Politicians have to have a thicker skin than most people, or at the very least, the ability to appear to care deeply about what everyone thinks, while not actually caring in the slightest. But it does take an exceptionally brassy brass neck to be the Chancellor of the Exchequer, the man in charge of the nation’s purse strings, and turn out at the Paralympic Games to award some of the medals, as Britain’s George Osborne did after the T38 400m final last night. Not because the Brits have anything particular against the office of the Chancellor, and not really because of any significant personality issues between the man and the people he claims to serve (although he does not seem to be overly blessed with the reassuring charisma of a head of state).
No, the chief reason it’s a bold thing to do is that it’s George Osborne that has presided over a current British government policy of cuts in benefits for people with disabilities. And as this is a contentious thing to do, the benefit reforms were preceded by a sudden, alarming, and very convenient rise in front-page news stories about disability benefit fraud. Subsequently, there has been a parallel rise in instances of disability hate crime too. These facts may be related.
In Britain, the current Disability Living Allowance is not means tested, which means anyone, rich or poor, can access financial support in managing their situation. This can be for specialist equipment, for care workers to assist with basic life needs like dressing, or for help with transportation. And yet the tone of media debate on the issue has tended to equate people with disabilites with malingerers, feeding a public suspicion that all you need to do is fake a backache and you get a free house. Needless to say, this has aided the government’s calls for benefit reform immensely.
So, given that British disabled athletes are currently representing their country at an event designed to showcase the very best of human ability against overwhelming odds, and given that the spectacle of disabled athletes competing at a worldwide level has the power to utterly alter the public perception of people with disabilities, what else were the 80,000 people at the Olympic stadium going to do?
Frankly I’m amazed they didn’t throw stuff too.