Don’t talk to me about ‘Legacy’

768px-Sarah_Storey_medals_(cropped)BEHIND every sportsman and sportswoman’s achievements there is a deep sense of motivation. For a disabled athlete, this motivation is amplified. Many disabled athletes are fueled by experiences in childhood when they were told that they would never amount to anything. The detractors make fun of anatomical facts of muscle spasticity, deformity, amputation or even something as small as a squint, using a statement of realisation as a weapon against the rise of a disabled person’s ever-so-fragile self-esteem. Sport is a tool we should sharpen to strike back with.

Sport is a plain upon which we all can walk. On my arrival here in Aberystwyth in 2012, I joined the Swimming and Water Polo Club. In my first session I asked a member of the club, one question: “Do you know who Sarah Storey is?” They answered, “No, I don’t”. How often such a conversation would take place in Britain in the same year as the fourteenth edition of the summer Paralympic Games. The second question I posed to the individual that day was, “Has a disabled athlete ever competed for The University Swimming Team?” Again, the answer was negative. It wasn’t their fault; it’s just that they, like millions of others, were unaware.

There is a difference between “awareness” and “recognition”. I am “aware” of vacuous dramas like Made In Chelsea and that Russell Brand‘s political views are abstract. In the year after The Paralympics so much has remained the same. I am unequivocally “aware” of that. The Paralympics were a sporting event that transcended disability, but also represented a watershed moment, one which this country should have grasped with both hands. When life gives you such chances it is sin if you don’t reach back. It is “recognition” we seek and the inner peace it will bring that we like.

Disabled people need to be celebrated and held on a higher social platform than they currently are. That platform should not be built on a foundation of pitiful pats on the back but rather quantifiable recognition. Manchester and Great Britain’s finest Paralympic Athlete, Sarah Storey, finished 8th out of 10 in last year’s BBC SPOTY Awards Voting. She won every race that she entered, including the C4-C5 road race by over 11 minutes. She was even the high up on the reserve list for the Olympic Team Pursuit Track Cycling Team. This year David Weir won The Wheelchair London Marathon for the fourth time. Add to that the fact that this year he was also crowned the IPC Male Athlete of the Year just a few days ago and David Weir finds himself in the most limelight. It is as if there is a quota for celebration of athletes with disabilities, a flavour of the month in human form.

As a man with Cerebral Palsy Diplegia myself I understand the fight for recognition because I’m living it. In the year after the greatest show on earth, and a closing ceremony speech by Lord Sebastian Coe claiming that “we will never see disability the same again”, the question remains asked and unanswered. Why do we still have to work so hard? I’m all for having to work for what you get and would usually frown upon handouts because I and many other disabled people would take offence at getting something for free, but inclusive sport does not have to be sympathetic. People with no disability misunderstand that the competitive instinct is in fact heightened in disabled people because we do not only have something to prove to ourselves and our detractors, but to society as a whole. Life becomes a fight.

The Paralympics is being used as proof that no-one is against disabled people. A man who got two tickets is one-upped by a family of four who went to see everything. That was not the point. There is more to disabled people than what you see on the track or in the pool. We should be teaching people tolerance of the entire picture. People unaware of Sophie Christiansen’s achievements, as a paralympic gold medallist and holder of an MA in Mathematics from Durham University, may judge her solely on her disability. Don’t treat us with pity. We just want to be on an equal footing.

97% of sports clubs in Britain are unprepared for participation from disabled people, according to a BBC Survey not long after the Paralympic flame had been extinguished. There needs to be a change of attitude and opportunities and funding needs to be campaigned for as relentlessly as some of the conditions that affect some of our county’s greatest sporting stars.

In June, I am swimming The Great North Swim in Lake Windermere to raise money for Cerebral Palsy Sport England and Wales. If you want to support me then please get in touch.

Disability Equality is the social issue of our time, the Black Civil Rights Movement of the 21st Century. That is not an exaggeration.