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Paralympic greats deliver language lesson to sports coaches

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Women in Sport Conference North

The Holy Trinity: Hannah Cockcroft, Kadeena Cox and Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson

Golden girls is a well-worn sporting cliché but I make no excuse for using the platitude here to describe three icons of British disability sport who shared their knowledge, wisdom and extensive international experience with a full to capacity conference suite at the BBC Sport offices in Manchester.

With 17 Paralympic gold medals and 19 World Championship gold medals between them, it is an appropriate collective term to describe Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson, Hannah Cockcroft MBE and Kadeena Cox MBE.

However, caution is advised when attaching labels to individuals or groups. As delegates heard, when done carelessly or impulsively, there is a danger it could undermine the drive for equality.

The language used around Paralympic sport, for example, is a particular bugbear of Baroness Grey-Thompson, Hannah and Kadeena, who eloquently expressed their line of reasoning.

That labels can reinforce stigma and stereotypes will come as no surprise to most people, but when all three said they baulk at the use of the word ‘inspirational’ to describe their sporting journeys, there were a few raised eyebrows from the audience.

They spoke passionately about the overemotional portrayal of disabled athletes in the media – calling for an end to the obsession with athletes’ ‘back stories’ – and declared that the quest to change the way disabled people are perceived by the public still has a long way to go.

It was both a privilege and an education to hear such piercing insight from three of Britain’s most decorated Paralympians as they addressed the myriad challenges disabled athletes face in their careers.

Those involved – or wanting to be involved – in disabled sport, in whatever capacity, will find their reflections, opinions and advice below extremely valuable.

Architect of change

Baroness Grey-Thompson is a self-confessed ardent feminist and one of our most prominent advocates for equality in sport.

In occupying a high-profile position as a crossbench peer in the House of Lords, and enjoying huge popularity among the general public, it has given her a platform to influence behaviour change, and she has grasped the mantle of responsibility with relish.

She began her keynote speech by saying the world of sport needs more men who are feminists.

‘The way we are going to bring about change is by empowering women but also by encouraging men to think differently about how we look at sport,’ she said.

The marathon challenge to establish equality of opportunity in the sporting arena is under way, if not yet in top gear.

‘We are in a place where women are more empowered than ever,’ she said. ‘There is recognition of the gender pay gap (but not yet the disability pay gap), and we are in a place that feels like we are at a turning point for going forward.’

So what do the roadblocks look like and how do we remove them to clear a path for further progress?

The fixation people have for putting other people into boxes is one thing Baroness Grey-Thompson said she would like to change.

‘I’m a Venn diagram. I’m not just an ex-athlete or a Paralympian, I’m a whole mixture of different things.

‘I can honestly say I don’t think I’ve ever experienced discrimination for being a woman in sport. Absolutely none. I’ve experienced lots of discrimination for being disabled. Because it is far easier to discriminate against me being disabled than it is a woman. That’s partly because there is lots more understanding about what we can say around women these days but there is far less understanding around disabled people.’

Put the person first, not the disability

Our deep-seated (and at times deeply inappropriate) communication habits and use of language around disabled people is another cause for concern.

And it is a subject Baroness Grey-Thompson said she feels passionately about.

‘The term handicapped – which thank goodness is not used any more – comes from “cap in hand”, from begging, which is what disabled people used to have to do. Luckily we don’t use the word cripple any more, which is another horrible word.’

Other words which have found their way into the modern lexicon of offensive slang terms to describe disabled people include ‘blinky’ and ‘wheelie’.

‘I don’t find it acceptable that a non-disabled person attaches very strange language around my disability and impairment and think that it is okay to refer to me in such a derogatory way. It has an impact on how disabled people are treated and how young disabled people see themselves.’

She revealed she was once confronted by a man when she was pregnant, who told her: ‘People like you shouldn’t have children’, to which she replied: ‘What, you mean Welsh people?’

The scale of the problem becomes apparent when listening to everyday conversation around the Paralympic Games and Olympic Games.

‘When you hear people refer to the “real Olympics” or the “normal Olympics” it discredits the real value of what the athletes have achieved.’

Mind your language

The issue with the word ‘inspirational’, which has such positive connotations, is a more complex argument.

‘One of the challenges I struggle with around Paralympic sport is the fact we are all inspirational,’ began Baroness Grey-Thompson. ‘Some are, absolutely. Some have had very traumatic and dramatic routes to becoming a Paralympian. But actually there is no place for talking about that when on the field of play. It is finding the right time and the right place to cover those back stories.’

You could term it the X-Factorisation of disabled sport: 'sob stories' that deflect away from present athletic achievement to focus on perceived personal struggles of the past.

‘We have to move away from sensationalising disability,’ said Baroness Grey-Thompson of the media’s one dimensional agenda.

Girls who aspire to follow in the footsteps of their real-life heroines, who are bombarded incessantly with images and language glorifying their role models’ dramatic struggle through adversity, may be put off a career in sport, believing their own life story lacks the requisite drama.

Hannah was equally emphatic in her assessment of the word inspirational.

Hannah Cockcroft

‘I don’t mind people calling me awesome, but not inspirational,’ she said, wanting people to be inspired by her achievement in becoming a gold medallist instead.

‘I want to get rid of this word, I hate it. If you are inspired by us because of what you see on that track, appreciate we work hard every day, and you see us just as an athlete, not a girl in a wheelchair or a boy with one leg, then that’s brilliant. But actually any media coverage we get revolves around us being “so inspirational” because we have got over these big barriers in life and “look what they are doing; they could be doing nothing”.

‘Stop concentrating on our back stories and start concentrating on what you see [us doing] because everyone has a back story, regardless of if they have a disability. Everyone has gone through something.

‘I know nothing different than this wheelchair so I’m fine with it. The rest of the world needs to get over it and realise… life’s great, and I did what I could because I have a fantastic family behind me, a little bit of support and belief that I could change the world.’

‘I want to be defined by my talents’

Kadeena Cox

Kadeena echoes Hannah’s thoughts exactly. She doesn’t mind the moniker of empowering, but loathes being called inspirational, appealing for a change in the narrative.

‘I do hate that word. People need to understand that when you have a disability, you deal with it the best that you can. You have got to live your life. You don’t have an option.

'For me, after the first year of turning my life around I didn’t want to be inspirational any more I wanted to be an athlete. That’s why I chose to do two sports, to show people that, yes I have a disability, but I don’t want to be defined by that. I want to be defined by my talents and my sporting achievements.’

Kadeena became the nation’s first Paralympian to win gold medals in multiple sports at the same Games since Isabel Barr in 1984, achieving a double whammy of victories on the track – the wooden track of the velodrome and synthetic track of the athletics oval.

She said talk of the hurdles she has had to clear because of her disability should be irrelevant.

‘I want people to focus on the fact I am a talented athlete as opposed to looking at the disability and the back story of how I got to where I am.

‘We want to be seen as sports people. The back story shouldn’t define us. It kind of feels as if we are brought down a level. I want to be seen as any other athlete.’

Kadeena Cox

Take five and see you in October

Hannah and Kadeena’s disarmingly honest opinions – from inside the world of Paralympic sport looking out – provided a real sense of what it feels like to be a disabled athlete fighting tooth and nail for funding, facilities and fairness.

You can read more of their views on these subjects in my other blog from the conference here.

The articles barely scratch the surface of what was discussed in Manchester by the many trailblazing women in attendance who are making such a positive mark on women’s sport and disability sport.

I am already looking forward to the fifth instalment – booked for Friday, October 26 – back at the Beeb, to hear an updated progress report on the campaign for equality, diversity and inclusion in sport. You can book your free ticket here.

Further reading

Our blog from the Women in Sport Conference North III: Different but equal: Why understanding the female mind is a must for male coaches

Our review of the Women in Sport Conference IV: Industry heavyweights talk passionately about the burning issues affecting women in sport

The English Federation of Disability Sport (EFDS) has written a ‘comprehensive inclusive communications guide’ for organisations, which includes advice on the use of messaging, wording and better practice terminology. Access it here.

This blog is also available as a podcast on a number of platforms including Itunes. Listen here.

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