This was written by Lorraine Gradwell, probably in the late 1990s, concerning her early development in disability politics through sports. The title comes from the name of the computer document.
As a young disabled person, at a mainstream school, my contact with other disabled teenagers was minimal. Indeed, I did my level best to avoid being seen with other disabled people in case I was identified as “one of them”. Until the day when this guy in a wheelchair took a fancy to my (non-disabled) friend. He’d seen us together – his mate drove the day-centre bus and he did the rounds in the passenger seat, much less boring than the day centre!
He knew where I lived because he had seen the taxi dropping my friend and I off at my home after school. So, he started putting notes through my letterbox, saying why didn’t my friend and I go to the “sports club” on a Friday night? He and his (non-disabled) mate would pick us up, in the Social Services bus, and take us to the Community Centre where the sports club met. In this way began my short but exciting “career” as a disabled athlete – and my introduction to the concept of the eternal triangle and unrequited love; but that’s another story.
The significant issue here is that, not only did I no longer wish to dissociate myself from all other disabled people, suddenly I was falling in love with one of them and voluntarily spending every Friday night in the company of people I would previously have run a mile from.
On those Friday nights I learnt to accept and befriend people with a wide range of impairments, abilities and social skills. I chose to meet up with those who became my friends for social occasions, and I learnt a lot about the interactions between disabled and non-disabled people. I joined in with collective action as our committee raised funds for a minibus, for sporting equipment and to pay for weekends away at sports events. Our methods may well have been a little questionable – rattling tins on the street with the best of them, as well as sponsored wheelchair marathons, but we developed team spirit and bought our bus!
By now I was in serious training – swimming 50 or 60 lengths, five times a week and lined up for selection to the England Swimming Team for the Commonwealth Games in New Zealand. Although at mainstream college, with no other disabled students around that I can remember, I was spending a lot of my time in the company of disabled people both locally and nationally. I still went to the local club on a Friday, but also to archery practice twice a week. At weekend events, up and down the country, the sports were almost secondary to the social life and I was introduced to yet another concept – the one night stand, which most people entered into wholeheartedly!
At the time – early 70s – I was not at all politically aware, and disability politics were not a matter I would have understood or recognised – even if the issues were being discussed in my circles, which they were not.
And yet …
… in my late teens I was involved with others in an organisation which was set up and controlled by disabled people, which brought disabled people of many ages together at many levels, which involved non-disabled people in a supporting role, and which gave many of us a sense of pride or purpose, regardless of whether or not people agree with the competitive angle of these activities.
Personally, I made use of mainstream and “dedicated” sports facilities, became a local celebrity and role model, travelled to New Zealand to compete in the Commonwealth Games and achieved a level of integration, in an often hostile society, which would have been unlikely without my competitive sport. That these activities contributed to my confidence, my sense of personal value, and changed my view of myself as a disabled person is unquestionable.
Of course, there were and are many shortcomings to disability sports. The ruling bodies of “disability sport” do not work to principles of equal opportunities, either in their employment practices or the services they deliver. As recently as 12th February, 19 regional and national officers from the English Sports Council and other disability sports organisations met to discuss the way forward for disabled people in sport – none of these 19 were disabled people.
Many sports clubs had far too much control by non-disabled people, and many were aligned to spinal units and therefore had heavy involvement by medical professionals. Indeed the whole concept of sport as therapy, developed by Sir Ludwig Guttman of Stoke Mandeville, was questioned by many of us who saw our activities as something we had chosen to do, rather than an extension of rehabilitation. Also, the clubs that were aligned to the spinal units were, on the whole, better resourced than those such as ours, running out of a community centre on a Friday night.
There were the “hierarchies” of impairment which ruled that “paraplegic was better than polio, was better than spastic”; we knew it wasn’t true but we knew that it operated on the sports scene and elsewhere. And there was the danger of becoming a hero, the “tragic but brave” sporting type who overcame all obstacles; undoubtedly, some people revelled in this attention – but the majority of us recognised this false adulation.
There were, and are, many problems inherent in disability sports, not least the fact that any “political outcomes” are almost by chance, rather than planned. But my point is that they are a means of bringing disabled people, and especially young disabled people, together in a way that can expose them to the politics of disability and can often lead to a questioning of society’s structures and organisation, even if this is almost an unconscious questioning.
Rather than trivialising the impact that sport can have on the lives of disabled people, might it not be better if we, as movement, recognise that this is “where a lot of disabled people are at” and seek to make links and influence how these activities are provided and by whom? We make much of the disability arts scene as a way in which we can come together, seek affirmation from each other, develop a culture of disabled people. But – dare I say it – what if you’re not the arty type? And what if you are, but you still like to train, or compete, or just play sports with your mates? It’s time the movement gave some attention to activities which attract a lot of disabled people but which we denigrate because it is often seen as therapeutic, controlled by non-disabled people and competitive.
I well remember planning a very early Coalition meeting, with a colleague, on the “politics of disability”. Halfway through the planning session he looked up at me quizzically.
“What is it?” I said.
“Well,” he said, ”you’re saying all the right things, but I don’t know why!”
Perhaps my early experiences were more valuable than I ever realised.