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Themes: Culture and Participation

Six things the London 2012 Paralympic Games taught us about driving disability innovation for a fairer world

Vicki Austin

Co-founder and CEO of CIC

This week marks ten years since the London 2012 Paralympic Games began. Also, naturally, is a decade since the Olympic Games, or as Channel 4 called it “the warm-up”. And that matters too, because not only was London 2012 the most successful Paralympic Games ever, but also it was – and I’d argue remains – the most accessible Olympic Games ever. (Baton officially passed, Paris 2024!)

The glory of that summer ten years ago now, saw more Para athletes from more countries than ever before, filling east London’s stadiums to capacity with crowds in awe of with joy and wonder. Our Paralympians became our heroes for the first time and their stories were broadcast across the world in more TV coverage than ever. And the whole games was staffed by the most diverse workforce ever.

But that was really only the beginning. What mattered the most – to east Londoners anyway – was what came next. And if you walk around the site now, you’ll see one of the most accessible parts of a major world city; with homes, shops, health and sports facilities that play host to the most diverse residents and cultural events.

What I am describing here is not just sport as a legacy, but city living. New inclusive futures for generations.

It's not perfect. Politics changes and global conditions have been horrendous for many – especially, and disproportionately disabled people. But as major programmes featuring disability inclusion, cultural activities and urban development go, it’s the most inclusive I’ve ever seen. And I’ve seen quite a few!

So, deep in the pandemic, we set to learn the lessons from those that delivered London 2012 on what worked to embed disability inclusion into the 2012 Games and its legacy. We published this paper which summarised what our research taught us including the – rather satisfyingly titled – 12-step inclusion model last year. Ten years on, it’s quite something to look back at those foundations of sporting impact, and how far the legacy has now reached, propelling culture, innovation and the disability innovation movement like never before.

It’s been 6 years since Global Disability Innovation (GDI) Hub launched at Rio, we now have the honour and privilege of sharing what we learned,. Starting with the London Leagcy programme and now working with more than 70 partner in more than 40 countries. Our inclusive urban design thinking is currently supporting global partners to develop their own cities, and our teams around the world are designing new technologies and new approaches to AT access.

GDI Hub recently became the first WHO Global Collaboration Center on Access to AT, – and our new lab opens its lab doors in the Autumn as part of UCL East, on Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park . So, I have had cause to ask myself what is it that – ten years on – stays with me from London, that might help other project toward success. This is what I came up with:

  1. We - however big we think our ‘we’ is - we cannot do this alone. Everyone needs a way to play their part – from tiny organisations to individuals. How can we give every single person on this planet a way to do something toward AT access? This also means no one can control everything that everyone does. Some people will do things that really don’t help. We must be ok with that, a little bit.
  2. We need a way to chart our progress that people can care about. We need the data to do this, and we need to be relaxed about it not being perfect. We need to be able to see in something more accessible than long UN-style reports that show how we are doing, and how our – individual and collective - efforts are contributing.
  3. Partnerships are messy, get over it. If we all behave in the way we’d like to be treated, we’ll be fine. Trust and inclusion matter.
  4. Leadership should be by the people most affected. Nothing else works as efficiently or as well. Politicians, donors, and the leaders of global institutions need to listen to AT users, innovators, and governments of the global south.
  5. Milestones build momentum and investment. People need something to care about. And those making funding decisions are human beings with families and hearts that want to feel happy and full.
  6. Cultural engagement builds public interest and can change hearts and minds. Sport and arts were central to London 2012, integrated and at the forefront. No matter the work we are doing, engaging with the public through things they can care about helps the cause. A performance, interview or sporting moment can change thousands of minds in a minute.

So, as we look to what’s next, I personally am going to reflect on these lessons and wonder how I can sharpen my saw and do an even better job for the people we work for – disabled people around the world. That summer is one of the happiest (and most exhausting) of my life, and I’m so delighted GDI Hub continues its legacy every day.

(If you are a bid or host city, and would like to know more about what we learned from London 2012 legacy, and how we made it inclusive you can get in touch with our team. To find out more about our work, how you can get involved and our full portfolio have an explore of our website or join our mailing list).

London 2012 opening ceremony