This is a post for Blogging against disablism 2013
Last year I was in a very different position in terms of my health and life. Effectively I was dying of malnutrition, with severe bowel pain. I think I might have even been in hospital when I wrote for blogging against disablism.
A different topic this year, disablism within sport. This isn’t another discussion about the Paralympic legacy, but about my experiences with grass roots sport. Several years ago when I arrived at university, I joined the college’s boat club, and loved it, I went on to a development camp with the university and was all set to trial, when my genetic illness decided to make an appearance with vigour.
Fast forward to 10 months ago, I’m back in a boat, this time as a para-rower. Things weren’t quite as simple as that though. First there was finding a suitable club, given the obsession in Cambridge with rowing, you would think it would be easy. Unfortunately the nearest club with a suitable boat is actually at least an hour away. I couldn’t have asked for a better club, everyone is fantastically helpful, but we lack facilities. They are working on it, and I can manage without, but that’s not to say everyone could. It would be such a shame if someone with great potential never had it fulfilled because the facilities weren’t there.
One of the key questions is, If the foundations aren’t there, how will more people be able to get involved? I know there are clubs in Cambridge working to get something set up, but I think there’s been quite a lot of pressure from people higher up. I would dearly love to only have a 15 min commute, four times a week than be spending over 4 times as long.
Once you get a club, there are still a number of barriers to participation, particularly if you want to develop. Competitions are a prime example of this, there are a lot less opportunities for racing as an adaptive rower. Lack of participation is one of the biggest problems here, but it’s a vicious circle, unless there are enough para-rowers out there, then there won’t be enough for a club to consider putting on an event, which means the sport misses out on raising its profile, when the sport really needs publicising. Out of sight, out of mind possibly. Often my club captain approaches the clubs where the rest of the squad are due to race, to see if they’ll put on something for me. I’m grateful that he does it, but there shouldn’t be the need. We should be considered like any other class of boat.
I think one thing that makes a lot of para-rowers reluctant to compete, as well as lack of competitors, is not knowing what the facilities will be like. Several times I’ve had to be lifted in my chair over a bank, or bum shuffled onto the jetty. It’s hardly dignified, and doesn’t help you concentrate on your race. Then there other things like accessing toilets. At one event, the only large toilet was in the men’s bathroom, so we had to block people coming in so I could go. Even this didn’t quite go to plan, as they didn’t lock the other door so as you can guess I rather shocked someone!!
At a much larger event, I was going to do my pre Race wee, but there was a radar lock on the door and my keys were at the hotel. They couldn’t find anyone who had a key, so I had to make do, leaving me stressed before a very important race. When at international invitational race, the coach we were to use was completely inaccessible to me, I don’t think they meant it, they just hadn’t thought about it.
My attendance at a recent event, was interesting, I had competition, we had been told they had access for me, so all was set to be good.
Sadly not to be, facilities failure involved me having to crawl up some old wooden stairs, cue purple knees, and relief that I don’t use my legs when racing as they were even more useless than normally. Even if the equipment had been working, I would have either had to crawl, or get my manual chair lifted up, to get over the landing.
In terms of people’s attitudes, I haven’t come across much disablism from people within sport, it’s usually patronising comments I get from strangers. “Oh, you do a little bit of rowing, how nice”, “No, I do a lot of rowing, it’s what I do”.
The best exchange was with a random man in the pharmacy.
Man : oh I pity people like you,
Me: I wouldn’t I have a fantastic life,
Man: *looks taken aback”
Me: *tell him what I am aiming for*
Man: “oh, yes people like little Ellie Simmonds are so good, and those Brazilians with no arms and legs still winning races”
Me: *deep breath* thankfully he goes before he can insult and patronise the whole disabled community any further.
I think that disablism within the sport is unintentional and work is going into improving the situation. The Paralympic legacy is doing a lot to raise the profile of if, and the few of us who want to race regularly are putting pressure on places to offer the opportunities. It’s a complex situation, as it is expensive for a club to invest in the boats needed, without any certainty that they’ll get the returns on them. Thankfully there is some funding out there, but that involves someone having time to wade through the application. I am seeing changes for the good, but there is still a lot of work to do to make it accessible to as many as possible.