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My name is Paul Lindoewood and I have worked for three decades with the Disability Movement in both Britain and East Africa. During this period I have been interested in the connection between disability, how a society develops, and how we understand a generic objective of inclusion. The current Paralympic Games in Tokyo were opened with the age-old cry for greater inclusion. I find myself repeatedly asking if the idea that inclusion can be reached by demonstrating what a handful of disabled people can achieve is essentially flawed?


IPC President Andrew Parsons called for a more inclusive society in his speech at the Tokyo 2020 Paralympics Opening Ceremony ©Getty ImagesAndrew Parsons, the International Paralympic Committee (IPC) President, helped open the Tokyo 2020 Games with a call for greater inclusion of disabled people within general society. In doing so, he highlighted a fundamental weakness in the Paralympic Movement as a force for change, and indeed in how we often understand inclusion. Parsons identified three important drivers behind his call:

  1. “The Paralympic Games are for sure a platform for change.”  
  2. “But only every four years is not enough.”
  3. “It is up to each and every one of us to play our part, every day, to make for a more inclusive society in our countries, in our cities, in our communities.”

As we identify with the successes and failures of respective athletes, the hypothesis that this will encourage society to become more inclusive of disabled people is at best questionable. By putting a person on a pedestal and showing the potential, are we knocking down other people? Is this really a mechanism to promote inclusion?

In Britain as in so much of the world, we frequently develop “centres of excellence”, which are meant to demonstrate how to overcome problems. This is particularly so within the world of disability. Providing the centre is accessible to all concerned and gives effective advice, this may seem a good way to move an agenda forward. Despite the resources absorbed by the centres, society justifies this by saying, “it is there for everyone to use”. The key question is, is this always the case?

In Britain, where we have a high level of communication (e.g., social media and internet access), we still have a great number of people who don’t access the help and support they need and whose participation in social and economic life is subject to other peoples understanding. In other parts of the world such as Africa, there has been a tradition of creating ‘flagship’ projects to demonstrate what can be achieved. So often these ‘flagships’ appear to be out of reach for the rest of society, so disabled people get good support in these areas, but no support in a neighbouring county or over a regional border.

Such is the nature of vertical development and very often our understanding of inclusion. Vertical development assumes that we assist an individual or a cohort of people, often in a specific area, to get on in life. It is, by definition, limited and focussed and can be justified by measuring the needs of an individual or group and their progress towards a defined aim.

Alternatively, there is horizontal development which says we will facilitate discussion and debate between people who are facing similar or related issues. Individuals, communities, and countries are all at different stages in their understanding of how things should and could progress. There is no assumption that people are going to be on the same road or want to get to the same destination. We can learn from each other and how we have overcome our respective barriers.

I want a world to develop where disabled people are full, equal, and participating members of their society. An important part of this process is to encourage disabled people to discuss their lived experience and how they have achieved their respective goals. The focus of this debate will not be on what a handful of individuals have achieved, but rather on how disabled people have managed to secure participation within their respective settings. As disabled people learn from their global, as well as local partners, they can experiment with new ideas in their own context.

Horizontal development is complimentary to, not instead of, vertical development. It can share the achievements of projects and make information more accessible. Proponents of vertical development have recognised this for years. This has evolved into international professional conferences to which, more recently, disabled people have been invited. A question maybe, who is being invited and on what justification? However, for horizontal development to be truly effective the information flow needs to be at all levels of the system – from top to bottom.

Andrew Parsons’ call for more inclusive societies around the world was no doubt meant as a wake-up call on one of the few occasions when the needs and achievements of disabled people take centre stage. Even within the Covid bubble system of the Tokyo gamers, perhaps the Paralympics’ potential to promote an inclusive world is not by demonstrating what disabled people can achieve. It is rather by bringing them together to discuss and encourage each other through their ideas, experiences, and expertise. This flow of information can enable them to go back to their respective communities and countries with a stronger hand to negotiate with governments and development agencies.

As we watch the Paralympics on TV and cheer on our respective athletes, let us not go away with a view that this has somehow increased inclusion. For inclusion to happen, disabled people need to be actively involved in their societies, starting at the grass-roots level. Inclusion cannot be achieved by a few individuals achieving incredible feats. It can only be achieved by the mass of disabled people participating within their respective contexts. Indeed, we need to move away from the idea of congratulating disabled people when they achieve participation and towards asking, when disabled people are not there, “where are they?”

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