LONDON Aug 31 When Britain's Stoke Mandeville
hospital staged its first sporting contest for disabled patients
in 1948 it hoped to show soldiers injured in World War Two that
a broken back did not have to mean a death sentence.
Since then, staff have seen those early games transformed
into a Paralympic showcase now in its 14th and largest edition
in Britain, mirroring wider progress in the perception of
disability around the world.
Now, with governments seeking to cut public spending,
doctors and paralympians are hoping the sight of 4,280 athletes
from 164 countries competing in front of packed stadia will help
maintain that momentum.
One person who could go a long way towards further changing
the perception of disability is the eloquent and engaging South
African Oscar Pistorius, who competed as a double amputee almost
four weeks ago in the Olympic Games to a rapturous welcome.
Dubbed the "Blade Runner" for the two carbon fibre
prosthetic blades he uses, Pistorius was named by Time magazine
in its 2008 list of the world's 100 most influential people as
being "on the cusp of a paradigm shift in which disability
becomes ability, disadvantage becomes advantage".
His appearance on the track at the London Olympics, in which
the 25-year-old reached the men's 400 metre semi-finals, was
particularly influential, showing how disabled athletes could
perform on the mainstream stage and earning praise from some of
athletics' biggest stars.
Much in the same way as the success of athletes at the
Olympic Games raised questions over wider issues such as funding
for sport, paralympians are hoping a successful staging of their
Games will do the same for disability issues.
"Great Britain is at the forefront in terms of education on
disability," Pistorius, who was born without a fibula in both
legs, told reporters ahead of the Paralympic Games. "I believe
that's the only way to remove a lot of the stigmas, and to get
over this being a taboo subject.
"The worldwide audience will be amazed when we see these
Games through the eyes of the people in the UK. The impact will
The Paralympics were conceived at the 1948 London Olympics
by German neurologist Ludwig Guttmann, who four years earlier
opened a spinal injuries centre at Stoke Mandeville hospital to
the north west of London after fleeing Nazi Germany.
Disgusted at the sight of men dying from unrelated
infections on average three months after breaking their back,
Guttmann worked to make his patients more mobile before
gradually introducing sports such as archery and javelin
throwing as part of their rehabilitation.
Allison Graham, a consultant physician at Stoke Mandeville's
national spinal injuries centre, told Reuters it had been
incredible to see how much had changed since Britain last held
the Paralympic Games in 1984 "in the back garden with one
photographer and Prince Charles watching".
"What Guttmann was doing from 1944 onwards was making sure
that people could live with a spinal cord injury," she told
Reuters. "And it wasn't just enough that they lived, they had to
According to the World Health Organisation, more than a
billion people in the world experience disability of some kind,
and they generally have poorer health, lower education, fewer
economic opportunities and higher rates of poverty than those
While Britain and Nordic countries lead the way in terms of
access and support, other countries that have made good progress
include those hit by war which have improved services for
disabled people who returned home as heroes.
Japan, faced with an ageing population, has worked hard to
promote accessibility, while in Africa, Uganda is one of the
most progressive countries with a reference to the rights of the
disabled in its constitution.
Altogether, 119 countries have ratified the United Nations
Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, with many
realising that to invest in accessible infrastructure from
trains to roads and buildings can be cheaper in the long run,
especially in emerging markets where much is yet to be built.
The sight of Pistorius with his blades may also remind
governments of the importance of providing the right equipment.
The WHO estimates that less than 15 percent of people who need
wheelchairs have access to them.
"If people are dependent then they're not earning, they're
not producing, they're not paying taxes," Doctor Tom Shakespeare
at the World Health Organisation told Reuters.
"They're probably a cost to society, whereas if you remove
some of the barriers so they can contribute and participate,
then ultimately it will change for the better."
Leading disabled figures in Britain including Paralympian
Tanni Grey-Thompson have said that despite London hosting the
biggest ever Games, they fear a step back as moves by the
government to cut spending result in growing resentment towards
the disabled in terms of the benefits they receive.
For Jonathan Fogerty, the chairman of the Spinal Injuries
Association, the Olympic Park in London showed how a city should
be built, with trains, restaurants, toilets and venues all
designed to provide easy access for wheelchair users.
"I went as a wheelchair user and it was excellent," he told
Reuters. "Hopefully these Games can leave a legacy of
inclusivity and of getting people thinking more widely about the
needs and the requirements of those with disabilities. It's not
rocket science, it just takes a bit of thought."