Thursday, 30 August 2012

(Guest Post) A Lasting Paralympic Legacy? By Kilian Bourke

Kilian and Rebecca with the paralympic flame
(Tony Ellis photography)
On Saturday morning the Paralympic flame came to Romsey Town, just weeks after the Olympic torch passed along Mill Road. The torch arrived at the Cornerstone CafĂ© at St Philip’s Church, which is run by the Papworth Trust, a leading disability charity.

When I was there I had the pleasure to meet Rebecca Lawes, a competitive swimmer at a national level who lives here in Romsey and is an aspiring Paralympian. Rebecca swims a number of strokes but her specialism is the backstroke, and she hopes to compete in Rio 2016. Her enthusiasm and energy are infectious.

As for this year's Paralympics, it is welcome that even before they have started they seem to be enjoying a higher profile than in the past, with big advertising even beginning to get in on the act. I am sure Oscar Pistorius being allowed to compete in the Olympics has played a part in this.

However, although increasing public awareness of disability issues and challenging negative perceptions are undoubtedly good things, I think we should take this opportunity to go further than that and create a really lasting Paralympic legacy.

I am talking about the difficulty of getting around Cambridgeshire for people with mobility problems. Ask anyone who uses a wheelchair about the standard of disabled access in Cambridge, for example, and they will quickly give you a long list of the specific challenges and frustrations they face on a daily basis.

The County Council is Cambridgeshire's "Local Transport Authority" and so the responsibility falls on it to ensure an adequate level of provision, and it does accordingly make minor improvements from time to time, often in conjunction with the City Council's Area Committees, for example. In general, though, the County's policy, with some exceptions, seems to be to fix things whenever they get around to doing other road schemes in the same location. This can result in a very long wait.

My view is that more proactive work should be done to improve disabled access in Cambridge and Cambridgeshire. The County should set about reviewing disabled access across the board and put together a list of the most urgent changes that need to be made.

This would be a big task, but could perhaps be combined with a survey of cycle access, in response to The Times' "Cities safe for Cycling" campaign. A modest rolling program of annual improvements could then be funded, along the lines of the "Disabled Access Fund" that the Lib Dem opposition have put in their alternative budget the past few years, that would provide dropped kerbs and other basic access measures.

Unfortunately the ruling Conservative group's real Paralympic legacy looks likely to be a much bleaker one. Despite a public consultation showing a near total lack of support for their plans to cut bus subsidies, Cambridgeshire's Tories intend to see this plan through, although they have cleverly delayed many of these cuts until after the elections next May.

I would urge them to put the brakes on again and think hard about the human consequences of continuing with this plan. The public consultation on these cuts showed that one of the groups that would be hardest hit would be the disabled - and no wonder. Many people with mobility problems cannot drive cars. What are they supposed to do if their local bus stops running?
"Growing the local economy for the benefit of all" is rightly a council priority, but the Conservatives are often inclined to abbreviate it, omitting the "for all" bit. For that growth to be truly for the benefit of all there must be a strong commitment to ensuring that in the race for success no-one is left behind. Otherwise we risk institutionalising a subtle form of Social Darwinism.

Reviewing disabled access across Cambridgeshire and then taking to improve it would be a lasting Paralympic legacy that would benefit many lives. Stopping the cuts to bus funding would be another.

Note: If you feel strongly about this issue, please consider making a monthly donation to the Papworth Trust, which has supported Rebecca, and thousands of other people with disabilities every day.