Insights of 'Thomas Williams Disability Consultant' - Nov

TWA RGBAs you may have read in previous editions of the Digest, MEI have asked me to consider issues around disability. In the previous issue I discussed the fact that it wasn’t all rosy in the garden in London 2012 but it was a great inspiration to me and I was one of the generation they wanted to ‘inspire’ – to unpick their tag line. As a direct result of London 2012 I am now a consultant and on the Monday night of the inaugural MEI Summit last month I was presented with the first ‘Special Recognition – Outstanding Campaign for Disability Inclusion’ award.  I hope many disabled people will follow in my footsteps.  David Courrell, Director of Operational Delivery at the British Paralympic Association, in presenting me with the award mentioned my various roles at Mega Events and said that they showed the contribution that “he(sic) and others can play in the success of these high profile events.”  Lord Seb Coe endorsed my award and his citation will shortly be available on my website.


DSC 0702smallThe mere fact that I have got this award is a positive thing.  However the main focus for my work is to influence OCOGs and the organisers of Major Events to help people with a disability.  It is my belief that they need to find the fluidity, insight and pragmatism to act and change their policies and procedures when the situation arises to support volunteers and employees with a disability.  I’d like now to illustrate the above through my experiences at London 2012.  Previously in my digest articles I have extolled the virtues of London 2012’s policies – now I will give some examples of the negatives – so people may learn and things can be different in the future.


The actual date of an Olympic Games and a Paralympic Games cannot be changed.  Seven years pre-games we all know that the opening ceremony will happen on x date and the closing ceremony on y date. Then an OCOG signs the host contract to agree to fulfil this, together with its mandate, and lay down compulsory outcomes that will define it as a success.  Here in my opinion lies the first flaw in the system regarding planning for those with disabilities – there are various kinds of outcomes – hard outcomes like the fact the Games is secure, efficient and a games that people can get to and also soft ones for example that it is ( to quote the latest published Olympic framework): ‘an invaluable opportunity to challenge perceptions about disability through the Olympic and Paralympic Movements’ commitment to worldclass athletic performance, accessibility and social equality.  These are powerful tools which can help shift attitudes and deliver lasting social change.’ 


Unfortunately, the reality is that the hard outcomes tend to take precedence over the soft ones when ‘push come to shove’ during Games Time.  I feel that the above soft one related to disability should also be hard and measurable, executed at the event and not just an aspirational target.  Regarding the negatives of London 2012 that I experienced – the interview process had shortcomings in terms of the amount of information gathered during the application process  – certainly too little in terms of volunteers with a disability.  At interview I sat in my electric wheelchair but this fact failed to be recorded and later they failed to ask me about my own skills and abilities, especially related to my disability.  When I interviewed Tom Secker-Walker, the LOCOG Diversity and Inclusion Co-ordination Manager, in 2012 for my dissertation he said,  ‘The positive action D&I mandate focused on creating quantitative data resulting in increased recruitment and meeting “target zones of percentages.”  But my tenet is that they did not develop the data or a computer program to scrutinize the humanistic reality of individual experiences.  Using an information management system to assign the functional areas left the nuances of a person’s disability open to be overlooked.


The opposite was proved in Glasgow 2014.  I spoke to Valerie Mitchell, Head of Games Workforce Glasgow in January 2014 pre-games and she talked about the interview process that they had put in place,  ‘When they invited them to the interview they asked them if they had any disability requirements so at the interview they were equipped to deal with that.  Functional areas that they could be in were suggested and there would be a variety of roles within the functional areas.  People were given the opportunity to opt for roles that were more relevant to themselves.’


In terms of the roles for volunteers with a disability in London 2012 it was only thought to be possible to scrutinise their feasibility during games time when the systems were fully operational.  I recently spoke to Dr. Angela Benson, Principal Lecturer at Brighton University, in the School of Sport and Service Management, and asked her whether there is any precedent for this being done prior to the games.


She thought not but she felt that the answer to this may lie with involving disability organisations like Scope and RNIB at an earlier stage and she said that some work had been done on this.  This whole area of meeting need is indeed complex - often people with different disabilities can have needs which clash.  Tom Shakespeare, an academic writing extensively on disability, explains this paradox with an example:  ‘accommodations are sometimes incompatible because people with different impairments may require different solutions: blind people prefer steps and defined curbs and indented paving, while wheelchair users need ramps, dropped curbs and smooth surfaces (from ‘The Social Model of Disability’ 1997).


London is a highly developed city with a long standing reputation of providing equality – my suspicion is that in a country that is less developed, where the treatment of disabled people may lag behind, quotas need to be in place and these need to be set by the IOC not by individual Games.  Although I understand that different countries have different federal and national laws, the IOC’s basic commandment to OCOGS is to provide equality on all levels of difference.  Therefore in my opinion those without laws or history governing equality should be legally forced to implement these – but whether this will happen remains to be seen.  It takes several years or decades to change a country’s perception about an underrepresented group.  Is seven years enough time?


The legacy of London 2012 is embodied in their vision to ‘use the power of the Games to inspire lasting change’ (from LOCOG’s ‘Deaf and Disabled Factsheet 2012 ).  In real terms this cannot be measured but can be used to set future protocols and set a certain standard.  As Dr. Vassil Girginov, Reader of Sports Management and Development, at Brunel University, proposed when I interviewed him for my dissertation in 2013 “… for example on Sochi and Rio, and they pass down their experiences, so once they set the bar, for example in terms of involving people with disabilities, it will be very hard for future organising committees not to meet this standard.  So I would expect that these future organisers will try to match more or less what London has…”.’


In order to exceed the benchmark set by London for D&I, a more quality driven focus is required.  This needs to begin with disability representation at policy setting stage with the disability mandate threaded through the process to employ staff such as more specific disability questions on application, trained interviewers with relevant knowledge of different impairments having frank discussions with individuals, support workers deployed by the organisation for particular roles ( more on this in a future Digest ) and finishing with qualitative satisfaction data informing future games.


Managers of any Major Events have to manage people as well as aspirations of the OGOG or organisers.  Disabled people are assets who need to be nurtured.  In reflecting on this ourselves and then communicating this to the organisations and committees at Major Events that we work with, we will improve how we all think – which is all important.


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