Sport, disability and being set free

By: Sophia Warner


As a Paralympic athlete I am always divided when it comes to whether or not there has been a positive change or 'legacy' from the London 2012 Paralympics. If asked, whether it has made my world better, it is a resounding 'yes'. Never before have I felt so empowered as a person with a disability to be myself and to openly accept that I am physically made different.

Being born in the 1970's, the Paralympics was like being set free as I was very much brought up to stay very silent and to almost be in denial about my disability so that I wasn't excluded thinking this would give me a better chance in life.

The Paralympics was the catalyst in this change because it gave the general public a stripped back and clear viewing point to see disability in its rawest form. It showcased people with a multitude of abilities, showing the world that regardless of the disability, they could achieve great things on such a public stage.

By doing this the public became more aware of, more accepting and made it easier for people to be open about their disability. Speaking personally, I became proud of what I was, instead of embarrassed.

The ironic thing is that whilst, I feel the public's perception of disability has changed through sport, I am perplexed as to why sport in the UK hasn't changed to enable disability. I am not a disabled person who wants to prove a point. I am simply a disabled person who loves sport, loves competing and would be out doing sport all day every day, if it was enabled. I know for a fact that I am not the only disabled person who feels this way.

One of my first experiences of taking part in a mass participation sporting event, the road was re-opened to traffic before I could finish my 10km and the organisers were clearing up the course. I have also taken part in a triathlon and had to climb stairs to collect my bike, where I then had to ask someone else to get my bike down from the rack and as for getting out of a wet suit when you have cerebral palsy, it is not even worth explaining how impossible it is. Most recently, I was thoroughly humiliated during a duathlon where I was inside a British record for my disability and was pulled off the course because I had exceeded the able-bodied cut off time.

There needs to be a change in participation sport where accessibility is part and parcel of obtaining a stamp of approval. Any equipment which enables people to be more active should be made available. Cut off times need to be removed or better considered whilst basic things like parking near a start line, drop curbs and anything else that means sport can be made fun and accessible for everyone needs to be considered and actioned.

There are 12 million people living with a disability in the UK and organisers need to recognise the opportunity that this brings to mass participation - it just takes a bit more thought - more consideration must be given to those with a disability when organising mass participation events.

My experiences as a Para-athlete and participating in sport with cerebral palsy have led me to become involved in creating mass participations events for the disabled. Parallel London is my latest undertaking where I hope to drive this change by creating an event for both disabled and able bodied to compete in.

At Parallel London, participants can run, walk, wheel, push or anything in between over four distances - 100m, 1k, 5k and 10k. There's also a landmark Super Sensory 1k where there will be a multitude of sensory stimuli along the 1k course, from sounds and smells to colours and textures for those with more profound disabilities.

The challenges can be completed by any means possible, be it on foot, in a wheelchair, or pushing a child's buggy. Anyone who needs a helping hand can bring a buddy to push, guide or accompany them free of charge. As they say, it's important to be the change you want to see in the world.

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About Sophia Warner
Sophia Warner, Paralympian track and field athlete and founder of the UK's first sports event dedicated to the UK's disabled, Tribal Series Para Tri, and partnerships director of Parallel London.