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TX: 15.09.08 - Learning Disabilities Ban at Paralympics

PRESENTER: JOHN WAITE
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WAITE
Now one group of people who've been confined to simply watching all the success and excitement from the Paralympics this past week are those with learning disabilities because they've been excluded from the games for the past seven years after a blatant example of cheating. And so far all the attempts to get them reinstated have failed. But over the weekend there was exciting news from Beijing where meetings had obviously been taking place while the sporting action was going on. Peter White joins us from the Birds Nest Stadium in Beijing. Remind us, Peter first, about the background to all of this.

WHITE
Yeah well I join you from a very noisy Birds Nest Stadium, so forgive me if there's suddenly a roar, it'll be another gold medal. It was in a stadium like this really where all the trouble began because there was a famous incident with a basketball match between the Spaniards, the Spaniards in Sydney won the competition only to have it discovered that there were really hardly any people with genuine learning disabilities in the team. So it caused all kinds of problems and the irony of this situation is that well it seems that actually - I mean a lot of this debate has been about how can you test accurately whether somebody's got learning disabilities, this Spanish team was never actually properly tested. So though we're arguing about finding a formula actually that wasn't the problem, it wasn't that there wasn't a formula, it was that the formula was not applied but it led, as you say, to people - lots of people, quite innocent of all this, being banned and they're still banned at the moment.

WAITE
So what has been happening since then?

WHITE
Well there's been a lot of things going on behind locked doors, a lot of organisations lobbying on behalf of people with learning disabilities but also people saying yeah but we haven't got a safe method. But over the weekend there does seem to have been a real breakthrough and what we're told, in a joint statement from the federation of organisations for people with an intellectual disability, is that being admitted to the 2012 London games is now a viable objective. Now you know I think you can say that they wouldn't have made a statement like that if they didn't think that they'd come up - you know if they haven't come up with a formula why haven't they said that over the last seven years? A lot of people have been lobbying on their behalf, including athletics coaches. I've been talking, for example, to Jeff Davis, who's now the director of football for the Paralympic GB team, whether - he has also been a coach, he's worked with athletes with learning disabilities in football, indeed he led - he coached the learning disabilities team to win the 2002 learning disabilities cup. He - I mean he's dead in favour, he wants this to happen but he does make the point that it's understandable why there are problems, he said when you see people with learning disabilities playing football you actually can't detect, certainly a lay person couldn't necessarily detect, that they have a learning disability. And this is what causes so much of the problem and the worry about accurate ways of classification.

WAITE
Peter, in Beijing, many thanks.

Well the charity MENCAP has been campaigning on this issue for some time, their head of campaigns is David Condon and he's with us. You must be delighted by the news.

CONDON
Well we're very pleased because we've fought for a long time to try to get real progress on getting the ban - ban removed, so we're very pleased with the announcement from the IPC, an international sporting body. Though there is still more work to be done. The ban's not removed, as of today and what we're saying is let's work together to make sure that ban is removed by 2000 - by November 2009. But in the meantime, and this is really the crucial point, the athletes are not going to be able to maintain their standard of sport unless they have the funding now to enable them to continue their training. So a message to the minister for sport, Jerry Sutcliffe, is now with the good news from Beijing please make sure that the limited amount of money that's needed to enable the athletes to maintain their standard of performance is available as from now, so they can train and be ready for the Paralympics in London in 2012.

WAITE
And I mean you heard there Peter mentioning the coach that he was speaking to, someone who's very much in favour of bringing people with learning disabilities back though but making the point when you watch people with learning disabilities play you can't tell that they're disabled, so is there - people say - is there really such a case for them being in the Paralympics?

CONDON
Yes there is, I mean I think you could make the same point for some other disabilities but not all of them. There is a case because certainly people with a learning disability, for many of them, not all, and this is the crucial point, the learning disability itself does affect some of their things like physical coordination, motor skills and the like. So we accept that you have to first of all some tests to say have they got a learning disability - slightly controversial that but there are ways of doing that with psychological testing etc. But then the sticking point has been assessing the impact of that on their ability to compete in sport. Certainly the lower the level of intellectual disability the more obvious that is but even for some with say an IQ of 65-70 for some that will affect their ability to coordinate movement. And what we're really saying is let's have a playing field for the various disability groupings and given the principle that you have a Paralympics for people with disabilities at all it seems very unfair not to have a category for people with a learning disability.

WAITE
It shouldn't just be visible disabilities. So what do you think has changed? Seven years have gone by, are we somehow nearer now to knowing what ways we could employ to measure learning disabilities?

CONDON
Yes we are, we are closer to that, I'm not going to pretend it's easy but we said way back in 2003, when we issued similar statements, the problem needs to be resolved, that providing all parties were determined to find a way through there was a way through. The danger in these sort of situations you get a bit of an impasse, we've gone through that stage and because of the goodwill of the people involved in trying to resolve it I think we'll make the breakthrough. But then there's the crucial extra condition - we've made it very clear to the government in this country that we think it's completely inconceivable that we could have the Paralympics taking place in London where we've got very strong anti-discrimination legislation and not have people with a learning disability taking part. So we hope that momentum will continue, the ban will be removed, the athletes will compete and win a nice lot of gold medals here in London in 2012.

WAITE
But I mean you're fairly confident are you these disappointed athletes this year will now have a chance to compete in London in a few years?

CONDON
If, and this is the crucial point, if the funding is made available. If it's not removing the ban will be irrelevant because we won't have athletes able to compete. So the message now to everybody and particularly the government is please make the limited amount of money that needs to be made available to enable these athletics to compete.

WAITE
David Condon, the head of campaigns for MENCAP, thank you.

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