PARALYMPIC world-record holder Hannah Cockroft blames rising expectations and a lack of early opportunities for the alarming decline in disability sport participation.
At 15 years old, she was forced to compete in an adult male wheelchair as there was no suitable equipment available, and while the situation has improved since the London 2012 Paralympics, Hannah still believes that more could be done.
She said: “There are clubs scattered around the UK, but I’m from Yorkshire and there is only one there, in Leeds, with only seven or eight racing chairs.
“There are very few hoists at swimming pools across the country and gyms aren’t prepared for disabled people – these are real barriers to disabled people getting active.
“Give us disabled changing rooms; give us a ramp to get inside. If I don’t feel wanted and I feel it will be a struggle, I will just avoid it.”
Speaking on a new podcast series called ‘Let’s Talk About It’, Hannah describes the importance of sport in helping her to succeed despite her disability, and, along with British number one wheelchair tennis player Alfie Hewett, is encouraging other disabled people to take up disability sport.
Both Hannah and Alfie were removed from PE lessons at school due to their physical differences.
Hannah, who boasts an impressive five Paralympic titles, ten world champion titles, three European champion titles and four world records, said: “P.E. was always the one thing I was taken out of at school, so I always felt my disability then, but once I found sport it made me accept it a little bit more and made me see that it is okay.”
So what are the major barriers blocking people with disabilities from taking part in sport and how can they be overcome?
While the London Paralympics depicted disabled athletes in an incredibly positive light, some believe that the hype has actually had an adverse effect on general participation levels.
The athletes were labelled ‘superhuman’ by some well-intentioned people and media, but, rather than inspiring those with disabilities, the term has increased the level of expectation.
Hannah believes that some disabled people are discouraged from taking up sport because they are now expected to perform at high levels.
‘Not everyone wants to be a Paralympian’
“I’ve met so many disabled people since London 2012 who have said ‘I want to get involved with sport’, but when I’m pushing down the street, everyone asks ‘why are you not on the track against Dave Weir or Jonnie Peacock or whoever?’
“Suddenly we got labelled the ‘superhumans’, but it wasn’t just the Paralympians who got labelled, it was disabled people in general. As disabled people, not everyone wants to be a Paralympian.
“This pressure to succeed can be off-putting, so it is important to emphasise that sport is about so much more than getting to the top.
“For example, regardless of the standard, the social benefits of taking part are incredibly significant. From making new friends to feeling part of a team, sport can have a massive positive impact on people’s lives and can help to promote social inclusion.
“As a disabled child, you hear the word ‘no’ a lot, and ‘can’t’, and so many negative words – people telling you what you can and can’t do. But I was always brought up to decide that for myself.
“People with disabilities need to be empowered early on to pursue whichever sports they like and school P.E. lessons are an important environment for this.
“Whether this involves schools buying special equipment or training staff on how to make their lessons more inclusive, there is work to be done, otherwise the next generation could be put off sport forever.
“Looking to the future, there is no simple solution to the declining participation in disability sport, as the reasons for the slide are numerous and complex.
“However, with intelligent allocation of funding, changes to how disabled people are labelled and perhaps some policy amendments, progress can be made.”
The podcast is the first in a new series launched by Irwin Mitchell focusing on what it’s really like to live with a disability and will feature episodes on sports, home life, relationships, travel and money.