Paralympics set to leave lasting impression on London

The Paralympic Games have proved remarkably successful, not just in tickets sold and prominent media coverage, but in making London into a city more accessible to disabled people.

Eddie Keogh/Reuters
Competitors in the Men's Marathon T54 classification travel past Buckingham Palace during the London 2012 Paralympic Games Sept. 9. This classification is for wheelchair racers.

The Paralympic Games officially come to a close in London Sunday night, and it’s already clear that the event has had a profound – and perhaps lasting – impact on both the city and its residents.

“The Paralympics have captured our hearts and minds,” London Mayor Boris Johnson said on Wednesday, adding that the success of Britain’s Paralympians “provides us with new heroes to emulate.”

One-armed athletes, one-legged athletes, and athletes using wheelchairs have been grabbing headlines and gracing the front pages of British newspapers since the track cyclist Sarah Storey won the host country’s first Paralympic gold on the opening day of competition.

Since then, the good news has just kept coming: The British team is currently second in the total medal count, behind China but ahead of traditional sporting heavyweights like Russia and the United States. More than 2.7 million tickets have been sold, the most in Paralympics history.

“The public response to the Games has been incredible,” Sophie Morgan, a TV sports anchor, wrote in a column in the Independent, one of Britain’s most-read newspapers. In a reference to Britian’s official Paralympics broadcaster, she added: “I'm not surprised that Channel 4 has had record viewing figures. I didn't expect it, but I did hope.”

Channel 4’s coverage has been capped each night by a talk-show-style program hosted by the Australian comedian Adam Hills, who happens to have one leg himself.  

“The Last Leg,” as the show is called, offers an irreverent roundup of the day’s Paralympics news. In a popular segment titled “Is it ok?” Hills and his cohosts have been fielding viewers’ questions about disability. Some recent queries, submitted via Twitter: “Is it ok to wonder what happens if a runner’s prosthetic leg falls off in the middle of a race?” and “Is it ok to ask for a high-five from someone with a hand disfigurement?”

“They've been talking about disability in the most down-to-earth and natural way,” wrote Ms. Morgan, the sports anchor, who has been covering the Paralympic Games herself for Channel 4. “I know that they didn't want to hide from anything; they wanted to be as blunt and honest as they could.”

Whether those open discussions and good feelings will continue after the Paralympics comes to a close remains to be seen. But there’s one impact of the Games that will certainly endure well after all of the athletes have left town: the myriad infrastructure changes that have made the British capital a city more friendly to disabled people.

“There have been numerous changes right across London,” says Margaret Hickish, an accessibility consultant who has been working since 2005 to help the city prepare for both the Olympic and Paralympic Games.

All of the city’s buses and black taxicabs are now fully accessible to people in wheelchairs, and 66 of London’s 270 Tube stations have been made step-free. The government invested £4 million ($6.4 million) in overhauling the South Bank, a popular tourist destination, to make it more accessible to disabled visitors. And Heathrow Airport has undergone extensive renovations in preparation for the arrival of the Paralympic athletes.

Ms. Hickish, who uses a wheelchair herself, says that improving accessibility in a centuries-old city like London has not been easy; things like cobblestones can be particularly challenging. But, she adds, she has witnessed remarkable attitude changes in the people she has worked with over the last seven years.

“People who you wouldn’t expect to normally have noticed accessibility suddenly have – and they’re thinking about what they can do to make things better,” she says. The designers, architects, and planners she has worked with are “more willing to make changes” and are “being far more positive” about wheelchair-friendly designs than they were before the Games came to town, she says.

Of course the centerpiece of London’s infrastructure changes has been the Olympic Park itself, which was designed with accessibility in mind from the outset. And thanks to the London Legacy Development Corporation, disabled people will be able to take advantage of the space for many years to come: The park will play host to an annual disability sports festival beginning in October 2013.

But for this last weekend of Paralympics competition, athletes and spectators are taking full advantage of the warm weather and sunny skies that have graced London over the last week. Hickish says she has visited the park almost every day since the Paralympics kicked off Aug. 30.

“It’s fabulous to see so many disabled people just being out and enjoying the open air,” she says. 

“Having the confidence to know that you can go out and you can enjoy an area without feeling as though you’re going to have some sort of hiccup – it’s just incredible,” she adds. “The sense of freedom is really hard to describe.”

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