Our reflections on this years Paralympics in Tokyo and the progress that has been made for accessibility and attitudes.

The 2021 Paralympics were groundbreaking for Team GB, winning 41 gold medals, 38 silver and 45 bronze. A grand total of 124 medals placed them second in the overall table behind China, which must surely rank as the best in British Paralympic history.

This barely begins to tell the story. 

The team secured a new record and won medals in 18 of the 19 sports they entered. Team GB also won medals in a greater range of sports than ever before. 56% of the athletes who made their debut at the games won a medal. While others, such as Sue Bailey, claimed Bronze on her seventh attempt.

An outstanding achievement for the athletes, coaches, trainers, club staff and families who supported Team GB along the way. We also hope that this is a reflection of how accessible sports facilities are here in the UK and the support available for anyone thinking of taking up a sport.

Personal Stories

Behind the impressive haul of medals, are stories of grit, bravery and determination to succeed as athletes.

Sarah Storey was born without a functioning left hand. Sarah’s arm became entangled in the umbilical cord in the womb. This meant that her hand didn’t develop as normal, but none of this stopped her from chasing her dreams. Fresh after winning a record 17th gold medal she is now Britain’s greatest Paralympian.

Reece Dunn was diagnosed with autism at the age of 13. His parents wanted Reece to learn swimming as a life skill. Now Reece is Britain’s most successful athlete in Tokyo with five medals (three golds) on his debut.

The most powerful image of the games came from Ibrahim Hamadtou who lost both his arms in an accident when he was just 10 years old. He now plays table tennis with the paddle in his mouth.

The personal stories and backgrounds of the athletes are just as important as the medals they won. We also think these three stories alone show how wide the scope is when we all should be thinking about accessibility. These athletes are the embodiment of anything’s possible, if you are determined, work hard enough and have the right support.

The astonishing achievements of the athletes are nothing short of brilliant. Watching the interviews on Channel 4’s “The Last Leg”, when they were relaxed and back home was humbling. They are among some of the best role models young people can look up to. Open to talk about their experiences and not shy of working as hard as they can to achieve greatness.

Infrastructure

The Paralympics have paved the way for a new chapter for disability awareness. In Tokyo, around 96% of its subway and railway stations are now equipped with step-free access and almost 100% of them are utilising tactile paving. Barrier-free entry to sports venues, hotels and transport links has also improved.

We also found it reassuring the Tokyo 2020 organising committee defined accessibility as,

“the availability of smooth access to social infrastructure, facilities, equipment, products and services for people of all ages and all abilities.”

A universal blueprint and legacy which can transform not only the lives of people with disabilities but society as a whole.

The phrase we hope spreads from Tokyo is “universal access”.

Some other design aspects from the Tokyo games could also bring new audiences to some events here in the UK. The stadium had an abundance of accessible washrooms and a non-impeded view of the field of play from seats dedicated to wheelchair users. “Calm down” rooms were also built for people sensitive to excessive stimuli and rest areas for service dogs and guide dogs.

In transportation, low floor buses made up about 56% of total vehicles in 2017, this has increased to 70%. While 92% of train stations now have step-free access with more spaces being made available for wheelchairs on the famous bullet train.

Tokyo became the first Japanese city to issue an ordinance for barrier-free design standards for hotels and lodgings. This included widening entrances to at least 80 centimetres and eliminating the use of steps in rooms.

We’re not holding up Tokyo as the Gold standard. We are just highlighting some of the improvements that have been made and how these could be applied to our own facilities here in the UK.

Attitude

Having accessible facilities without barriers is only one part of the picture. The second part of the equation is having trained staff that can make sure everyone feels comfortable using those facilities. 

We are delighted to read that Paralympics staff and volunteers were trained in disability etiquette and awareness. 

Our half-day Disability training Course can also help develop your staff. Our core belief is by improving people’s awareness, other positive changes follow on naturally

As much as these changes to buildings, services and transport are all important. It means little without changing attitudes.

Here at Access for All, we thought this year’s Channel Four Paralympics campaign was more thoughtful and thought-provoking than any other year called “Super. Human”. It tells a more personal story about the athletes who make huge sacrifices to be able to compete at the top of their sport, but also showing the discrimination and challenges they face in their daily lives.

Our hopes

The Paralympics and surrounding coverage should be a catalyst for change. We hope it starts more conversations about disability and daily challenges. The need for universal design across businesses, shops and sports facilities while placing a greater emphasis on humanity and equality across all areas of life.

We hope the Paralympics lead to more education on the wide and varied types of disabilities that people live with daily, the seen and the hidden disabilities. Improving attitudes will go a huge way to get us to the point of equality quicker as we appreciate that exercise and getting outdoors is good for everyone’s health.

We also have to keep in mind that Team GB are athletes who train daily and make huge sacrifices to get to the top of their game. Holding up everyone to these standards isn’t useful. Being underestimated, or overestimated can lead to inaction and that is just as harmful. 

We are all about progress.