A BLOG POST FROM BARONESS TANNI-GREY THOMPSON DBE:
I was born with spina bifida, and have been a wheelchair user since I was a young child. One thing that has always surprised me is how many people throughout my life have thought that it was sad that I am a wheelchair user. Like everyone, I have had ups and downs in my personal and professional life, and while I value them, it is disappointing when others don’t. If it were not for my disability, I would not be the person I am today.
Disability-related issues are the subject on which I receive by far the most correspondence. It is a personal and highly emotive topic. How those around us respond to its challenges, the support we receive, and how the law protects us, are crucial. Sometimes, the influence that society has on a disabled person can be profoundly negative: a prejudicial attitude, an underhand comment, a patronising smile. What disabled people need is an accessible society, integration, and acceptance of who they are.
Sport is just one way of doing that. In my case, I was fortunate enough to discover its power early on in life. The young people who play wheelchair sports thanks to WheelPower are also fortunate to discover that there are fewer barriers to leading an active life. Not everyone is as lucky. It was only when my parents won a battle with my local authority, and I was able to secure a place at the local mainstream school that I discovered my love of sports, and began wheelchair racing aged 13. Little did I know, as a young child, that I’d end up a Paralympic athlete, winning 11 gold medals over the course of 16 years and five Paralympic Games.
This year we celebrate a special anniversary, the 70th year of wheelchair sport. This week also marks the start of the Paralympic Games in PyeongChang. We will be recognising both occasions today in Parliament, where I will have the opportunity to hear from young disabled people from Commonweal School and Arbour Vale School. The event will be supported by WheelPower, the national charity for wheelchair sport, and we will be joined by its CEO, Martin McElhatton, who will speak about the charity’s important work with disabled people.
The birthplace of the Paralympic movement and the foundation of WheelPower are closely linked: the Stoke Mandeville Stadium, now owned by WheelPower, grew out of the Stoke Mandeville Games, which were founded by Sir Ludwig Guttmann. A neurosurgeon based at the National Spinal Injuries Centre at Stoke Mandeville Hospital, Sir Ludwig saw the value of competitive sport, through the rehabilitation of ex-members of the British armed forces. In 1969, the Queen opened the Stoke Mandeville Stadium as an international centre of excellence of sport for men, women and children with disabilities. The Stoke Mandeville Games eventually became the forerunner of the Paralympic Games.
Let’s not misjudge the quality of life of those who are disabled. Let us work together to build opportunities for people to be healthy and active, and to enjoy the life that they have.
MORE ABOUT TANNI:
Spina bifida meant that Tanni has been a wheelchair user since the age of seven, and has become one of the world’s most admired and respected sportswomen and is regarded as Britain’s greatest ever Paralympian having won a total of 11 gold medals.
Born in Cardiff on 26 July 1969, Tanni made her debut for Wales at the Junior National Championships aged just 15. Her first Paralympic success was in 1988 when she won bronze in the 400m at the Seoul Games.
Four years later in Barcelona Tanni claimed four gold medals, including world records in the 100m and 400m. In 1996 in Atlanta she settled for silver in three of her four disciplines with gold in the 800m whilst in Sydney 2000 she achieved victory in the 800m which was followed by success in the 100m, 200m and 400m. Tanni has rounded off her gold medal tally by triumphing in the 100m and 400m in the 2004 Athens Paralympics.
Over her career to date Tanni won 16 Paralympic medals, including 11 golds, held over 30 world records, and won the London Marathon six times between 1997 and 2002.
Tanni has also been recognised by sporting organisations worldwide for her sporting achievements. She was one of only four female athletes to appear in the top 50 British Sporting Greats poll undertaken by publishers Cassell Illustrated. She is also a member of The Laureus World Sports Academy alongside sporting legends such as Pele, Jack Nicklaus, Michael Jordan and Ed Moses. Tanni, who also won the BBC Wales Sports Personality of 2004, has decided to end her Paralympic career, but is not yet ready to retire; she will maintain a close interest in the sport by nurturing the next generation of British Paralympians.
Already a holder of the OBE and MBE, Tanni, a double Paralympic champion was made a Dame Commander of the Order of the British Empire in the 2005 New Years Honours List.
Tanni is now an independent cross bench Peer in the House of Lords and plays an active role in promoting sport and physical activity for disabled people.
Baroness Grey-Thompson was inducted to the Stoke Mandeville Hall of Fame by HRH The Prince of Wales in 2003.