A table-tennis star has spoken of her hope that London 2012 will finally bring public recognition of the sporting talents of Britain’s Paralympians.
Sue Gilroy will be playing in her fourth Paralympic Games, and is ranked seven in the world, but will face stiff competition from Chinese, Korean and Serbian rivals in her medal quest.
Gilroy said she hoped the public would begin to see “the ability of people in disability sport rather than it being seen as second best”.
She said: “Hopefully, a lot more people will realise we compete at a high level in all sports.
“It would be nice to hope that people watch it and change their attitudes to disability sport, and see the level people compete at and the barriers they overcome to compete.”
She has high hopes for her home games. She has fond memories of Sydney, her first Paralympics, which saw crowds of 10,000 every day and where “children would pick a different country and cheer for them”.
But her memories of the next two games are not so happy. “Athens was so inaccessible we couldn’t get out of the village. There were no crowds, it was just dead in the arena.”
Beijing was even worse. Her coach, her closest friend, died two days before the team travelled to China.
Her career highlight to date has been the Commonwealth Games in Manchester in 2002, when she won singles gold.
She says: “I got so many emails, so many disabled people saw me and started playing and contacted me for support and advice.”
She is hoping for an even higher profile for her sport this time and hopes that Channel 4’s plans for wall-to-wall TV coverage will provide just that.
Her commitment to her sport is unwavering, despite her full-time job as a primary school teacher, and she trains every night and at weekends.
She also coaches children at the school where she teaches, and has persuaded many of them to join a junior league. “It is such a sporty school,” she says. “The children are fantastic. They have been fabulous and so supportive.”
She is also one of many Paralympians to have spoken of the vital importance of state-funded support for disabled people, including elite athletes.
She says that losing her disability living allowance – if she was one of the hundreds of thousands of disabled people set to lose support through the coalition’s programme of cuts to disability benefits – would be “devastating”.
“I have tried not to worry about it,” she says. “It would be devastating if it did happen.”
The mother-of-two needs support at home to survive. “If they did decide to stop things it would make life impossible. I have people coming to help me with the things I cannot manage myself.”
She points also to other extra costs she faces as a disabled person, such as buying and maintaining her wheelchairs, and the £20,000-worth of adaptations she has to the car she obtained through the Motability scheme.
It appears, too, that she has been hit by cuts to her local authority support package, although for obvious reasons she is unwilling to expand on the particular problems she has faced.
“If things are altered it would be more helpful if people discussed it with you first and found out the difficulties it would cause people without consultation,” she says.
“I don’t think people understand disability and what they perceive as being a minor alteration which has a huge impact on someone with a severe disability.”
Once the games are over, she is hoping to do more of the coaching and campaigning work that has – in addition to her sporting achievements – already seen her awarded an MBE. She is a patron of The Legacy Rainbow House disabled children’s charity.
She said: “It would be great to help other disabled people and try to get them out of homes and either back into work or sport, and show them there is a life after disability.”
The Paralympic table-tennis events will start on 30 August and end on 8 September.
7 August 2012