Last week’s visit to city law firm Herbert Smith’s Women in Business network event, courtesy of my friend Liz, got me thinking that laws may change but that attitudes sometimes take a while to catch up.
The guest speaker, on the topic of motivation, was multi-medal winning and record breaking Dame Tanni Grey-Thompson, who was fabulous: funny, charming, self-deprecating and extremely witty (“I tried swimming lessons but didn’t take to it – the highlight of my swimming career was failing to drown …”).
Now aged 40, she has been in a wheelchair since she was just seven years old, having been born with spina bifida. She retired from professional athletics three years ago and recently joined the House of Lords as a cross-bench peer, as well as serving on the boards of UK Athletics and Transport for London.
Tanni is the third paralympian that I’ve heard speak in recent years (the others were swimmer Giles Long and equestrian Lee Pearson) and her message was not dissimilar; she started with a DVD clip of her greatest hits on the track and then went on to talk about focus, planning and goals. Had you been in the room as an unsighted person, you wouldn’t really have known from Tanni’s presentation (and subsequent post-event chat) that she’s in a wheelchair; her speech was full of comments about “going for a walk” and she generally gave the impression, other than occasional sidebar references to being carried up a flight of stairs, in her chair, in Singapore, by Sir Steve Redgrave and David Beckham, of being oblivious to her wheels.
I took a lot from that, in terms of having a positive mental attitude and just getting on – with stuff in particular and with life in general. So Tanni herself clearly has a very robust personality, as you’d expect from someone with her hugely impressive track record – but my flabber was well and truly ghasted when she told us about some of the attitudes and comments she’d encountered over the years with regard to her wheelchair.
As a child growing up in Wales, getting out and about was difficult, as there were no disabled toilets in Cardiff; nor could she ever go to the cinema as she was a “fire hazard”, due to the lack of wheelchair suitable fire exits at that point.
And here’s what I was thinking – the law has clearly (and rightly) caught up with the need for there to be wheelchair access in public places and so now a seven year old girl in a chair can go to the loo and see a film at the cinema. But how do we change people’s mindsets as to what the differently abled can do with their lives? Tanni has an eight year old daughter called Carys and she told us all sorts of funny stories about taking her daughter to the track to play whilst she and her husband trained; as a toddler, they’d stick Carys in a fluorescent baby-gro (for visibility) and let her crawl about at the side of the track, or park her in the long jump pit with a bucket and spade and tell her that she was at the beach. Tanni’s love for and pride in her daughter shone through; she wants Carys to be a human rights lawyer when she grows up.
But when she was pregnant, Tanni was told that she couldn’t be an athlete and a mother (did anyone ever say that to Paula Radcliffe? I bet not) and apparently some random woman walked up to her one day, pointed at her baby bump and said “people like you shouldn’t be allowed to have children” – !
How the hell do you come back from a comment like that?
So I think we’ll only have really won through in terms of rights and awareness for Tanni and everyone like her once disability ceases to be just about access to disabled toilets and dropped kerbs (in the UK, we’re getting there, even if Singapore still needs to do some work) and becomes much more focused on mindsets, behaviours and challenging biases, both conscious and otherwise.