23 September 2008
A Wheelpower event at Stoke Mandeville's Paralympic Handover Day, involving more than 200 schoolchildren, was a powerful experience for Liz Porter
Revisiting Stoke Mandeville brought back mixed memories for me of attending swimming competitions there 30 years ago. At special school you were expected to do some kind of sport, whether or not you wanted to. I quite liked it and even won a few awards, including being British breaststroke record-holder for six months, until my mate Jenny took the record from me. They asked me to train for the Paralympics, but I didn’t want to as attending swimming club clashed with the drama club – and drama felt more important. Life at Exhall Grange was traumatic, but swimming was a way out from the persistent bullying of peers and the daily routine. It also gave us an opportunity to escape into the outside world. Usually you were only allowed out once a week.
Handover day kicked off in the Aylesbury Civic Centre, with a talk by former Paralympian John Harris. John took part in five Paralympics and spoke candidly and passionately about his experiences. He has a natural ability to engage his audience and is a powerful storyteller. He encouraged the young people from six local special and mainstream schools to actively get involved and reflected on his achievement of winning gold. He also talked about the importance of Stoke Mandeville in the development of the games: the need for motivation, determination and commitment, and also the need to believe in yourself and get involved in all aspects of life. The young people were inspired and ready for action.
We moved to Aylesbury Square and were welcomed by Signdance Collective. Drawing in the audience and passers-by with their quirky style of street dance/ performance, they wove in and out of the crowds, distributing balloons, connecting and communicating. The Luke Barlow band played in the background, and film footage from their show ‘But Beautiful’ was screened above the square. Dynamic, in movement and colour, Signdance looked in their element.
Meanwhile visual artist Rachel Gadsden caught the atmosphere in an action painting that she told me would take a few weeks to complete. All this gave a vibrant energy to the day. Rachel’s work will become part of the local council’s collection. Each school group then had a chance to have a few taster sessions in sports and arts activities. As well as sports, this included painting flags or murals, using photographs to spark ideas or learning some sign language with Signdance. Their creations will be part of the Stoke Mandeville archive that is being developed. Some young people were filming the events with the council’s ‘I Van’. It had a positive energy although everything was rushed as the kids only got 15 minutes per taster session. The choice of artists and art-form was spot-on, setting the standard for quality interaction, despite time restrictions.
I have a massive respect for the prowess and achievements of sportsmen and women, and the Paralympian UK team did brilliantly. But as we left the square to move on to Stoke Mandeville, I couldn’t help thinking about what kind of representation disabled and deaf people will get over the next four years. Will it all go to the sporting achievers? How many disabled and Deaf artists will get profiled? How much of the ‘real’ lives of disabled people will we hear about? Will we be subjected to a barrage of ‘super crip’ ‘triumph-over-adversity' stories admonishing us to prove ourselves and to achieve? We’ve seen a lot of this in the media recently, with Paralympians such as Oscar Pistorius telling us to focus on the ability and forget about disability. Can the Cultural Olympiad really change perceptions and attitudes? Getting it right in education settings is vital.
The first thing to strike me were the extraordinary images of Paralympians that Rachel Gadsden was commissioned to make. (Please double click on the gallery in the right-hand menu to see a series of six mixed media images.) They are inspiring and dynamic, capturing the movement and spirit of the subjects. Her work validates the whole concept of combining art and sport. The paintings represent powerful and positive images of disabled people and formed a perfect backdrop for the procession of world flags by the school children, a drumming band and film footage of the handover that took place at the same time. I hope Rachel will be commissioned to make some work for the 2012 games.
I spoke with veteran Paralympian Phillip Lewis and basketball Paralympian hopeful Maddy Thomas. When talking with Phillip you realise just how important it is for Stoke Mandeville to develop an archive to document the social history of how sports have related to our lives. Philip Lewis played table tennis in the second Paralympic games in Tokyo, Japan, 1964. Philip was encouraged to take part by the lead physician at Stoke Mandeville as part of his rehabilitation programme. I asked him what changes he’s seen over the years:
"The whole thing started small, and has built up with more and more different sporting events. I think people’s perception of disability has changed as the Paralympics has grown. When we went to Japan, disabled people were kept in villages up in the mountains. Disability represented something shameful, so disabled people weren’t allowed to mix with their own families. The games were seen by hundreds and thousands of Japanese who had come to watch them. In the aftermath, disabled people became much more integrated into society. Now we are hoping exactly the same thing will happen in China."
I went on to ask him what he thinks of linking the arts with sports:
"Disabled people need opportunities, in work, in sport, in the arts or whatever they want to do. It’s not any one area. I’d like to see the opportunities that are open to able bodied people, being open to all disabled people."
Young basketball hopeful Maddy Thomson told me how she became involved in sports:
"I got involved with Whizz-Kidz - a company that owns basketball wheelchairs. The women's basketball team asked me to trial out, three years ago. I play for the Yorkshire under-15s in the Stoke Mandeville Junior League. I think today will inspire more young disabled people to get involved in sport. It will show disabled people that there’s stuff they can do, as the games are adapted in ways that enable them to join in too. 2012 will promote the sports and get others involved, seeing if they can compete at that level as well."
It’s our choice whether we engage with the Cultural Olympiad or not. The saying ‘If you don’t buy a ticket, you can’t get on the bus’ springs to mind. All our stories are important: our cultures, our voices, our art. Moaning about what you think is going to happen is quite different from taking an active stance. In the South East there is going to be a big push for leaving a positive legacy for disabled and Deaf people. Through the Accentuate programme there will be a whole range of projects for us to engage with. I’m hoping the initiative will have lead input from disabled and Deaf professionals and project managers.
Whatever you think about 2012 and the Cultural Olympiad, it is here and will be with us for the next four years. The impact on disabled and deaf people's lives and how we feel about arts and sports in the UK after 2012 partly depends on how many of us get involved.
Bucks TV have filmed highlights of the Paralympic Handover with clips of John Harris, Rachel Gadsden and Signdance Collective. They have also published highlights of the The Wycombe Steel orchestra welcoming the parade of children carrying the flags of 147 competing nations.
The Create Compete and Collaborate projects will provide opportunities for young people and adults to get involved in sports and arts; explore different cultures through exchange programmes and document the history.
The London 2012 team launched their education programme Get Set to get children and young people involved the excitement and inspiration of the Games.
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