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:)

Brazilian Vogue and Rio Paralympics: An insulting way to miss the point?

So you are the host country to host a sporting event. It’s not going great, ticket sales are down and the eyes of the world are on you. So you have to do something, right?

Hmm. Perhaps this was how the meeting that lay behind the Brazilian vogue photo shoot in question. To promote the Rio Paralympics, non disabled models were photoshopped to appear disabled

This has not gone down too well to say the least. I can see why. The Paralympics has arguably a broader significance than the Olympics in terms of promoting understanding of disability and the issues around it. The advert actually creates a barrier to that, obscuring disability, which isn’t something that can be merely airbrushed out.

A far more effective approach has been consistently taken by Channel 4 in the UK. Here the message has been about presenting athletes who achieve what they do, working with their bodies to achieve what they do in sport. This surely is a more powerful message.

It is troubling that a host country of the Paralympics can display such a lack of understanding of the meaning and spirit of the games just a few days away from the start of it.

An understanding of disability is help to be arrived at by a careful representation of it. Disabled people don’t have the luxury of choosing to be disabled. Every day brings challenges to negotiate that can’t be magicked away. The only solution comes in the form of hard work. 

This is where the Paralympics has its wider social value, and why it resonates so powerfully. The games also has a vital responsibility to represent the broad spectrum of impairments that people have. Again, the Brazilian Vogue advert falls down here. 

Some will argue that for the Paralympics, any publicity is good publicity. This may especially the case given the troubled build up to Rio and poor ticket sales. I would counter by saying in which other context would it be ok to sell a product by distortion?  Perhaps if a better plan was devised to promote the games from the outset, such desperate measures would not have been required.

Personally I think the whole episode is in danger of being a wider reflection of the games itself: A missed opportunity. It is good that the photo shoot has been highlighted and that we can have wider discussion around it. Every empty seat we will see in Rio though is representative of both a wider failure to execute a properly planned games and a chance to learn more about disability generally. The chance to see anyone being world class is an opportunity that should never be passed up.

One only hopes that Brazil does a better job in responding to Paralympians. Come the games themselves, there will be no airbrushed representations available, which is an entirely good thing.

Two teams and one missed opportunity: Team GB and Paralympics GB

Today the ‘I am Team GB’ day is making a big splash.  A national broadcaster here in the UK even switched off its channel for an hour as part of efforts to promote the day in an unprecidented move.  At one level, I think this is a good thing.  People are rightly being encouraged to come together to celebrate the incredible success of Team GB in Rio.

However, scratch beneath the surface and for me, it is a missed opportunity.  We have not one Team GB, we have two different groups.  Team GB compete at the Olympic Games and Paralympics GB compete at the Paralympics.  On one level, this is totally understandable, and even commercially desirable  Both Team GB and Paralympics GB have separate commercial relationships with sponsors which they can use to further their respective interests.  You might not know this, but even the lion for the Olympic and Paralympic team is different.

Besides the commercial reasons though, the waters become muddied.  People can’t understand the reasons behind the two different team names and it creates a barrier to understanding where they need not be one.  For me there is also the wider symbolic aspects of the difference.  It implies a division between disabled and non disabled people which is not helpful.  We are one nation and should have a united banner with which to celebrate the achievements of all of our athletes.

Days like today also highlight why the separate identities of the teams can be unhelpful.  The Paralympics GB team are in a critical phase of their preparations for Rio with 11 days to go to the start of the Rio Paralympics.  Just as with the combined events to celebrate the achievements of our athletes, was there no way in which the festivities of today could have been moved back a few days?

For now, we will continue to have two sporting teams competing under one flag.  It will fall to us to show that, despite the difference in name, there will be no difference in the magnificient level of support we can give to our athletes.  I hope that in future, a way forward can be found to give us one Great Britain team that we can take to our hearts as a nation.

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.