A British Paralympian has spoken of the crucial contribution disability living allowance (DLA) has made to her independence, and to her gold-medal-winning performance at London 2012.
Danielle Brown is believed to be the first member of the ParalympicsGB squad to speak out since the games began on the importance of the benefits and other financial support received by our elite disabled athletes.
Her comments will deliver a boost to disabled campaigners who fear the government will use the success of Britain’s Paralympians as an excuse for cutting vital support to disabled people.
Brown, who won an archery gold medal in the individual compound event on Tuesday to add to the gold she won in Beijing four years ago, is believed to be the first disabled athlete to represent England in a non-disabled Commonwealth Games team, after qualifying for Delhi in 2010 and winning a team gold.
She receives the higher rate mobility component of DLA, and also the DLA care component, but prefers not to say at which level.
Like many ParalympicsGB athletes, her life is focused almost entirely on her sport, but when told by Disability News Service (DNS) of the government’s plans to replace DLA with a new personal independence payment and cut spending by 20 per cent, she said simply: “Oh, wow.”
She said: “From a personal perspective, without the support, I personally couldn’t manage. If it was to be cut I know I would struggle. I can see how that would make other people be affected in a similar way.”
She added: “I have got a Motability car [which is paid for with her DLA mobility payment] which I couldn’t manage without. I would struggle if I didn’t have a car.”
When asked whether she agreed that the Paralympics showed the need to support disabled people in all areas of life, she said: “Yes. I couldn’t do what I do without all the financial support.”
She has to drive an automatic car and also needs expensive hand controls that are paid for through the Motability scheme, and uses her car when away competing, although she often leaves her wheelchair in the car because she can walk short distances on crutches.
Without her DLA, and without her car, she would be forced to take public transport. “If I catch a train it is very difficult. What do I do when I get to the other end, especially if I have very heavy equipment with me?”
Like many other Paralympians, she also spoke of her belief that London 2012 was “changing people’s perceptions about disability”.
“Hopefully it will change [non-disabled] people’s perceptions that you are not able to do anything just because you are disabled,” she said. “People’s perceptions change, but it is not going to happen overnight.
“I do think the Paralympics have changed people’s perception of disability and hopefully that will remove some of the barriers disabled people face.”
She added: “It will be just a total shame if the Paralympics finished and that was it. It has got to be worked at.”
Partly, she said, this should mean more media coverage of disability and Paralympic sport, and “more opportunities” for disabled athletes.
She also paid tribute to Channel 4 for its extensive coverage of the Paralympics, both in the months leading up to, and during, the games.
Brown is the first of a string of Paralympians approached by Disability News Service since the games started who has been prepared to speak out on the issue of DLA cuts.
Asked why other athletes had failed to speak out so far, she said: “I genuinely think that your focus is on the competition. You focus so hard on training, competing… it is not like real life.”
She said she and other Paralympic athletes were just not aware of what was happening with welfare reform and cuts, and other political disability issues.
“It is a bit like The Truman Show [the film in which Jim Carrey plays a man trapped inside a TV reality show]. If you don’t go actively looking for it, you don’t get any external influences at all.
“And when you’re here you are so focused on competing. That’s what it’s about. It’s to do with competing. We are sports people, not politicians.”
Brown said she loves competing. “I genuinely like being put under pressure. I really do like it. I just like the whole atmosphere.”
She first tried archery at the age of 15, at a time when she didn’t know anything about disability sport. “I figured it was down to archery or swimming and archery seemed so much more fun than bobbing up and down in a pool.”
But she has had to make sacrifices for her success. In 2010, after finishing her law studies at university – she was awarded a first-class degree – she moved away from her family and friends to Shropshire so she could train full-time at Archery GB’s base at the Lilleshall National Sports Centre.
She trains for between three and seven hours a day, six days a week, while many weekends are taken up by travel and tournaments.
“By Monday, I am shattered. I have to have a day off. Otherwise I wouldn’t be able to function.”
As well as DLA, she receives lottery-funded support through UK Sport, which helps pay her living and training costs, although this funding is ruthlessly based on performance at just one top-level competition a year. Having won gold this week, she said she “should be ok for a year”.
The DLA and UK Sport funding, she said, mean she “can live independently”.
But she has also received generous backing from the charity Get Kids Going!, after meeting its chief executive Jane Emmerson early last year.
The charity helps fund equipment for disabled children and young people and is now raising funds to set up a sports centre to help more budding Paralympians.
It has helped aspiring young disabled athletes such as David Weir – since he was just eight years old – Shelly Woods, powerlifter Ali Jawad, and wheelchair tennis player Louise Hunt.
“Jane Emmerson was great because at the time my wheelchair frame was bent,” said Brown. “Every time I went out I was wheeling around in circles. They bought a new wheelchair for me, which was absolutely fantastic, and also help contribute towards equipment and training costs.
“Archery is a ridiculously expensive sport. The fact that somebody believed in me and paid for stuff I needed was incredible.”
Brown added: “Get Kids Going! is a really great charity because it helps fund equipment for aspiring athletes to achieve their dreams.”
As well as the buzz of competing at London 2012, she has also enjoyed the “absolutely incredible” atmosphere in the athletes’ village. “You meet people from other sports or countries,” she said, “and everyone will stop and say hello.”
Outside the village, there has been “so much support” from the public. “You can’t move for people wanting to take pictures with you and have an autograph.
“I was genuinely astounded by the huge amount of people in the Olympic Park: thousands and thousands of people. And they are all supporting us.”
When asked what it was like to be mobbed when she ventured out onto the Olympic Park, she said: “It’s a bit weird to be honest. I suppose I wasn’t expecting it at all. It is so great that the public are behind what we are doing. I really didn’t expect we would get this much recognition.”
After her sporting career finishes, she has decided not to move into the law. Like many Paralympians, she already delivers “motivational speaking” for company events and conferences, but would also like to move into the area of disability awareness training.
And Rio 2016 is “definitely” a target, where she will be hoping for her third consecutive gold medal. But first she is going to take some time off, “just for a chill out and rest”. It will be her first holiday in three years.
8 September 2012