Paralympic gold-medallist Hannah Cockroft MBE says she wishes she had “found disability sport sooner” and calls for sports facilities around the country to be made more accessible for all.
Speaking on a new podcast series from law firm Irwin Mitchell called ‘Let’s Talk About It’, Hannah describes the importance of sport in helping her to succeed despite her disability, and, along with British number one wheelchair tennis player Alfie Hewett, is encouraging other disabled people to take up disability sport.
Both Hannah and Alfie were removed from PE lessons at school due to their physical differences.
Hannah, who boasts an impressive five Paralympic titles, ten world champion titles, three European champion titles and four world records, explains: “P.E. was always the one thing I was taken out of at school, so I always felt my disability then, but once I found sport it made me accept it a little bit more and made me see that it is okay.” She added that had she discovered disability sport sooner, she would not have felt so “different” at school.
Similarly, Alfie Hewett, was not allowed to participate in PE at school, but used his exclusion as inspiration to reach the world stage, scooping seven grand slams, two singles titles and three consecutive doubles titles at Wimbledon in recent years.
Unlike Hannah, Alfie was not born with his disability and enjoyed sports at an early age. He said: “I was on my feet everyday playing football at seven-years-old and then I had a life-changing thing happen to me. The transition was tough, but sport was my way out and helped me through it. At first, it was never about being a top level athlete; it was just about fun and enjoyment, and getting involved back within society.”
The podcast is the first in a new series launched by Irwin Mitchell focusing on what it’s really like to live with a disability and will feature episodes on sports, homelife, relationships, travel and money.
It’s not just the elite sports stars offering up their inspirational stories for the podcast. Former Leeds University student Ed Buckley was also keen to share his experiences and explain why sport has played such a crucial role in his life.
After being hit by a car, Ed spent six months in a coma and a further nine months in hospital battling a brain injury. What followed was nothing short of remarkable as with the help of Irwin Mitchell’s serious injury team he slowly began to recover and begin rebuilding his life.
He said: “I thought life is the best therapy so I went back to university in Hertfordshire and continued my rehab with lots of being active and lots of sport, so it’s actually been very helpful for my ongoing physio.”
Ed’s balance and speech were greatly affected by the accident, but as he proves on the podcast, both are getting better and better. He said: “It is so easy to just sit on your Xbox or PlayStation and do nothing for a whole day, but the reason I have recovered so well considering how bad I was, is because I’ve stayed very active.”
Ed is now a keen rower, has completed two triathlons and also enjoys travelling. He thinks the word disabled is “unfair”, explaining: “We are still able; we just have different challenges.”
The sporting trio have all been involved in the Irwin Mitchell ‘Don’t Quit, Do It’ campaign, which Alfie describes as “amazing” in its attempt to get more disabled people into sport.
According to Sport England, almost 20% of the total population of England are disabled – a total of 11.5million people – and it is reported that they are twice as likely to be physically inactive (43%) than non-disabled people (21%).
Hannah thinks this may be a result of a lack of adequate disabled sporting facilities. At 15 years old, she was forced to compete in an adult male wheelchair as there was no suitable equipment available, and while the situation has improved since the London 2012 Paralympics, Hannah still believes that more could be done.
She said: “There are clubs scattered around the UK, but I’m from Yorkshire and there is only one there, in Leeds, with only seven or eight racing chairs. There are very few hoists at swimming pools across the country and gyms aren’t prepared for disabled people – these are real barriers to disabled people getting active. Give us disabled changing rooms; give us a ramp to get inside. If I don’t feel wanted and I feel it will be a struggle, I will just avoid it.”
Stating independence as the “best thing” about her sport, Hannah said: “Up to the age of 15, a wheelchair to me was a symbol of disability and a symbol of things you cannot do, and I didn’t want that or to be defined by a wheelchair. But as soon as I was in the racing chair, I suddenly didn’t have to depend on anyone else; I was free, independent and doing it myself.”
To hear more from Hannah, Alfie and Ed, listen to the Let’s Talk About It podcast here https://www.irwinmitchell.com/letstalkaboutit or download and subscribe from all major podcast providers.