The opening of the Paralympic Games in London on Wednesday 29th August 2012 was marked by a lavish opening ceremony which celebrated the UN Convention on Human Rights, human scientific discovery and the reality of diversity in the modern world.
The renowned physicist Stephen Hawking – a man who has never let his immobility hold him back – took centre stage to lead spectators on a “voyage through time”. Major scientific discoveries were celebrated in words music, dance and fabulous lighting, as well as the long and often arduous fight for equality by disabled activists and athletes. Hawking shared the role of host with the actor, Sir Ian McKellen, well known for playing Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings films, among many other theatre and film roles. However the stars of the show were the 4,000 athletes from 164 nations.
Joe Townsend, a Royal Marine Commando who lost both his legs after stepping on a landmine in Afghanistan, flew into the stadium on a zip wire from the 376-foot-tall (100+ metres) Orbit tower overlooking the Paralympic venue. The ‘flight’ seemed to last a lifetime as he came down from a great height, crossing the big space of the Olympic plaza and dropping into the stadium. The flame was lit by Margaret Maughan, winner of Britain’s first ever Paralympics gold medal at Rome in 1960, who took up archery after she suffered spinal injury in a car accident in 1953 and is now 84 years old.
Under the title ‘Enlightenment’, the spectacle was a ceremony aiming to alter the world’s perception of disability, according to The London Independent. It was filled with simmering political radicalism and social commentary – “a fitting tribute given that this was the moment the Paralympics returned home to the country where its foundations were first conceived 64 years ago”, wrote Jerome Taylor in the London Independent. The music included a lively performance of Ian Drury’s disability anthem Spasticus Autisticus. This provided the backdrop to a tribute to Britain’s disability rights movement, including ‘angry protesters’ who took to the stage, chanting slogans for an equal share in the world.
Writing in the Washington Post, Anthony Faiola commented: “with an ode to science, human perseverance and the disabled physicist Stephen Hawking, this host city raised the curtain on what is set to be the world’s biggest and most-watched Paralympic Games, despite receiving relatively limited attention in the United States.”
Writing from the UK, after watching the opening ceremony, David N Jones, former IFSW President and Special Representative on The Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development commented: “This was a breath-taking opening ceremony which celebrated diversity and the human spirit with grace, artistry and conviction. It showed respect and honour to people with disabilities, including the many performers with disabilities who took solo roles or participated in the large crowd scenes. The ceremony managed to avoid patronising condescension and will certainly help to achieve the goal of changing public views of disability around the world, alongside what are confidently expected to be amazing sporting achievements in the days ahead. I had a one day visit to the Olympic stadium in August. It is a fantastic arena for the celebration of the sporting achievement of the Paralympians.
“But we must not mislead ourselves into think the struggle is over”, David Jones continued. “Even as the Prime Minister of the UK watched the ceremony and applauded the athletes as they came into the stadium, his government has launched a sustained attack on the circumstances of people with disabilities, including compulsory reassessments of disability benefits which people with disabilities have said are demeaning and even cruel. The same is happening all around the world in these times of financial difficulty, and of course in many countries people with disabilities have little if any support and spend most of their time shut in at home or in residential institutions.
“Social workers around the world know that the main consequence of disability is often social exclusion and isolation and that, with appropriate support, most people with disabilities can live fulfilling and creative lives. This was clearly demonstrated in the speech by Tom Shakespeare at the Stockholm 2012 world conference.
The Global Agenda for Social Work and Social Development includes the following commitment by IFSW and our global partners IASSW and ICSW:
‘We will work in collaboration with others to promote strong inclusive communities that enable all members to participate and belong. We will promote policies aimed at social integration and cohesion as a means for achieving the economic and social wellbeing of all persons, including older people and persons with disabilities, mental health needs and/ or learning difficulties.’
“After the flame was lit, the final act of the ceremony was led by Beverly Knight, Lizzie Emeh and Caroline Parker who inspired the whole crowd in a soulful singalong of I Am What I Am, a celebration of individuality and self-confidence. The audience was encouraged to sing the words using sign language. This was a truly memorable and uplifting end to a major landmark in the campaign for disability and human rights.
“As a social worker, I felt that for once I could join wholeheartedly in an international ceremony which was not about power or conflict but a genuine celebration of the core humanitarian values of our profession”, David Jones concluded.
For more coverage of the ceremony visit here.
For pictures of the ceremony and the events described in this article, visit here.
Disabled people face a tidal wave of prejudice and discrimination – comment by Peter Beresford, professor of social policy at Brunel University and chair of Shaping Our Lives, the national service-user organisation and network