The disabled chair of the organisation that will manage Britain’s team at September’s Paralympic Games in Brazil has explained how it plans to use their sporting performances in Rio and beyond to “inspire a better world for disabled people”.
Tim Reddish, who himself has five Paralympic swimming medals, was talking to Disability News Service (DNS) after the publication of Inspiring Excellence, the British Paralympic Association’s (BPA) new strategic plan.
The five-year plan will take the organisation – which prepares, selects and manages the ParalympicsGB team – through the Tokyo Paralympic Games in 2020, and it outlines BPA’s “vision, mission, values, strategic priorities, organisational structure and planning”.
The aim, as was with the previous plan, is to “deliver real and lasting change in society through the inspirational impact of Paralympic athletes on the field of play”.
But Reddish suggested that the strategy was more about showing how similar the athletes are to the viewing public than setting them up as inspirational “Superhumans”.
He said he hoped that the performances of Paralympic athletes would demonstrate that they are “first and foremost human beings”.
He said: “Yes, they may be seen as role models, but take that athletic performance away and they are still human beings with some kind of impairment that stops them doing things the same as someone who is non-disabled.”
The hope, he said, is that non-disabled people will be more likely to “engage” with disabled people after watching the medal-winning exploits of Britain’s Paralympians, something that he says he has experienced himself as a blind person when out in public in recent years.
Reddish said he could not understand the suggestion by many disabled activists that Channel 4’s new We’re The Superhumans advert (pictured), promoting the broadcaster’s upcoming coverage of the Rio 2016 Paralympics – with its “Yes I Can” message – could have unintended consequences by suggesting that disabled people do not need support and do not face barriers in society and only need to try harder to succeed in life.
He said: “It’s to get people to watch the Paralympic Games on Channel 4, that’s the primary objective.
“I don’t think it’s doing anything more than that or anything less.”
Reddish said he accepted that disabled people need support, but when asked whether BPA could speak out on rights issues and emphasise that the team’s athletes and other disabled people also rely on government support and services, he said: “We can’t do everything for everybody, and our primary focus and objective is to prepare and take the team to the games.
“We can’t take that away. It’s like saying to Nissan: ‘We want you to start making Vauxhalls.’”
Even so, the strategic plan says BPA’s status as a National Paralympic Committee gives it “a mandate to engage in the development of both sport and disability policy at a domestic level”, but Reddish says it is too early to say what those disability policies might be.
BPA’s previous plan, published in 2012, spoke of engaging more closely with non-sports disability groups, but Reddish said this area was still “new ground for us”, although it had “started developing a relationship” with the disability charity Scope.
The new plan again speaks of seeking to “build relationships across the wider disability community in the UK and understand how their broader agenda can positively be served by the Paralympics without distracting us from our core purpose or losing sight of our primary role within the sporting landscape”.
Reddish said: “I wouldn’t say it’s been slow-moving but it has been about laying the foundation.
“We haven’t engaged with every disability rights group. We don’t have the capacity and that’s not our job, our job is sport.”
But he added: “I don’t think we managed to get to as many areas as some people or [we] would have liked to have done.”
The BPA plan points to results from the latest Sport England Active People survey, which showed that fewer than one in five (17 per cent) disabled people were playing sport at least once a week, but it fails to mention that this has fallen by one percentage point since 2011-12.
Reddish said: “If the figures are accurate then I am disappointed that we have not got more people with an impairment getting physically active.”
He said he did not know why the figures had fallen but he was confident that disability sports governing bodies “do everything they can with the resources that they have”.
Reddish also defended BPA’s decision earlier this year to link up with Cadbury, which released a special edition of its chocolate mini eggs to raise money for the ParalympicsGB team at Rio.
He said: “It’s about a partnership, it’s not just about the money.
“There’s no evidence to say that because BPA and ParalympicsGB are involved that more people are eating more chocolate.”
He said the company wanted to be “part of what we are trying to achieve, inspiring through sport”, and to help BPA inspire more people to be physically active, “not to sell more bars of chocolate”, while he said Cadbury’s staff were also raising money for the team.
Asked why there was no reference in the strategic plan to the need to increase the number of disabled staff working for BPA or the number of disabled people on its board – following a DNS survey which found just one disabled board member out of nine, and just three disabled people among its 33 paid staff – he said: “I would love to see more and more people with an impairment on our board and other boards.
“I want to see them come through and I want them to have the skills, knowledge and experience, but there’s no automatic entry anywhere just because they are a disabled person because that’s not fair to the organisation, and it’s not fair to the athletes.
“It’s about having the best people in the right place at the right time.”
He added: “I was elected as chairman not because of my impairment but because I was the most appropriate person the membership looked at to move the organisation forward over a period of time.
“To get more people on the board with an impairment, we have got to give them the opportunities to learn the trade.
“I would encourage our membership to identify people with an impairment suitable to be nominated and then they get voted on at the election meeting next year.”
Looking ahead to Rio, he said the ParalympicsGB team would be “prepared well” and that he was sure the athletes would “deliver on the field of play”.
He said he was “optimistic” that the team could achieve the target of winning one more medal than at the home games of London 2012, something that had never been done before by a host nation in the next Paralympic Games.
But he said he was curious to see how much impact the much-praised London 2012 Paralympic Games has had on Brazil.
He said: “I think we have to take London 2012 at the moment, until we have experienced Rio, as a bit of an outlier, in a positive way, because not everybody in every nation around the world will be the same as what we did in London.”
And he warned that there could be “some teething problems” for Paralympians because Rio would be putting on the Olympic Games and then transforming its facilities to host the Paralympics.
He contrasted that with London 2012, which had asked “What do we need for the Paralympic Games?” and had then worked backwards from there, avoiding such a difficult transition between the end of the Olympics and the beginning of the Paralympics.
But he said: “I am sure they will be ready. There are always teething problems at every single Paralympic Games and our athletes are used to it and will go with the flow.”