The US election and lessons to learn for UK politics 

I don’t normally blog about politics but it’s something I feel really passionate about and I’ve even toyed with the notion of trying to become an MP one day. Political policy has the capacity to directly shape every aspect of our lives which is why having good people in power matters.
While I’ve been in Las Vegas I’ve been struck by several things about the Anerican election and what it means for us. 

1. The need to have good candidates and choice: Quite how Trump especially has even been allowed to get here is beyond me. Politics is only as good as the quality and qualifications of those involved with it. If I were an American voter now I’d really feel as if I was between a rock and a hard place with my vote. Where is the good option.

2. Politics needs to connect and stop apathy winning: Much of what I’ve seen in the coverage has been meaninglessness for me. High on petty points scoring and short on substance. Politics needs to speak to all of us and provoke informed debate. I predict what we will see in voting is a continuation of low turnout, which is bad for everyone.

3. The need for a more inclusive approach: I’m struck by how incestious American politics appears to be. Bush or Clinton appears to mean you have a lifetime in politics and this needs to be shaken up. Likewise in the UK, it shouldn’t just be about Oxbridge educated, middle aged people with money. We need a range of views to make politics speak to everyone.

4. More solutions and less negativity: We live in challenging times. This means the need for solutions to our pressing problems is required more than ever before. Negative attack ads over here are so abundant and do nothing to offer the solutions we all need.

5. The importance of objective and informative media coverage: Watching media coverage over here I am so thankful for our broadcast media in the UK. The bias of the likes of Fox, and even CNN is astonishing. We need objective media coverage to highlight issues, ask questions and bring politics to life.

The closing days of the contest for the Whitehouse will be absorbing. The winner of the contest will impact us all in many ways. Make your choice with care America.

2 Reflections on experiences of America with an impairment 

This has to be one of the more surreal settings I’ve written a blog in. I’m sat in the middle of a noisy Las Vegas casino surrounded by sirens, bells and in a haze of smoke.

I’m conscious that I’ve had something of a blog draught of late. I’ve not felt moved to write about anything and only want to do so when I feel I’ve something of interest and (hopefully!) value to say. Thank you to those of you who have enquirered when my next blog will be.

The purpose of this blog is to reflect on my personal perspectives of America as a tourist. Over the past few years I’ve been fortunate to visit Vegas (twice), New York and Florida. So whilst this doesn’t claim to be a scientific study I’m confident that I have a range of experiences from which to draw.

The good: Being treated as a consumer and the impact this has

I think the American attitude I have encountered is ahead of the U.K. for one simple reason: Here I am treated as a consumer and services are easier to access as a result. The consequence of this is that life is a lot more accessible. Granted, as a tourist I may be more outgoing than on a day to day basis but it’s definitely easier to get about. So there is a positive social by product..I can do more and see more as a result.

It feels as if America has embraced the social model too. Buildings are adapted to allow access so that as a consumer I can get in and spend my money. Though it is a subjective thing it feels a bit easier to walk tall as a result. My money is as good as everyone else’s!

Though much has been written about the purchasing power of the ‘purple pound’ in the U.K. I think we lag behind. Fundamentally, I would argue that disabled people aren’t generally seen as consumers and marketed to in the way that other consumer groups are. Sport aside, disabled people tend to be discussed as passive recipients of state welfare rather than as active consumers. That can (but not always) filter it’s way though to social  and even political contexts as a consequence.
The bad: Insurance and healthcare

The consequence of being seen as a consumer has its negative side too. Insurance and healthcare is very much a product here and that has profound implications for someone with an impairment.

Getting insurance to travel to the states can be a mission. Every day life in the states would be impractical. I just couldn’t afford it. The health system appears to be very much a live issue in the election debates.

For the well documented pressures and shortcomings of the NHS in the hands of its political masters the principle of free healthcare to all at the point of need is a game changer and one we must retain.

I dread to think about the adoption of an insurance based model and its negative consequences in the uk. 

As with so many things, I hope we can retain the positives and learn from the attitude described above.

I had better go and find my long stuffering wife and go and embrace my consumer status some more!  

Lived experience of impairment and its value

A lot of my conversations, both personal and professional of late, have revolved around the importance and value of lived experience of impairment.  Growing up, I learned about the importance of being able to articulate the impact my impairment had.  If I couldn’t explain it, then I couldn’t help other to begin to understand what it was like to be me, and the kind of extra support I did (and, equally significantly, did not) need.

As I got older, I became aware that my impairment effectively gave me a ‘way of seeing’ that wasn’t familiar to lots of other people.  The things that were obvious to me because of living with my impairment and working around things just weren’t obvious to other people.  A good example of this was when I looked around universities.  I was often asked to go around with university staff to point out access issues that they could address to help ensure that the campus environment was accessible.

These days, I am lucky enough to sit on a couple of boards as a (voluntary) director and trustee.  A combination of my personal and professional experience means I am in the fortunate position to be able to add a different point of view, to constructively challenge and be a good critical friend to enhance the work of the organisations I am involved with.  This poses a really interesting dynamic to me, because one of my worries is that I should not be in roles like this for tick box or tokenistic reasons, but because of my blend of experiences and what I can bring.

I am aware though that there are lots of people out there who have a great deal to offer, for whom the nature of being on a board isn’t accessible.  I think much more work is needed to give people the knowledge, skills and tools in order to be able to make a difference using their own experiences.  The best things I am and have been a part of are those which are able to use a blend of knowledge and perspectives to give a thorough and holistic assessment of the decisions to be made at a boardroom level.

It is also really important to acknowledge the diversity of impairment and the impact that it has for people.  To take my own impairment of cerebral palsy as an example, there are different types of CP and the degree to which it can impact on the lives of people who have it can vary enormously.  This means that I always try to speak with care when talking about impairment, as I can only speak with authenticity about my own lived experience, and there will be many other different takes on things out there.

I really enjoy being able to use my own lived experience to help add value to the things I am involved with, and would encourage ways to make it possible for more people with a contribution to make to do the same.  Having a holistic and inclusive approach to decision making will improve the quality of decisions made and the way organisations function in society.

A post Parlalympics void to fill: From Rio to where?

The time following an Olympics and Paralympics is hard.  After gorging on sport for a month and experiencing every moment of drama, success and agony..there is a big void to fill.  Real life resumes and as the nights set in, the autumn cold begins to bite.  In terms of the Paralympics, it is fair to say that things went even better than even the most optimistic accounts would have suggested.  Talk of the troubled build up set aside as Paralympics GB surged up the medal table to remain in a lofty second spot.

A well earned word of congratulations must be extended here, not just to the athletes who performed so well but to the coaches, support staff and family members that helped create the conditions to make those medals possible.  Without such a ‘team behind the team’ we wouldn’t have anywhere near as many medals to celebrate.

The challenge now will be to sustain that progress in a Paralympic playing field that is becoming ever more competitive. New strategies will be have to formed in order to find medals where they have not been forthcoming and the funding and innovation so central to success will have to be renewed.  For this, there will also need to be a strong political appetite at a time when the public purse is shrinking.  I may well be utterly biased, but I would say that this is one area where funding should be retained and investment to continue.

And herein lies the rub..where do we go from here?  The answer must be in continued hard work, not only at the elite levels, but at grass roots to develop inclusive sport and physical activity, and to continue to address the cultural, structural and practical barriers that continue to stubbornly exist.  That, for me, would amount to a legacy from Rio to be proud of.

The ‘legacy’ must happen in every day life too.  Disabled people live their lives in particularly challenging times.  Success too from Rio would look like every day life getting better for disabled people everywhere. This may sound a bit utopian or idealistic, and I would agree, but we have to continue to make strides forward and recognise the challenges that exist (which are numerous) and the benefits of overcoming those (which are priceless in so many ways).

As the focus of the media switches its gaze the hard work must go on to make these things happen not just once every four years but every day.  Just as with the dedication that is required to represent ones country, the work needed to offer constructive solutions to complex problems will require leaving no stone unturned and thinking of every positive route to solutions.

Time will tell what the future holds, but progress is possible, and we all must (continue to) do what we can to build on a great summer.  With energy, dedication and enthusiasm, the autumn cold will be kept at bay.

 

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 😉

#filltheseats and why it matters

If you have read this blog for a while you’ll know that Rio has had a troubled build up to the Paralympics. It is right to highlight a much more positive development in the form of the #filltheseats campaign.

This campaign will help Brazilian children see the Paralympic Games. This is such a powerful thing. I’ll never forget taking my uncle to see Fran compete at Ponds Forge in Sheffield.

He had never seen any disability sport prior to that point. It’s a big cliche but he was inspired and moved by what he saw. Most importantly he also left the day with a greater understanding of what people could do despite their impairments. That day was 5 years ago now and is still talked about now.

This is why the #filltheseats campaign is so important. It will bring Paralympic sport and the awareness of disability that comes with it to thousands of children who will carry it with them for the rest of their lives.

#filltheseats has also been backed by a whole host of people including the International Paralympic Committee, Coldplay and Paralympic athletes across the globe.

You can find out more here. Please support this initiative however you can and tweet using #filltheseats. Thank you:)