On August 29, 2012 a cast of deaf of disabled people took centre stage for the opening ceremony of the London Paralympics. It didn’t have quite the lavish budget of Danny Boyle’s spectacular a few weeks earlier, but its impact was no less impressive.
It was a signal that the Paralympics should and could be on an equal footing to the Olympics and it wasn’t just a sporting landmark. Using the Ian Dury and the Blockheads anthem Spasticus Autisticus, which was originally banned by the BBC on the grounds it was offensive, it gave disabled artists the most visible of platforms in front of a global TV audience of millions.
Inside the stadium, where 70,000 watched alongside the Queen, it felt like something had changed that summer’s evening.
“When I shot out of the stadium at the end, as I broke the glass ceiling, I just heard the massive cheer from the entire stadium,” says Nicola Miles-Wildin, who performed at the ceremony, playing Miranda opposite Sir Ian McKellen’s Prospero. “That’s when I thought, ‘Yes, We’ve done it. We have done something great here’. Just talking to people afterwards and going to see some of the Paralympic events it had really put is on the map.”
However, four years on many of those involved in that opening ceremony fear the optimism may have been misplaced and that the lives and rights of disabled people have taken two steps back since those heady days of 2012.
“When 70,000 people in the stadium sang along to Spasticus Autisticus it felt like the future held great things for deaf and disabled people worldwide,” says Jenny Sealey, artistic director of the deaf and disabled theatre company Graeae and co-director of the opening ceremony.
“Since the London Paralympic Games a number of schemes have been affected by Government cuts and policy changes. The Independent Living Fund, which was set up to support disabled people to live within the community, has closed and the fund was transferred to local councils without any provisos given for ring-fencing.”
Sealey and others also add that changes to Access to Work scheme, which provided the sign language translators for the ceremony, means the application process has ground to a halt. Add to that the controversial Personal Independence Payments, which is replacing Disability Living Allowance, has left many people for weeks or months without support. In short they say that had the Games been staged now such a large scale event simply wouldn’t be possible.
“The ATW scheme has become unusable. Freelance artists are having to pay for their expenses, not knowing whether they will get reimbursed and some are becoming disinclined to work,” says Sealey. “We need a trained and skilled team to be able to process the applications for grants and we need to stop changing the criteria.
“The money from the ILF has to be ring-fenced to protect from further cuts and allow disabled to maintain their independence otherwise we will return to a time when segregation was the norm.” While the campaigning will continue, those changes aren’t imminent and for now the elation of 2012 has been replaced by disappointment.
“A few weeks after the Paralympics finished, the curtains closed and the rug was pulled,” says performer John Kelly. “We closed the ILK, made devastating changes to the Access to Work programme and the basic things that we all needed to make that night happen have been decimated.
“We have been on panels, we have fought in committee meetings all our lives. For that unique moment during the opening ceremony everyone was smiling at each other. Disability art was seen for the quality it can really be. I want that back.”