Thanks to the so-called superhumans of the Games, common perceptions about the disabled have been turned on their head. But what is life really like for the 11 million with disabilities living in the UK?
When Hannah Cockroft bagged gold in both the 100m and 200m wheelchair races at London 2012, the nation found itself a new heroine.
Yet the 80,000 people who had screamed themselves hoarse inside the Olympic Stadium, and the millions watching at home, had no idea how close “Hurricane Hannah” had come to missing out on her place in Britain’s Paralympic story.
Last May, as she made her way to the qualifying event to secure her place in the squad, Hannah was stranded.
Taxis booked to take her and her teammates to the stadium couldn’t fit their wheelchairs in. As time ticked on and stress levels soared, replacement cars were sent to collect them.
“At one point, I didn’t think I’d make the race,” says the 20 year old. “I missed my warm-up and had to go straight on.”
Despite the worst preparation, Hannah raced to victory and the rest, as they say, is history.
While Britain has basked in the afterglow of the most successful Paralympics ever, Hannah’s anecdote brings the reality of life as a disabled person into sharp focus.
Accessing transport is one of many issues that affect their lives, according to charity Scope.
Those with a disability are twice as likely to live below the poverty line – and more likely to be victims of crime. Half of all disabled people can’t find work and, when they do, they are much more likely to face unfair treatment. Worse still, a disabled woman’s salary is £5,000 less than her non-disabled counterpart’s. Despite the huge success of the Paralympics and its ability to capture people’s hearts and minds, Richard Hawkes, chief executive of Scope, believes more needs to be done to end discrimination towards the disabled.
“The Paralympics have had a positive impact on the way we view disability. It’s never been so openly and widely talked about. We’ve seen what can happen if we focus on what disabled people can do, not what they can’t,” he says.
“But attitudes won’t change overnight. Having a disability in 2012 is tough. Both government support, such as Disability Living Allowance, and council social care packages that disabled people rely on to live independently, are slowly being chipped away.”
Hannah knows only too well the challenges. She suffers from cerebral palsy after two cardiac arrests at birth caused brain and nerve damage to her spine, legs and feet.
“Doctors told my parents I’d never be able to walk, talk or do anything for myself,” she says. “They didn’t even think I’d live past my teenage years.”
But Hannah defied the prognosis, uttering her first word aged two and standing aged four.
“With intensive physiotherapy, I learnt to take a few steps. At home, I can walk around my room slowly, but I find it quicker to get about in a wheelchair.”
Hannah’s parents enrolled her in a mainstream school with wheelchair access when she was five, where she immediately stood out.
“I have deformed legs, feet and a bent back. On my first day of school, a boy said sarcastically: ‘You’re nice and straight.’”
And, while all eyes were on her at the Paralympics, Hannah is used to being the centre of attention for very different reasons.
“Able-bodied people have always stared at me – especially children and the elderly – but you get used to it. I’m quite a confident person and if people have got a problem with me I just think: ‘That’s your problem, not mine.’”
Determined her disability wouldn’t hold her back, Hannah immersed herself in wheelchair basketball at school.
“I’d never felt so free as when I played sport. At 15, I got into wheelchair racing after meeting former wheelchair racer Tanni Grey-Thompson’s husband, Ian, at a UK athletics talent day. He asked if I wanted to have a go in the racing chair. I had a ride and loved it.”
Hannah started to train at her local track and two years later, she secured a place in the Paralympics GB team.
“I was delighted, and deferred my sports course at Leeds Metropolitan University last September so I could concentrate on training for the Games. For the past year, I’ve been a full-time athlete, thanks to my funding from the National Lottery, and all my hard work paid off at the Paralympics.
“Nothing will ever beat hearing 80,000 people cheering my name at the Olympic Park.
“But I’m one of the lucky ones,” says Hannah. “Many disabled people don’t have access to sports facilities or funding.”
Hannah, who lives in Halifax, West Yorkshire, with her parents, Rachel, 49, a teaching assistant and Graham, 50, an engineer, is confident the Paralympics is a positive step towards changing negative attitudes to disability.
“The Paralympics are stepping out of the shadow of the Olympics because people are finally seeing we’re athletes who work hard and who’ve had a lot to overcome – rather than the rejects of society. Yes, we’ve got imperfections but everybody’s got some flaw.”
Away from the athletics track, Kate Dowding, 28, faces difficulty and discrimination every day. She’s relied on a wheelchair since the age of 10, after developing the chronic joint disorder juvenile idiopathic arthritis.
“I went to a mainstream secondary school with wheelchair access,” says Kate. “Aged 13, I was bullied at school by one boy in particular who refused to partner me in class because I couldn’t walk. I used to cry myself to sleep at night and dreaded going in. It chipped away at what little confidence I had.”
And while Kate, who lives in Dorset, is set to achieve her dream of qualifying as a lawyer next year, her journey certainly hasn’t been easy.
When she started a law degree at the University of Southampton in September 2004, her disability isolated her from her classmates.
“Many able-bodied people don’t feel comfortable approaching wheelchair users,” she says. “I was virtually a recluse and didn’t have any friends. I was too frightened to go out by myself in case I was targeted by bullies, and spent my days cooped up at home if I wasn’t at uni.”
It wasn’t until December 2006, when Kate got a Labrador, Zara, through Canine Partners, that her life turned around. Zara is trained to do tasks including helping Kate get dressed and put food in the basket at the supermarket.
“Zara’s such an icebreaker, people started approaching us and I soon made friends and started enjoying life,” says Kate. “I began to come out of my shell.”
Since graduating in July 2008, Kate has strived to be as independent as possible.
“I felt extremely lucky to secure a trainee placement, in March last year, at a solicitors firm in Bristol who don’t mind Zara accompanying me to the office,” she explains.
“It didn’t surprise me that I didn’t hear back from any law companies where I had to declare my disability on the equal-opportunities page of the application.
“I started looking for properties to buy this year for me and Zara to live in. Whenever I went on viewings with my able-bodied uncle, they spoke to him, not me, which I found incredibly degrading.”
Kate is part of the 62 per cent of disabled people and their families who think the Paralympics have improved attitudes towards disabled people.*
“It was great watching people like me being portrayed in a positive light,” says Kate. “I’ve since noticed strangers looking with respect rather than pity when I’m on the street. Attitudes won’t change overnight, but it’s helping our cause.”
Sophie Christiansen has bagged five gold medals in equestrian events at three successive Paralympic games and agrees that attitudes are improving slowly.
“Since Athens 2004, people have started viewing the Paralympics as great sport rather than disabled people trying their best,” says Sophie, 24, who lives in Maidenhead, Berkshire.
“I like to call the Paralympics the ‘People’s Olympics’ because more people can identify with us. Not everyone can run like Usain Bolt, but everyone’s got challenges in their lives to overcome.”
Sophie was born two months prematurely with cerebral palsy. She uses a wheelchair for long distances and her speech is slurred. Like Hannah and Kate, Sophie was adamant her disability wouldn’t hold her back.
“I’m fully independent living in ‘extra-care’ housing which I pay for myself, with a carer on hand to help tie my shoelaces in the morning and cook in the evening. It hasn’t come easy, though. I’ve worked really hard to get where I am today.
“Aged six, I started horse riding as a form of physiotherapy. Because of my speech, I was self-conscious at school, but riding helped my confidence.
“I discovered dressage aged 13 and completely fell in love with it. Finding a sport that I could excel at gave me a boost, and meeting other disabled athletes who didn’t care what people thought of them was really inspiring.”
To the future
Sophie graduated with a Masters degree in maths from Royal Holloway University in July 2011, and currently works part-time as a statistician.
“With my slurred speech, strangers often think I’m also mentally disabled and ‘not all there’, so I like to drop into conversation that I’ve got a first-class degree,” she says.
But ignorance remains. “A few months ago, I popped into the opticians. A guy mouthed: ‘Is she drunk?’ Then he started making fun of me. I told him that I’ve got cerebral palsy and he scarpered.
“A few years ago I wouldn’t have had the courage to stand up for myself. But I’ve learnt how I want people to perceive me, which helps educate them.”
With over 7 million people tuning into the Paralympics on TV, let’s hope the legacy of the Games will help end prejudices, so disabled people can achieve their aspirations – whether that’s taking part in the 2016 Paralympics in Rio or simply going to the pub to watch them without being stared at.
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