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Themes: Culture and Participation

Popular culture can set stigma alight in seconds but to sustain change the fire must be ready to burn

Vicki Austin

Co-founder and Director of CIC

Billboard of Channel 4 reads: Thanks for the warm-up

At 7 pm on the evening of the 12th August 2012, I was utterly exhausted (from the Olympics) and beyond excited (about the start of the Paralympics). It was the last day of the London 2012 Olympic Games when I took this picture as I left work and I knew we’d done it. London 2012 had created at least a part of the cultural shift we had intended to.

This billboard was just outside Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park in Stratford, East London – the vibrant, creative, diverse and previously neglected part of town where the Games were held. On the left in the background is Anish Kapoor’s sculpture, the ArcelorMittal Orbit; it stands between the iconic Olympic Stadium and Aquatics Centre (all of which you can still visit on the Park today). In the foreground, there is the bright pink accessibility signage (for disabled and older visitors) which was recognisable to anyone in London that summer, 8 years ago.

On the day the Olympics closed, many host cities would have been ready to stand down, ready to rest, ready to move on. But not London. No, apology for the London 2012 Paralympic Games being second best, here. ‘Thanks for the warm-up’ banners popped up all over the city. I cried laughing when I first saw this ad (from Channel 4, the official Paralympic Broadcaster) - it was utterly brilliant! In a heartbeat, with a confident, cocky change of tone, the narrative around disability was turned on its head. London 2012 Paralympic Games was go! For the first time ever, it sold out.

Setting a mission for the type of city you want to create

London was the most successful Paralympic Games in history, as well as the most accessible Olympic Games too. With more athletes from more countries than ever before; more hours broadcast internationally; and Paralympians as heroes to the world’s young people for the first time. For me, it was a privilege to lead the legacy programme for the Mayor and it was from this work that GDI Hub was formed.

Channel 4’s Superhumans campaign wasn’t without (some, valid) criticism, but when coupled with the work of a fantastic organisation like Unlimited, run by GDI board member Jo Verrent and the amazing opening ceremony curated by Bradly Hemmings and Jenny Sealey using disabled artists and songs like ‘spasticus autisticus’ to blow apart stereotypes even further, it was a game-changer.

I often wish host cities could see their opening ceremonies to the Paralympics two years out. Or that bid cities could see their visions for diversity upfront as clearly as London did. Because it changes the relationship to inclusion. Bidding for a major cultural event is a chance to set a vision about what type of city you want to be. London chose inclusive and accessible. That’s the power of the Paralympics beyond sport.

In Rio de Janeiro too, despite some issues, the Paralympics was well attended and enabled access for many families. Channel 4 repeated their approach in the 2016 Games. Watching Brazil win blind football was something I’ll never forget as the country got behind its disabled athletes like never before. It helped that they are beyond obsessed with soccer!

What comes from Tokyo, now in 2021, I can’t wait to find out. Our partners in Japan tell us that everyone is geared up to do the best job possible in the circumstances. Their massive tech infrastructure will help the world engage and we’ll be there sharing the Disability Innovation story, working with our partners.

A coalition for Disability Innovation

But when I think back, what 2012 did was to blow open a new space for discussion. A new way of thinking became possible. New mechanisms to drive disability justice – what we now call Disability Innovation - became possible. Not on the 12th August though. This started back in 2005 and even before the bid was won with its political commitments (retained by three mayors of different political flavours) to equality. It became possible because of clear leadership; allocated budgets (for agencies including my own) to drive change; experts' input; private sector buy-in; world-leading inclusive design standards; and engagement with the people that mattered - disabled people and local communities – at every stage of the process. All of this was done with disabled people in the lead like Lord Holmes our founding Chair who was Director of Paralympic Integration for LOCOG. Success was celebrated, including the media, and there were consequences to failure (both were monitored tightly). Baking inclusion into the heart of London 2012 was a long hard slog that lasted almost a decade without the glitz of the Games that made Channel 4’s campaign both possible and likely.

Build a fire and get ready to fan the flames

What I learned from London 2012, as the lead for Paralympic Legacy working for three different mayors for a decade, is the same thing that I have seen now we are working in more than 25 countries. Attitude is everything; stigma is pervasive, and culture can shift perspectives quicker than almost anything I’ve seen. These critical junctures or ‘sparks’ of change, can light the touch paper - they won’t burn forever but should never be underestimated. The chance for others to see things differently is precious… those of us driving for justice should grab these opportunities with open arms.

But let us not be fooled. Long-term justice and inclusion is a hard, structural, political, participatory slog - draining (as well as invigorating, too) for the communities that are fighting for their rights as well as for the progressive leaders trying to make them a reality.

Disability justice currently feels hard; again we are having to make our case again, against a backdrop of COVID-19 and its impacts (which are already greater on disabled people), under-funded global health and budget cuts. For those of us seeking a shortcut to justice through widening access to technology, there are opportunities as well as challenges too. But in these times, it is our job to build the fire for when the next spark comes and get ready to fan the flames.

At GDI Hub we try to do the thinking, form the relationships, design the tools and build the networks necessary to jump on every opportunity that comes our way. We don’t know where the next spark will come from, but let’s build a fire and take every chance to light it.

P.S: Check out this video from the Channel 4 campaign and this other video from IOC featuring the London 2012 legacy and the GDI Hub.