Rio exceeding expectations as Paralympics capture the imagination

If the first few days of the Paralympics are anything to go by, Rio is well on the way to exceeding expectations.  This feat is made all the more remarkable given the well documented build up to the games, which was troubled to say the least.  All of that though seems a world away with busy stadiums, storming performances from Paralympics GB and excellent media coverage of events in Rio.

We are also arguably seeing to see the proof of the London Paralympic legacy, as exemplified by the emergence of Ellie Robinson.  Inspired by watching her namesake Simmonds perform on the global stage, the Northampton youngster took a remarkable gold with a maturity way beyond her years.  What is also notable is the continued emphasis on sport, with our athletes recognised for their world class sporting accomplishments in their own terms, which is the way it should be.

People have also wanted to know more about the athlete behind the sporting success.  I was fortunate enough to be asked onto the Victoria Derbyshire show to talk about the accomplishments of Ollie Hynd.  This desire to know more about the story behind the sporting success demonstrates the wider potential the Paralympics has to build awareness of disability related issues.  The swimmer in question sums it up when he says “its about ability not disability” and I totally agree.  Some of what we have seen represents our abilities as a human race to maximise our capacity for what we can do, irrespective of circumstance and the challenges we face.

There are still issues to address and questions to be tackled away from these games themselves.  The issue of whether the Paralympics can represent a full spectrum of disability is a thorny one which will not go away.  Particularly for athletes with more significant impairments, this one is a pressing issue of concern.  With the places and number of lower classification places ever under pressure, this issue is one that is in need of attention. Likewise, the issue of classification also needs seriously revisiting, with Channel 4 pundit Marc Woods commenting that some athletes were ‘right on the edge’ of their respective groups hinting at more serious issues to be addressed post Rio.

For now though let us continue to enjoy what we see before us.  Channel 4 coverage is doing a fantastic job of bringing the games home to us all, especially given the cuts they have faced as part of the aforementioned troubled build up to the games.  Other broadcasters and the printed media are also following the lead of the GB broadcaster, making the Paralympics be seen on a bigger scale than ever before.  There can be no question that the games is growing overall.

So keep watching, keep asking questions and keep appreciating the talent you see before you.  Thousands of hours of preparation have gone into getting the athletes here, and we’re also seeing the importance and value of lottery funding in the success of Paralympics GB.  Long may we all have such a wealth of sporting talent to cheer on.

Rio 2016: Time to let the sport do the talking

Imagine that you had been preparing for something all your life. You had put in thousands of hours over a period of years.  You have changed your diet, moved away from family, put yourself through training sessions every day and had beaten off stiff competition.  Now the biggest moment of your life was around the corner and you were determined to do your country proud. You do exactly that.  You compete, you win a medal and you have achieved your goal and life long ambition.

Now imagine that instead of your accomplishment, people had been talking about something else instead.  You’d be rightly deflated to say the least, and every right to feel that you had been disrespected.

We all know that the Paralympic Games bring perhaps a unique focus on the issues that face disabled people and, and arguably have a wider significance than the Olympics as a result.  This brings with it an opportunity to engage in sensible and measured debate, reflect on issues and find solutions to complex social problems.  There will be those that will merely seek to frankly hijack the games to suit their own agenda.  Certain groups will try to grab headlines at any cost and will frankly miss the point in doing so.  Away from sport, what is needed is measured debate to engage in the nuances of issues faced and engage in a collaborative way to find solutions.

Turning to the games themselves, we all know they have had a troubled build up.  We all know that there are issues with the classification system for athletes.  All of this though is beyond the control of the individual athletes who have dedicated their lives, or at least a substantial portion of it, making significant sacrifices in the process, to get to Rio.  These athletes don’t seek to be admired as ‘inspirational’ (though they may rightly be seen as being so), hailed as heroes or as universal spokespeople for disabled people everywhere.

The athletes simply want to be recognised for being world class in what they have chosen to do, and be rightly respected for the level at which they perform.  It is time for stories of sporting accomplishment to take centre stage, and for us to respect the abilities of athletes who will maximise their abilities to perform their chosen sport.

It is time to let the sport do the talking.

At this point, to focus on anything else would be to be distracted by a side issue.  Just as the Olympics provided the nation with a much needed ‘feel good’ factor, I hope and expect the Paralympics to do the same.  The temptation to be distracted by the side issues will be great.  People will use vivid headlines and messages to get your attention.  Unfortunately, the complexity of the social issues we face means that little will change in focusing on them during the games themselves.  We can tackle those issues after the Paralympics, when we’ve rightly recognised the achievement of the athletes who will be representing our country in Rio.

 

Rio 2016 – My 6 to watch

In this blog, I’ll pick out some athletes to keep an eye on in Rio.  I should say at the outset that it is notoriously difficult to predict how things will go in Paralympic sport, so inclusion here isn’t all about medals (I don’t want to tempt fate either!) here are a few to keep an eye on!

Dan Bramall (Athletics)

A bit of a geographical bias here as Dan comes from my home town, but I expect him to do well on his Games debut.  A fellow Cheshire boy, Dan is a relative newcomer to Paralympic sport but has developed quickly, picking up silver medals at the World Championships last year, and again at the Europeans earlier in 2016. Expect him to contest a keenly fought battle with team mate Toby Gold.  Dan will be hoping that this time, its him that comes out on top.

Kare Adenegan (Athletics)

In an event where most people will be talking about Hannah Cockroft, Kare will benefit from being the underdog.  At just 16, Kare will also be making her games debut.  She found her route into wheelchair racing having been inspired by seeing London 2012 and asking her mum to google what opportunities to compete were available locally.  She’s come a long way since then, and I predict will go much further still…

Samantha Kinghorn (Athletics)

If I was still an agent, I would be beating a path to Sam’s door.  I first saw her compete nationally a few years ago and was very impressed.  She has a great attitude and team behind her, in particular in coach Ian Mirfin.  Kinghorn took home no fewer than 3 golds at the European Championships in Swansea and will be looking to add to her medal tally here.

Emma Wiggs (Canoe)

Emma is one of a number of athletes on the Paralympics GB team who have switched sports since London 2012 with great success.  A former sitting volleyball player, Emma will use her previous games experience to good effect in her current sport, which is making its Paralympic sport debut.  Emma is a real character, with bucket loads of spirit and a fantastic attitude which will stand her in good stead as she takes to the water.

Pam Relph (Rowing)

After winning gold on home turf, Pam will be wanting to defend her title in Rio as part of a much changed mixed coxed four from London, but one which had a great season in 2015.  2016 has been more tricky, with the crew making what will be their first competitive appearance of the year at the Paralympics.  Winning though is ingrained into the Paralympics GB rowers, who will always be a force to be reckoned with.

Claire Cashmore (Swimming)

Surely..it must be, this time.  For Claire, this will be her fourth Paralympic Games.  She has every other medal and title to her name bar that illusive Paralympic gold.  She has left no stone unturned in her quest to be top of the podium, and you’ll be hard pressed to find an athlete who has worked harder, been pushed further and come back fighting every time.  Her standing on top of the podium would be a lift not only to her, but the rest of the swim team in Rio.

 

Choppy Waters? Classification and Paralympic Swimming Part 1

Classification is the foundation of modern competitive Paralympic Sport.  It is the basis on which athletes are assessed according to the nature of their impairment.  An assessment is carried out so that athletes can be grouped together and compete against athletes who have a similar functional ability.  The IPC website opens its webpage on classification by saying “Challenging the interests of para-sport is the threat of one sided and predictable competition, in which the least impaired athlete always wins.”

I agree.  Classification is not without its difficulty.  The nature of impairment does not lend itself for straightforward comparison, and for this reason sports use several different categories of classification.  Swimming, for example, has no fewer than 14 broken down as follows:

s1-s10: Physical impairment

-s11-13: Visual impairment

-s14: Intellectual impairment

There have been instances where the classification process has been challenged.  Yesterday it was reported that UK Athletics would investigate the classification of athletes following concerns from those including Baroness Tanni Grey Thompson that the system can produce unfair results. I have wondered if the same thing could be said of other sports.  So I decided to have a look into swimming.

This is a sport I know well, having lived with a former Paralympic Swimmer, represented Paralympic swimmers and followed the sport for a number of years at a local, national and international level.   From these experiences, I knew there was anecdotal evidence of problems with the system.  There have also been widely reported examples where problems have been highlighted.  Mallory Weggemann, for example was reclassified from an S7 to an S8 after having broken many world records, only to win gold in her new class competing alongside those with less severe impairments than previously.

In swimming, you would generally expect times to improve over time, as in any other sporting competition.  There is of course the odd exceptional athlete who will come along and raise the bar.  There are also potential other reasons for changes in times such as changes in an athletes impairment or coaching.  In order to see how results have developed over time I downloaded the IPC World Rankings from 2011 to 2015 and analysed the data.  Looking at patterns in the results and comparing the year on year performance of athletes allowed an understanding of what you might expect to see in an event.

The results of my analysis concerned me.  After a first sweep of the data, I decided to concentrate on events for male athletes in classes 1-5.  I focused on the top 3 times in the world in each year.  I will publish the results of a similar exercise with the female events in due course.  The headline results were as follows:

Events examined: 41

Events following an expected pattern: 23 

‘flagged’ due to questionable times: 18

I was concerned at the number of events in my analysis that were flagged. Examples of events that were flagged included where the first placed athlete had beaten the second placed athlete with a significant time gap (more than 30 seconds in some instances) or where the performance of an athlete had changed significantly in a 12 month period (in one instance an athlete who had been competing internationally knocked 30 seconds off his time, which is unusual to say the least.)  Though I have not published the full findings here, I am happy to share my results in full if you wish to see them.

These results suggest significant issues with the classification of athletes with higher levels of impairment in swimming.  More must be done to ensure that the systems in place are fit for purpose and maintain the integrity of the competition.  As the IPC say themselves, it should not simply be the least impaired athlete who wins.  We owe it to Paralympic sport to see that those who make their way onto a podium are there due to ability, not a flawed system.

Growing Up and pushing the potential

I have been reflecting a lot on my childhood of late and growing up.  I think there are a few reasons for this.  Firstly the feelings of broodiness I have referred previously seem to be constantly there.  A lovely family visit also prompted a bit of a deep and meaningful chat between Fran, myself and my parents.  In this chat both Fran’s mum and my parents reflected really honestly on their experiences of bringing us up.  Both Fran and I were really lucky I think in that we were encouraged to push ourselves and what we could be.

At this point, I feel its only appropriate to acknowledge the giant of a man who made it possible for me to be who I am today, Dr Bob Pugh.  My mum had a really difficult pregnancy with me and I was very premature.  It was touch and go whether I would even live and the dedicated care of Dr Pugh and his team made this possible.  I don’t know if he will ever read this but I am always grateful to the life he gave me the chance to live.

It’s really hard to explain what having a chance like that does for you.  Growing up, there were some really tough times but knowing that just by being here in the first place you’ve fought one of the hardest battles you ever could gives you a real sense of belief and determination.  I’ve also been driven by the numerous people who have helped me to be the person I am – from Dr Pugh to the brilliant teachers I had at school and my friends as well as inspirational people I’ve worked with.

Family is everything though, and its to mum, dad, Rachel and Fran who I owe so so so much.  The love, dedication and judicious telling off I’ve been given has been worth its weight in gold.  The enduring support I get pushes me on and gives me my drive and determination to (hopefully!) make a difference in what I do.  Since starting the blog I’ve been contacted by a few parents who are bringing up people like me and my message to you is a simple one: keep going!  Keep challenging yourself and those around you to push the boundaries in a positive way and to fulfil and then exceed your potential.  I have also just asked my parents to do a guest blog from their own perspective, which hopefully will be coming soon.

If you are reading this and growing up with your own challenges..to you I say this: You only get one chance at this life and its no dress rehearsal so make the most of it 🙂

If you don’t believe me, believe Fran, who wrote a blog on a similar theme herself (well, she wrote mine before I did, so would probably tell you I’m copying her!!) We both can’t be wrong 😉

When a social worker comes calling..

I was at work today and got a text from Fran saying that her social worker had come, unannounced.  I froze.  Getting a message like that from Fran is one of the few things that will stop me in my tracks and worry.

Before I go on, let me be clear as to what the purpose of this blog is (and is not) about.  It is not about having a go at social workers, the majority of whom in my experience, do a great job in increasingly impossible circumstances due to the chronic underfunding of social care (gotta love those Tories, he says, with deep sarcasm!)  It is though to show how as a disabled person, that there is very little that is private, and answering deeply personal questions is the norm.

I was annoyed.  The social worker had come unannounced.  This is not unusual for this to be the case.  It was an important visit too, so I was frustrated that I could not be there to support Fran.  The potential power that social workers can have over your life is scary.  A few strokes of a pen can radically alter your life, especially in the aforementioned financial climate when everyone is under pressure to save money at any cost.  We have not long (well, I say this, 9 months in!) moved house so that has the potential to change *everything.*  Luckily it did not.

The funding for social care has come under particular stress, especially after the closure of the ILF at a time when Local Authority budgets are under unprecedented pressure.  Following a drastic reduction in Fran’s support we’d written to our local MP who had investigated the matter for us. Surprise surprise, the interest of the MP meant that the initial decisions were reviewed and Fran had escaped with much less severe cuts, which she has still noticed, but is able to get by.

Given this backdrop I was relived when Fran said that the social worker had discussed her funding with her and it was staying the same.  I wasn’t sure whether this would be the case, particularly as it was a new social worker.  Fran and I tend to struggle a bit with social workers.  Our lifestyle just doesn’t ‘fit’ with the way ‘the system’ works.  Basically it is set up on the assumption you don’t work so things are more difficult if you do (how wrong is that?!) and Fran tends to be about the only one on the social workers current case load who actually works.  The social workers we have seen just aren’t used to dealing with that and the way we lead our lives.

All of which goes to show how scary it is when a social worker comes calling, even with the nicest of social workers.  And that is for us…when we have 5 degrees between us and an understanding of how ‘the system’ works.  I really don’t know how people who struggle to have their own voice are able to navigate the system.  Mind boggling in so many sad ways.  Then the questions start..being asked about every aspect of your life from how you wash and go to the toilet to asking for your bank balances to see how your money is spent.  This is all par for the course, and the social worker has their job to do but can feel really intrusive.

Next comes the revelation that Fran’s referral for an Occupational Therapist is 18 (yes 18) months overdue.  In theory it should take six weeks.  That’s one long six weeks.  We have moved to a bungalow which is much more accessible but in the mean time Fran has been showering on a garden chair and struggling to get in and out of the house.  You try to find workarounds (hence the garden chair in the shower!) but these aren’t always great for your self esteem or morale!

So, another social work visit safely negotiated.  Fran even told them that we were thinking about having kids and the social worker managed not to fall off her chair in shock.  That’ll bring a whole other set of questions assessments and visits as, if and when we decide to take the plunge.  That challenge can wait for now.

I know its easy to say but it shouldn’t be like this.  Social care and social work is on its knees and struggling to cope.  There has to be a better way to support people.

 

How not to organise a Paralympic Games (and what to do about it)

Over recent days, weeks and months it has become very clear that the Rio Paralympics was in big trouble.  Financial problems with the games have led to frantic planning and significant cost cutting measures.  At one stage, whether the games would even take place was doubted.  All of this is a world away from London 2012, which captured the public imagination and was described as the best ever Paralympic Games.  Rio represents a great example of how not to organise a Paralympic Games in 5 main ways:

  1. Making it difficult or impossible for athletes to get there – At the risk of stating the obvious, without the athletes, there can be no games.  Difficulties and delays over the funding of travel monies have been well publicized over recent days and have now been resolved to some extent.  Nonetheless, it would appear that some athletes will not be able to attend due to these funding problems.   It is difficult to overstate how bad this is.  Imagine you have trained for years to get to the Paralympics, only to be denied your hard earned opportunity to compete for non-sporting reasons.  Would it happen with the Olympics? Unthinkable.  Why then has it been allowed to happen with the Paralympics?
  2. Don’t sell tickets – Paralympic ticket sales have been woeful, with just 12% sold according to figures quoted this week.  The lack of a crowd will damage the atmosphere of the games and images of empty seats beamed across the world will damage Paralympic sport in general.  This is not news though.  As early as March the poor ticket sales were highlighted. What has been done since then?  Has anything been done since then?  Whatever the measures taken, it is clear they have had little impact.
  3. (Allegedly!) divert money to the Olympics – It has been consistently reported that money has been ‘diverted’ from the Paralympics to the Olympics.  Why?  It is not widely known, but the IOC actually have much influence over the Paralympics in terms of the structural organisation of the games.  What responsibility have they taken and how are they helping to resolve the situation now?
  4. Reduce volunteers – Anyone who has attended any mass sporting event will understand the value and importance of volunteers to making good things happen.  In Rio, the number of volunteers will be reduced, as part of cost cutting measures.  This means that running the games will actually be made much more difficult.
  5. Make media coverage more difficult – the number of media centres will be reduced as part of cost cutting measures, making it more difficult for the games to be covered.  Media coverage is fundamental to the success of any games so this is particularly concerning.

Why the fuss?

Just as with the Olympics, the Paralympics is about more than just sport.  It plays a critical role in raising awareness of the capacity of disabled people to be extraordinary, and is arguably more important than the Olympics in terms of making disability more widely understood.  As such, the state of the Rio games represents such a missed opportunity on a number of levels.  This is especially the case after London, which was the coming of age for the Paralympics.  The contrasts could not be greater.

So what now?

With the games a matter of days away, there is little more than hope to be frank, that the games is a success in spite of all the above.

More positively, there are measures that can be taken in the short term and the long term.  In the short term we need to back our athletes more than ever before – so get behind them on social media and make sure you watch the games.  In Great Britain, there will be coverage on the BBC and Channel 4, so rest up after the Olympics, and get ready for some more medals and early mornings.  I promise you it will be worth staying up for!

In the long term, a few things need to happen in my view:

  • The ring fencing of the budget for the Paralympics
  • Greater independence for the IPC from the IOC
  • A wider examination of how the world can be helped to ‘get’ Paralympic Sport
  • Some serious questions need to be asked of how we have reached this point

As I said above…would it happen with the Olympics? Unthinkable.  Why then has it been allowed to happen with the Paralympics?  Some serious questions need to be asked.

 

2 Disability and Depression: Addressing the elephant in the room

This is a highly unusual blog for me dear reader.  Why? Well, I’m actually sacred while I’m writing it and the topic of depression isn’t something I’d normally discuss.  It is however this fear that is driving me on as I write.  I fear the topic because of the stigma that endures around it.  Yet it is that fear which drives me on to write this blog.  I’ve never ducked a topic before in the short life of this blog, and I don’t intend to start now.

I should say at the outset that this may not be an easy read, so if you aren’t in the best frame of mind, perhaps come back later.  Know this though, no matter how bleak it feels, you can come back from the darkest of places.

Things started to unravel for me quite quickly.  I was in the middle of a PhD which was little more than an exercise in prolonged misery at the time, which was causing a strain.  I then lost a couple of grandparents in quick succession and things just got on top of me.  I then began to take out my feelings on those closest to me.  I was looking for answers in all the wrong places and found them in a shape of a girl I met at the time.

Before I knew it I was a wreck.  My state of mind got worse and worse and I was unable to make even simple decisions.  One example was whether to board a flight to France.  I couldn’t decide what to do and was so conflicted that my mental knots made me a human ball of string.  My emotions were everywhere and I stood in the departure hall fighting back the tears.  I had actually been to see the doctor to talk about what was quickly diagnosed as depression and anxiety.  They prescribed a sick note and some tablets, which I refused to take.  At the time, I thought I knew best and didn’t need chemicals that I feared would a) have terrible side effects and b) turn me into a zombie.

I eventually returned from France, coming back with my poor sister.  Again I didn’t know what to do or if I could come back.  It took me an hour and the persuasion of my sister but I eventually boarded the plane back home.  I was a wreck and the depression was sucking all the life out of me.  In my wisdom I decided it would be a good idea to move out to live with the girl I had met.  That was not a good move.

I had isolated myself from anyone who could help.  Apart from my parents that is, who understood what was going on and still spoke to me.  The depth of their compassion and understanding knew no bounds.  Things were still getting worse.  At my lowest points, getting out of bed to have something to eat was a good day.  This for someone who had graduated from Cambridge a few years earlier and who seemingly had the world at his feet.

You have to hit the bottom though to bounce up.  This for me took the form of setting off for a train station and not intending to come back.  I had written a note and just didn’t want to be here any more.  I saw no way back.  I couldn’t bring myself though to follow through with my plan.

Instead I phoned my parents.  Before long I had returned home with my tail between my legs.  The flip side of being suicidal at that point was that I got quick access to therapy through the NHS, which literally saved my life I think.  I had a brilliant therapist called Graham who, through a combination of carrot and stick, got me to see where I was going wrong and gave me the tools to dig myself out of the hole I was in.  To the frustration of the numerous professionals involved, I maintained my refusal to take any form of tablets, so of course things took longer.

Eventually, having built up my levels of resolve, I returned to my PhD.  I probably should have not completed it, but by now it had assumed a great significance and I was determined to see it through whatever the outcome.  My supervisors continued to doubt whether I would be successful, which was fantastic motivation.  I also gradually began to repair my relationships with family and see friends who I had isolated myself from for about 2 years.  By making myself do the things I used to, I gradually became my ‘old’ self.

I then met Fran, which was a real turning point in my life.  I was honest with her about where things were at, and we were able to build something that became, and is to this day, life defining.  I was back to my old self.  Almost.  One thing I learned was that the depression was always there, and I always had to be self aware and manage it, as I do to this day.  Continuing improvement saw me building up my own athlete management business whilst I finished my PhD corrections (much to the surprise of my supervisors I got through my viva with relatively minor things to address.)

I eventually was told I was to be awarded my PhD and be Dr Chris just before the start of the London Paralympic Games and one of the busiest few days of my life!  By now I had moved in with Fran and settled in Cambridge (it’s funny how things go in circles, returning a few years after I graduated.)  However.  Things had taken their toll and my old ‘signs’ of depression were returning.

To stop this, I decided I needed to look for part time work.  I got an interview with a local charity.   The first interview, somehow went really well.  Now for the second interview.  I needed to prepare a presentation.  All my nervy habits were set off again.  I nearly didn’t go back.  The day before the second interview I went to see the local GP and was in floods of tears again.  This time though, I actually took the tablets prescribed!  And they helped..in the end!

I convinced myself I had nothing to lose and went into the second interview.   Pure adrenaline got me through.  I was offered the job and was delighted to accept.  Three years later, I still work there!  I took the decision to tell my line manager about my depression, who was brilliant and never looked back.  I have to keep an eye on things, and am still on the tablets, but have managed to negotiate a path to being comfortable in my own skin and quite successful at ‘life.’  In my darkest moments, I never thought I’d be able to say that.

Depression is awful and the stigma around it endures.  I offer this blog as my own contribution to helping to gradually break that down, and to show that it is possible to come back from the darkest of places.

Thank you for reading.  Now my final battle with this blog…to hit ‘publish.’  Here goes..!

 

So what?

So another person has launched a blog?  So what?  Well.

Writing a blog is something I’ve been mulling over for a while.  Having a voice is something its easy to take for granted, but after the events surrounding Brexit in the last few days I feel that expressing what that voice says is more important than ever before.

This is especially the case as a disabled person?  Why?  Well the reality is that in these turbulent times, disabled people are arguably more in need of an ability to express that voice than ever before.  That said, this is just my voice.  There are many others, and doubtless many will disagree with the views I express.  To me, thats fine.  Its through constructively engaging with each other that we’ll learn and (hopefully) become more cohesive as a society when there is arguably more division than ever before.

Even identifying as a disabled person is, and has been, something of a struggle. Why? My disability doesnt define me, its part of who I am.  I also don’t claim to speak for other disabled people who may have different experiences and hold different views.  For me though, beginning to highlight that disabled voice is of real value, and I hope that by highlighting the issues that matter to me, I can at least make other people think and raise some awareness in a positive way.