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Paralympics boosts profile of disabled but no panacea

New Zealand's Tim Prendergast (R) competes in the 800 metres final at the eleventh Paralympic Games in Sydney in this file photograph dated
New Zealand's Tim Prendergast (R) competes in the 800 metres final at the eleventh Paralympic Games in Sydney in this file photograph dated

By Jack Merlin Watling

LONDON (Reuters) - Walking with Paralympic Gold Medalist Tim Prendergast along one of London's busiest streets, 'disability' is not the first word that springs to mind.

Weaving through the heaving crowds outside Baker Street underground train station, Prendergast, who is blind except for peripheral vision, crosses a road without pause - exhibiting the focused confidence that led him to victory in the T13 800m in Athens in 2004 with a time of 1:56.23.

"People make assumptions. In fact, some people will grab your arm and move you around," said Prendergast, who says he never uses a cane. "They have good intentions, so you can't get cross, but it's patronizing."

The 2012 London Paralympics, with an estimated international television audience of 3.4 billion, raised awareness of disabilities and turned some competitors into heroes and heroines. But it was no panacea for the often fraught social interactions that people like Prendergast face on a daily basis.

"Research clearly shows that the games had a positive impact on peoples' perceptions of disability," said Craig Spence, head of communications at the International Paralympics Committee.

"(But) there is still a significant challenge... in bridging the gap between peoples' perception of disabled athletes and their attitudes to disabled people in everyday life.

"That requires seeing disabled people excel in the work place and in the community. The Games started a dialogue but it is now up to society to carry that legacy forward."

The assumptions that people sometimes make about disabled people can be insulting, inconvenient or even dangerous.

"As a wheelchair user there is always the danger that someone will grab your chair and take you across a road that you had no intention of crossing," said Rosemary Frazer, Community Campaigns Manager at the disability charity Scope.

"WHY DO YOUR EYES WOBBLE?"

Frazer is particularly incensed when she travels with her husband and staff and other passengers at airports treat her as if she were mentally impaired - or not even there.

"They act as though you could not possibly explain yourself and it is very condescending. I get this when I go to the airport and try to book in. I give them our tickets and they ask my husband what help I will need to get on the plane," she said.

Being visually impaired myself, I have often experienced people doing things for me while being afraid to ask questions.

This can result in them being very unhelpful. Children on the other hand will just walk up and say 'why do your eyes wobble?' I explain and they walk away satisfied. Although this often leaves very embarrassed parents, it is in fact refreshing.

Prendergast lost his sight over a five-year period when he was a teenager. It started with dark spots that formed in the centre of his eyes and slowly expanded until they blotted out everything but his extreme peripheral vision.

"I got angry. My passion was cricket and I was not going to be able to take it very far. But it was either sit around and feel sorry for myself or work out how to deal with it. You have to adapt," Prendergast told Reuters.

His disability has forced him to come up with a wide array of tools and techniques for dealing with everyday problems.

For example, crossing a road, he uses other pedestrians as markers, locking onto their heels with his peripheral vision and following them to avoid bollards and shop signs.

At a train station early in the morning, before the loud speaker announcements begin, he will ask others for help.

"It is easy to feel in denial about your disability and some people find it hard to ask for help, but really asking for help is the greatest source of independence. I have never been refused when I explain to someone that I cannot see," he said.

DIALOGUE ESSENTIAL

Helena Lucas, another Paralympic Gold Medalist, agreed.

"Being open about when you need help is vital. You have to be comfortable with yourself," said Lucas, who won her medal in 2012 for sailing despite having no thumbs and limited movement in her arms. She sails with no major modifications to her vessel, a 2.4m R Olympics-class sailboat.

The importance of actually asking disabled people what they want is by no means confined to crossing the road.

For example, if a blind person enters the education system it might seem best to teach him Braille. Yet the Royal National Institute for Blind People estimates there are only about 20,000 Braille users in Britain, representing less than one percent of blind and visually impaired people in the country.

While many will not have had the chance to learn Braille, many others will choose not to use it, even if they have learned it, because it is not appropriate for their needs.

Norali Yusop lost his sight to meningitis while preparing for school examinations. Living in Brunei, he was urged to learn Braille but quickly found he needed "something more efficient".

Besides, Braille textbooks were hard to come by, so he took to recording his classmates reading their books out loud.

As the amount of reading increased this became impractical and he started to use e-books with a screen reader to listen to his work. Though "tedious", this paid off and in 2007 he became the first blind graduate of University Brunei Darussalam.

Disabled people say open, honest, two-way communication is vital if they are to become fully integrated into society and to be seen as people who happen to have a disability rather than as 'disabled people'.

For Prendergast the distinction is clear. "I don't consider myself to be disabled. I am an athlete, a New Zealander, now I am a father, and I am visually impaired," he said.

(Editing by Michael Roddy and Gareth Jones)

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