Health

Tanni Grey-Thompson: ‘Not every Paralympian has an inspirational story – they’re just sportspeople’

Multi-gold medal winner in Paralympic sport, Tanni Grey-Thompson on her career and the reality of life for disabled people (Ian West/PA)
Multi-gold medal winner in Paralympic sport, Tanni Grey-Thompson on her career and the reality of life for disabled people (Ian West/PA) Multi-gold medal winner in Paralympic sport, Tanni Grey-Thompson on her career and the reality of life for disabled people (Ian West/PA)

Famed as a trailblazer for disability sport and now a peer in the House of Lords, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson is still fighting to be seen on public transport – and against “constant” misconceptions.

“I think I’ve been relatively strong about it, but [comments] are not easy to deal with,” says the 54-year-old, who won 11 Paralympic gold medals during her illustrious career in wheelchair racing.

“The thing is, it’s not like an irregular occurrence. I’ve been told relatively recently, by a train company that I shouldn’t be travelling when it’s busy because people have jobs to go to. [There’s an] assumption that we’re not going to anything important.

“A friend of mine was told [by another passenger] recently when she was trying to get a train after 7:30pm that people ‘like her’ should be in bed, that they shouldn’t be out late at night. She’d just finished work.”

“And if a British airport can’t flag [journalist and author] Frank Gardner in the system and not leave him on the plane for a hour, what hope is there for another disabled person? He routinely gets left on planes.”

Grey-Thompson, who has spina bifida and has been using a wheelchair since the age of seven, held more than 30 world records as a professional athlete and won the London Marathon six times before retiring in 2007, eventually entering the House of Lords as a non-party political peer.

And, to an extent, professional sport has helped her deal with hurtful and unacceptable comments, “because you have to be resilient to be an elite athlete”.

But, she adds: “It shouldn’t [be about] being resilient, it’s about humane treatment.”

When she was pregnant with her daughter Carys, now 21, she says she was told by a medical professional to have a termination – “Because people like me shouldn’t have children,” she says. “I know pregnant disabled women way after me who have been told that.

“If you’re a disabled person, you’re fighting this level of discrimination day in, day out, and it’s tough.”

Always a cheerleader for disability sport, last month Grey-Thompson presented an award at the Variety Club Disability Sports Awards 2023 – the UK’s only annual sports awards for people with disabilities, celebrating achievements of athletes both at elite and grassroots levels.

Awards were picked up by racing driver Nicolas Hamilton, the brother of Lewis Hamilton, who has cerebral palsy, and Kipp Popert, the first golfer with a disability to qualify for the British Amateur Championship.

Grey-Thompson is quick to point out that her own elite sport career came off the back of achievements of athletes before her, like Welsh wheelchair racer Chris Hallam, known for changing perceptions of disability sport before he died in 2013.

He was the first disabled athlete to receive widespread recognition for his sporting achievements and athleticism – rather than just overcoming perceived adversity. And this is something Grey-Thompson says we still need to be mindful of in 2023.

“The reality is there are lots of Paralympians with inspirational stories, there are lots of Olympians too, but not every Olympian and Paralympian has an inspirational story – they’re just sportspeople. We’ve got to be a bit mindful that we don’t go down the route of ‘inspiration porn’ and place greater responsibility on disabled athletes than they need.

“The idea that every disabled athlete has an incredible story to tell… we’ve got to be a bit careful of, because it doesn’t necessarily paint a true picture of life as a disabled person.”

We shouldn’t “assume that [London] 2012 changed the world for disabled people – it did some really cool things but it didn’t fix every issue that existed”, she says.

As a child, Grey-Thompson’s parents rallied for her to attend a mainstream school and she had a positive experience of PE and sport from a young age. Which is crucial, not just for potential future elite athletes, but because “it’s really important that disabled people are fit and healthy”, she says. “It’s about being able to contribute to society and being as fit and healthy as you can.

“For me, [sport] meant I was fit enough and strong enough to push my chair, get out my chair, get my chair in and out the car – those were really important things.”

Particularly because before getting her chair, she says: “I walked very badly and fell over a lot. My world was very small. So for me, having a chair was great – I could get to school on my own, I could do stuff I couldn’t before.

“I don’t really think about [my chair] now, it’s just there.”

Fitness has and will always be a big part of her life. “I rarely go in my racing chair because it’s really boring going slowly! I can push the fastest I can but it’s just miserable. I’m not as flexible and strong as I was, so it’s just hard.”

Instead she goes to the gym, does weights and a lot of work on her shoulders, as well as pushing her day chair. “I try to be active every day. It’s so important as you age, that you are active, that you have the healthiest life you can,” she says. Not least because she’s experiencing symptoms of menopause now.

“I’ve noticed, my skin is different, my hair is different, I’m starting to feel different. Sometimes just not feeling great, mood swings. My husband [Ian Thompson, a research chemist] jokes that he can’t tell the difference,” she shares, with a laugh.

Entering her 50s gave her a renewed sense of time when it came to her career too, particularly as a parliamentarian. “It was, right, I’m 50, I’ve probably got 20 years of my working life left, there is a different kind of pressure to get stuff done. You can’t sit around and wait for things to happen.”

To find out more about Variety, the Children’s Charity, visit variety.org.uk.