Yesterday saw controversy – and confusion – break out in social and traditional media over the decision by Royal Mail to commission stamps for Paralympian gold medal winners in groups, rather than create one for each individual winner, as they have pledged to do for Olympic gold medallists. There are important issues at stake here, over the respect shown to the achievements of disabled people and the duties of huge national brands like Royal Mail to take the lead in promoting equality.
Royal Mail has defended itself, pointing out that it “Will be doing more than any other postal administration in history to celebrate the Paralympic Games and Paralympic athletes. For the first time ever, all gold medal winning Paralympic athletes will be asked to appear on Royal Mail’s Paralympics GB gold medal winners stamps.” There is some fairness in this argument, though others – such as Steve Allman – argue that it proves “there are two standards of service for honouring our athletes; first class for gold medal winning Olympians and second class for their Paralympic counterparts.” That’s a fair point, too.
Without wishing to sidestep this debate, which is worth having, it is interesting that The British Paralympic Association have said that they are “happy with the decision” mainly because Team GB Paralympians won “42 gold medals over 10 days of competition,including nine in one day” in Beijing, and that would make it difficult for Royal Mail to produce enough stamps to celebrate their victories. Even if this is a positive spin, perhaps it’s one we should welcome – disabled people are victims of their own extraordinary success is a better message than we often hear.
It would certainly be a shame if this controversy were in any way to distract from the opportunity the Paralympics presents to showcase the remarkable achievements of disabled people against the odds. When the Daily Mail profiles Ellie Simmonds as “swimming’s golden girl” (not “disabled swimming’s golden girl”, or “swimming’s disabled golden girl”, note) you know there has been a shift in public perception, and a new openness to enjoying the Paralympics as the glorious event it is in its own right, and not just the postscript to the Olympics.
The high-tech, high-excitement advert by Channel 4 is another example of the mainstream media presenting the Paralympics as a brilliant and engaging spectacle, with production values that could almost be a Nike World Cup ad.
So, while it is worthwhile using the spotlight which is currently on disabled athletes to begin debates on how disabled people are more broadly represented in mainstream society, we must also ensure that we put energy into celebrating the Paralympics and joining in the excitement. Disabled people and all those who love or support disabled people need to spread the word to our friends, families and colleagues about the great event . If we do that properly, then next time around Royal Mail will follow where the public leads, and be churning out Paralympian stamps as fast as they can.
Jaime Gill, head of press and public affairs.