalist and author. She is best known for her controversial column about political and social issues which currently appears in the Daily Mail. Awarded the Orwell Prize for journalism in 1996, she is the author of All Must Have Prizes, an acclaimed study of Britain's educational and moral crisis, which provoked the fury of educationists and the delight and relief of parents.

Read full biography


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  • America's Social Revolution

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Melanie Phillips
Daily Mail
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2 Derry Street
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Contact Melanie