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Disabled Role Models

by Flash Wilson Bristow, August 11th 2007

Recently, members of the BBC Ouch! messageboard were asked who we viewed as disabled role models.

A lot of people seem to instantly think of Tanni Grey Thompson, but she's not for me. Let me explain why.

Firstly, I believe that the question is badly worded. "Disabled role models"? Don't you mean "role models for disabled people"? Surely I, as a disabled woman, should not only be inspired by people who also have impairments?

I do think that Tanni's a great Paralympian. She's worked very hard to excel in her field, but therein lies the issue. She has succeeded in a field that is only open to disabled people - she's a wheelchair athlete. So already, if you are looking to Tanni for inspiration, you are allowing yourself to think in terms of achievement in a "disabled" playing field. That's fine when it comes to sport, but it's just not valid in the real world. After all, in business you simply succeed or fail. There's no special arena for those who aren't as able as others and who might merit some kind of allowance; in fact I would find that insulting. As a self-employed businesswoman, my idols are self-starters like Alan Sugar and Richard Branson. Actually, Branson has an impairment - he's dyslexic - yet one of his first ventures was a publication. In many ways that could count as a disability. But he doesn't crow about it, he got where he is by hard work and talent. I think he'd be insulted if I said he got there "in spite" of being disabled - impairment just doesn't count in the business world. You compete with everyone else and you either make it or you don't.

Coming back to Tanni, I have wondered whether she would have been a world record breaking athlete if she had not been disabled. I am told yes, she is very driven and motivated in physical activity. But if you look at the UK's record, we simply don't win as many medals in the regular Olympics as the Paralympics. In athletics, the African nations beat us time and again, particularly Kenyans - we Brits just don't seem to be natural runners. In Athens 2004, Great Britain came second in the Paralympics with 35 gold medals. In the regular Olympics, we came tenth with just 9. It seems to be a lot harder to make the grade in the able-bodied world.

Maybe this is just sour grapes? I was far more able at school than I am now, or "less disabled" if you prefer. Yet it was plain that I could not run and would only be able to take part in activities which involved sitting down as needed. I chose fencing (where wheelchair and regular athletes can compete equally with the aid of chairs), horse riding and canoeing. Amazingly for a non-sporty person, I came 3rd in the South West in the under 18s women's fencing, and I still have the medal to prove it. But there was no question of concessionary activities being provided for me and nor would I have wanted them. I needed to find places where I could compete with others equally - as I do now in business, and in life. It was this experience, of identifying my weaknesses and working around them, while playing to my strengths, that has set me up for life. Yes, I now use a wheelchair, but I certainly do not want to be judged by it, nor compared only to other wheelchair users. I want to be considered on my merits when compared to others; anything else is unrealistic cossetting.

So, who would I see as a "role model for the disabled"? Simply, someone who is the best at their job and who merely happens to have an impairment. Someone who you view first and foremost as an expert in their field, and may not notice or even realise has a disability. Perhaps the evidence that we don't have enough obviously disabled role models is illustrated by the rather contrived and retrospective way that groups representing different conditions now seek to claim a well known figure as one of their own: we are told that Einstein was autistic, and that Mozart was bipolar. This may well be true, but I don't think their disability enhanced or altered their achievements. I too prefer to admire and seek to emulate those who quietly get on with their life and succeed in their job while making no issue of any disability they might have.

Let's take one example, Frank Gardner, the Middle East news correspondent. He is undoubtedly disabled - having been paralysed by a shooting while working in Riyadh - but when we see him on the news these days, although his wheelchair is visible, he is there purely for his insight into events and is addressed as "Frank Gardner, our security correspondent" - never "disabled Frank Gardner" (and "tragic Frank Gardner" is out of the question). Even better, Frank is always well dressed, thus giving lie to any impression that all wheelchair users resemble Andy Pitkin from Little Britain. Frank silently provides a positive image of a person who happens to be disabled, and probably hasn't even thought about that - he just gets on with it. Frank Williams, the owner of the Williams Formula 1 team, is another such example.

Unfortunately, Tanni will only ever be renowned as a paralympian, that is, a disabled athlete. Tanni and the "D word" go hand in hand - you don't hear of Tanni without disability, and that's why I don't personally find her inspiring. Yes, she's worked very hard and broken records within her field, but she doesn't encourage me to look outside this zone, in fact her achievements simply say to me "oh, look what the special people can do". All Tanni can be to me is a good example of someone being disabled. I think we should be looking for examples of good people - full stop - when looking for role models.

Yes, I am special! But not in the way that you might have in mind. I refuse to be pigeonholed or restricted by the fact that I happen to have mobility difficulties - therefore, my role models must reflect that. I want to achieve on the same platform as everyone else, and have no illusion that anything except talent and hard work will get me there. And you must make your own way, too.

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