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Paralympics opening ceremony: Disabled audience reaction

Emma Emma | 10:37 UK time, Thursday, 30 August 2012

A performer suspended in midair during the opening ceremony for the Paralympics 2012

 

Never before in the UK has three-and-a half-hours of prime time television been focussed entirely on disability, let alone performed before an 80,000-strong capacity audience and beamed around the world. The Paralympic Opening Ceremony was new territory - and so the directors had an arguably more difficult job than Danny Boyle, who took charge of last month's Olympic ceremony.

Wednesday's show was co-directed by Jenny Sealey, a veteran disability arts practitioner and head of Graeae, the oldest and best-known disability-lead theatre company in the UK. Jenny is deaf and has a long history of successful collaborations between disabled and non-disabled performers. She also has written a range of disability-themed theatre productions.

But the message coming through before the ceremony was that it would "inspire" - a word that sparks dread into the hearts of many disabled people. Many feel it is over-used, so much so that it has begun to lose its meaning in relation to disability.

So disabled people tuned in with a sense of trepidation, a hope that it would not be patronising, and - with so many people watching - anticipation that the show was important enough to create a lasting impression. But what would that impression be?

Member of the Belgium team with assistance dog

 

Amongst the acrobatics, the light shows and the electric atmosphere as the athletes entered the stadium, there was one phrase that stood out.

"Those who can, please stand for the National Anthem."

By including the three words "those who can", the directors released all spectators with mobility impairments from the guilt usually attached to being unable to stand when everyone else does.

And so the tone was set for a showcase of inclusion and diversity, which appeared to strike the difficult balance between inspiring the masses and eliciting pride and solidarity amongst even the most critical disabled commentators.

It helped of course, to have buy-in from the man regarded as the most famous disabled person in the world.

Professor Stephen Hawking's changeable health often forces him to make public appearances from home, via big screens. But he took centre-stage at the Olympic Park, speaking in his trademark robotic tones. A man who has almost no voluntary bodily movement and needs round-the-clock care to live his full and busy life, delivered a monologue that could only have come from him, in a style all of his own.

Including someone with Stephen Hawking's level of disability in the ceremony was also a reminder that not every disabled person is a potential Paralympian and that this is OK - the contributions of those who will never podium are just as important as medal-winners.

Performers with umbrellas are suspended in the air during the opening ceremony for the Paralympics 2012

 

The umbrella dance which followed lived up to the billing that performers would manipulate their bodies in unexpected ways. This segment was said to be inspired by the unpredictable British weather, but social media sites were soon buzzing with disabled viewers discussing the unpredictable nature of brollies themselves. Blind people don't use them for fear of gouging out the eyes of fellow pedestrians. Wheelchair users need both hands to manoeuvre so would require a special holder to make an umbrella work. Ditto those on crutches. But as juggling - which also featured - can be tricky for many disabled people and even biting an apple is difficult for some, it was acknowledged that almost no activity is accessible to everyone.

And it overran. It was hard for the organisers to predict how long it would take thousands of disabled athletes, their coaches and even their service animals to make their way in to the stadium. It took about an hour longer than expected. A logistical nightmare and hard to replicate in rehearsals. After all, disabled people are encouraged to pre-board planes and trains, and to enter theatres before the rest of the audience, because we just take longer.

Members of the Brazilian team

 

During the lengthy athletes' parade, disabled and non-disabled viewers alike lit up the social networks with a game given the hashtag #paralympicperving, a rather un-PC activity which involved spotting Paralympians considered easy on the eye. There were too many to mention here. Disabled people often complain about not being seen as sexual beings, so maybe this will be one of the perceptions destined for change during the Games.

The third part of the night took celebrating disability to a whole new level. I do not believe that an occasion exists, outside a dedicated arts festival, where so many disabled performers and artists of note have shared a stage. There were no non-disabled actors in disabled roles to be seen, and the talent was world-class.

Stephen Hawking

A highlight was when Orbital and the cast of Graeae's Ian Dury musical Reasons to be Cheerful performed the disability rights song Spasticus Autisticus, while performers staged a choreographed protest. A bold move by the directors, nodding to the struggle disabled people have had to obtain basic rights over the years, including the right to receive assistance to live independently in their own homes, rather than in institutions.

But it was also an acknowledgement of the current wave of unrest amongst disabled campaigners, protesting against cuts to disability benefits and problems with how people are being assessed as fit for work.

The company carrying out these assessments is Atos. Atos is also one of the Paralympic sponsors, which doesn't sit well with some campaigners. There have even been rumours that some athletes hid their Atos-branded lanyards during the ceremony in protest.

The decision to openly acknowledge the impact disabled people can have when protesting was a real mood-changer, and may even have brought the Paralympics a new wave of disabled followers.

"I am what I am". This was the phrase which echoed around the stadium as athletes, officials and audience filed out of the Olympic Park shortly after midnight. An up-lifting sentiment which reaffirmed the words spoken by Stephen Hawking earlier in the show: "There is no such thing as a standard or run-of-the-mill human being."

Something which will become ever clearer over the next 11 days, when athletes of all shapes, sizes and impairments compete at the highest level.

Comments

  • Comment number 1.

    To my mind the Paralympics Opening Ceremony was better than the Olympic Opening Ceremony. While the latter reminded us that we are British and can be proud of that without reservation, the former reminded us that we are all humans and should show a level of humility about our own importance in the world.

  • Comment number 2.

    #1 agreed, enjoyable, thought provoking & mentally stimulating. I loved the spectacle of DB's opening & much of the Olympic Closing ceremony from a pop culture perspective but I thought the substance & inclusion of last night was incredible - Hawking's opening 'Be Curious' & closing statements apply to all. The joy on the faces of the Paralympians' faces bought our house to tears of joy too

  • Comment number 3.

    I'd decided to watch the paralympics on TV, as I did the Olympics. Last night was spectacular but ads on TV CH4 too intrusive for me. I switched off at 11pm. Disappointed with commentators bringing up wars in the countries. As Basil Fawlty once said, "Don't mention the war". The BBC did a fantastic job covering the Olympics, so much so they have set a benchmark that CH4 cannot hope to reach.

  • Comment number 4.

    As a random viewer who wasn't planning to watch - it changed my perception of disability enormously. Stonking. Equal to the other Opening Ceremony!

  • Comment number 5.

    John in Cheshire wrote: ... it changed my perception of disability enormously.

    That's good John, stick with it. If this persuades one non disabled person not to park in a disabled parking bay then it's achieved something. Note that I'm not suggesting you do this John, it's just an example.

  • Comment number 6.

    I thought the article was good, and I was smiling along with some of the clearly thrilled athletes as they entered the Paralympic stadium... but can we PLEASE not use "podium" as a verb!!

  • Comment number 7.

    I'm not that interested in superfit people doing sports, but I'm enthralled by the Paralympics because there's a much more interesting story going on. And yes, I am inspired when people get up after life's knocked them down. I do admire them and try to emulate them.

    But I have to admit my favourite sport is wheelchair races. Not because of heroism etc but because they are FAST!

  • Comment number 8.

    Being a wheelchair user myself, i was concerned about how the opening ceremony would be portrayed and how it would reflect on disabled ppl considering the current atmosphere. But i've got to admit, i was so moved last night and totally inspired. I've been going through a rough time for many reasons but last night really gave me such a lift and made me want to start to live life again.

  • Comment number 9.

    Of course, I couldn't watch this show in the US. No one carried it. I couldn't believe that NBC, who paid billions to have the 2012 Olympics on their network, failed the American public. It's a failing network, and this is just another example why.

  • Comment number 10.

    As an able bodied person it was good to see all levels of ability celebrated and represented last night, not a 'nicey nicey' sop to political correctness. Spaticus Autisticus was an inspired choice, a little unsettling at first until I understood the point. We have come a long way. Ther's hope for the World yet.

  • Comment number 11.

    Is there anywhere I can watch the rerun, in full, uninterrupted without ad breaks? I knew hosting it on Ch 4 would be poor. It completely spoils the sense of occasion, because the feeling you have doesn't carry over to the next segment because the ad break disrupts it.

  • Comment number 12.

    For Piggyback (11) yes, the Paralympics TV channel on youtube has the whole ceremony with their own commentators too so no need to listen to statistics about wartorn countries or adverts. I've just watched the whole thing right through and thoroughly enjoyed it. Good luck to all of the athletes from an extremely excited GamesMaker!

  • Comment number 13.

    With these Paralympics being sponsored by ATOS, there may be a strange irony to come. When our plucky Paralympians find that their conditions prevent them from working, they will be examined by ATOS and may well find that the result of their Work Capability Assessment states that they are fit for work despite any disabilities that they may have.

  • Comment number 14.

    The Opening Ceremony was really great – agree with #1 and a great article. I thought the Olympic ceremony was mainly aim at a British audience and friends from other countries could not really understand it. But this was, pity about the (relatively) low TV audience figures compared to the other opening ceremony.

  • Comment number 15.

    Used to think the Paralympics should be integrated into the main event but last night changed my mind (and opened it in so many ways). Paralympics has its own identity and culture and long may this continue. Was at the Olympic Park today and the atmosphere was special with one great display on the tech used by disable athletes. Here is one event with definitely needs a legacy.

  • Comment number 16.

    Looks like most of the BBC coverage will be around team GB winners ignoring much else that goes on. Even worse bias than for the Olympics ensure invisibility for all the non-GB athletes except one or two well known competitors. See the report on GB athletes who picked up silver or bronze medal – no mention of the actual winners in each case – very poor BBC. No link to the medal table etc.

  • Comment number 17.

    Also Jon Snow was out of his depth, constantly referring to war or politics of the various countries as that is all he apparently knows. Clearly C4 don’t have commentators with the same sporting knowledge as the BBC but this is a separate issue.

  • Comment number 18.

    Yes, opening ceremony was stunning. I enjoyed watching all the different nations with their athletes entering the arena, so happy, so gutsy, I wish we could see more of these doing what they do as well as our own athletes. TV seems to be obsessed only with GB achievements, but lets celebrate diversity in every sense of the word!

  • Comment number 19.

    "Those who can, please stand" - Is there anything remarkable about hearing that? I would have thought it customary to say that phrase at any occasion where standing is considered a mark of respect.NOT hearing that phrase would have seriously undermined the credibility of this country's organisation

  • Comment number 20.

    Calling Rio, how about a combined opening ceremony, limit numbers parading to reduce the hangers on and give more time for ceremony. Then hold the Paralympics first, before we all get sport fatigue, followed by the Olympics. If they'd done that this time, the CH4 Para coverage wouldn't seem so 2nd rate compared to the BBC Olym coverage.

 

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