The London 2012 Paralympic games, which came to an end yesterday were undoubtedly a triumph for everyone involved. Sebastian Coe, Chairman of the London 2012 Organizing Committee was surely right when he said,
“In this country we will never think of sport the same way and we will never think of disability the same way.”
But what can the last two weeks of sporting achievement and breathtaking determination by Paralympic athletes from around the world tell us about the situation for disabled people outside the richer nations of the world.
Anyone that knows the cost of even a basic wheelchair or a prosthetic limb will recognize that athletes from rich countries have a significant advantage in the world of Paralympic sport. China, Russia and Great Britain, the countries that topped the London 2012 medals table, have invested huge resources in specialist equipment and the facilities necessary for disabled athletes to reach their full potential. Yet for millions of disabled people around the world, their ambition is not to compete at the highest levels of sport, but to live full, active lives with equal access to healthcare, education, employment opportunities and a full, rich social and family life.
Having worked in the field of disability for many years, in numerous countries, including Sri Lanka, Haiti, Syria, Lebanon, Morocco, Nigeria, Iraq, and Guyana amongst others, I believe that the main pre-requisite for disabled people to achieve their potential is to have access to basic services including health, social services, and education. The communities that best serve their disabled members are those that can provide early identification and referral to services staffed by professionals trained in rehabilitation and aware of the needs of disabled people and their families. Health, social services, and education must also be accessible to everyone, regardless of wealth or where you are born. This represents a far more realistic goal for nations to achieve than the pursuit of ever more Paralympic medals.
In many of the places where International Medical Corps works, we are building up health systems, which would otherwise be entirely absent. A good example is Libya, where we began working during the 2011 conflict, providing emergency medical care to casualties from the fighting and support to hospitals with medical staff and supplies. Today we are still there, working with war wounded and other disabled Libyans in rehabilitation centers across the country. We are working hand in hand with the government of Libya, who also wants improved conditions for its disabled members, to build effective and equitable health and social service sectors.
Libya did not win any medals at the London 2012 Paralympic games. While nothing would make me more proud than to see the men and women we have supported competing in Rio 2016, a far greater achievement will be a real paradigm shift in attitudes to disability in countries like Libya. When all persons are included in society and enjoy equal access to services regardless of disability, then everyone has the opportunity to achieve their dreams like so many demonstrated in London this month.