No longer the silent minority

August 30, 2012

Hands up if you thought that the "para" in Paralympics referred to a disability? Actually, its original meaning is "beside" or "parallel" to something else - in this case, to the Olympic Games.

While we might like to imagine ourselves in the mould of a Jessica Ennis or a Mo Farah, most of us will never be Olympians. Yet many ordinary people have been involved as Games Makers, setting the scene and creating a wonderful atmosphere for visitors.

Among them were Katie, a volunteer at Old Trafford, and Hannah, who was stationed at the Olympic Stadium checking VIP passes. Both Katie and Hannah have learning disabilities and were helped to be there by Langdon, the Jewish charity that works with young adults with mild to moderate learning disabilities

Judging by conversations this summer, it seems to be a little-known fact that 120 athletes with learning disabilities from 34 countries will be taking part in this year's Paralympics, alongside their physically disabled teammates. Nine members of Team GB have learning disabilities, including a runner, seven swimmers and a table-tennis player. They will have gone through a lengthy assessment process to prove their eligibility, including an IQ exam and sport-specific tests to measure how their disability impacts upon their performance. They will also have been observed in competition.

Our community has long been at the forefront of campaigning and implementing change for people with disabilities, most notably perhaps, Sir Ludwig Guttmann at Stoke Mandeville, whose vision the Paralympics were. And Dame Stephanie Shirley is an unrivalled advocate for people with autism and Asperger's syndrome. Across the community, philanthropists fund services and research to benefit the Jewish and wider population.

Moreover, the community's attitude to those with learning and physical disabilities or mental health issues has changed over the years, as has that of the general public. There is still a long way to go and there are still barriers to inclusion, from inaccessible communal buildings to a lack of awareness about the realities of life with different disabilities. But, crucially, there is no longer a stigma.

Where, even 25 years ago, in both the Jewish and wider world, disabled individuals and the institutions serving them were kept separate from the mainstream, today they are integrated and mainly accepted.

Undoubtedly, a fear of difference remains powerful, but barriers are constantly being broken as we build more employment and social opportunities and develop understanding of disability. Your neighbour, your colleague, the supermarket cashier - all may have a disability. But so may the elite athlete. It is the mix that makes us a community.

Our community, while comparatively small, provides a wealth of resources and support services, thanks to the imagination and dedication of the founders of charities established in response to a tangible need, such as the Jewish Volunteer Network, Jami, Jewish Blind & Disabled, Jewish Care, Kisharon, Norwood - and Langdon. Maccabi works across the board with these groups, making sport accessible to all.

The work of such organisations is carried forward by trained professionals, lay leaders and an array of volunteers. People with disabilities increasingly make their voices heard or use these organisations to lobby on their behalf. They are no longer a silent minority.

If more of us take the true meaning of "para", we can help people with all degrees of learning and physical disability to lead active, interesting and fulfilled lives. None of us could ask for more.

Alison Rosen is chief executive of Langdon

Last updated: 3:45pm, August 30 2012