Tanni Grey-Thompson: “When I was young, I didn’t see disabled people on the streets”

The NS Interview.

Are you very competitive?
I’d have a competition over anything. Absolutely anything, I didn’t care what it was. I think that’s why my parents decided that sport was quite a good thing for me to do, because it calmed me down and gave me something to channel that competitive spirit into.

Do you think London hosting the Paralympics will have an impact on people's attitudes?
I hope so. We can see how London has adapted to cater for wheelchair users on the transport system, for instance, and this needs to be replicated across the country. I hope that the Paralympics can be the catalyst for change. Encouraging more disabled people to do sport would
be a great start.

Do you think the Paralympics are taken seriously enough?
When I started, nobody knew what the Paralympics were. There have been massive changes in the time that I’ve competed. Lottery funding has made a huge difference.

How have public attitudes to the Paralympics changed?
I think attitudes have been changing since the Paralympics have been televised. I understand that the London Paralympics are going to be near to a sell-out, which is fantastic for all disability sport. The athletes competing in the Paralympics are elite and the best in their classification. They train as hard as their nondisabled counterparts.

Should disabled sportsmen and women be able to compete with the able-bodied?
Disability sport came about largely because of exclusion, because mainstream sport didn’t want disabled people to be part of it. Now that’s changing. In my sport – wheelchair-racing – I couldn’t compete alongside a runner because I’m loads quicker than runners, but not as fast as cyclists. There are some areas where it works well, and some where it doesn’t.

Is there enough emphasis on sport in schools?
We still need to do more at primary-school level in terms of teaching everyone good skills. Sport is hard: if you’re good at it, it’s easy, it’s great, but if you’re not so good at it, if you’re maybe not quite so co-ordinated, then you stand out a lot more. It’s not just schools, it is parents as well making sure that they do a lot of physical activity with their children, that they play with them.

Are people still patronising to wheelchair users?
They can be. I mean, it’s better if people recognise me as either a retired athlete or as Baroness Grey-Thompson; then they’re less patronising. But it still happens. The reality is that disabled people still experience more discrimination, and it is still very challenging for disabled people to get into work, to get the right education.

What do you make of the cuts to disability living allowance?
I know lots of disabled people who want to get into work, [but find that] the hidden discrimination makes it very difficult. If you’ve been to 45-50 job interviews and you’re turned down every time, it might be because the company just doesn’t quite understand your impairment. It becomes quite demoralising.

What wider impact could this have?
When I was young, I didn’t see disabled people on the streets, and it wasn’t because they weren’t there. It was because they were locked away. We have to continue to work hard to make sure that doesn’t happen again. Disabled people are part of the huge spectrum of society, and they should have the opportunity to contribute to that.

Why are you a cross-bench peer?
I’ve never been a member of a political party, and I like the independent nature of it. I like that I can just vote with my conscience.

Did you always have political aspirations?
I did a politics degree at university, but after I graduated didn’t think that I would ever go into politics. I got distracted by sport for a long time.

Is religion a part of your life?

Was there a plan?
For physical training, you have to be incredibly well organised and very well planned. You have your races and your events that tell you where you are.

Is there anything you’d rather forget?
Not really. I don’t look back. What’s really useful from sport is that winning and losing is part of it. That’s a very stark reality – you have to lose to appreciate winning. It’s all part of life’s rich tapestry. Learn and move on, and be better, always be better.

Do you vote?

Are we all doomed?
No. There are amazing opportunities to get better and improve. If I felt we were doomed, I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing.


Samira Shackle is a freelance journalist, who tweets @samirashackle. She was formerly a staff writer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 20 August 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Back To Reality

Photo: Getty Images
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A simple U-Turn may not be enough to get the Conservatives out of their tax credit mess

The Tories are in a mess over cuts to tax credits. But a mere U-Turn may not be enough to fix the problem. 

A spectre is haunting the Conservative party - the spectre of tax credit cuts. £4.4bn worth of cuts to the in-work benefits - which act as a top-up for lower-paid workers - will come into force in April 2016, the start of the next tax year - meaning around three million families will be £1,000 worse off. For most dual-earner families affected, that will be the equivalent of a one partner going without pay for an entire month.

The politics are obviously fairly toxic: as one Conservative MP remarked to me before the election, "show me 1,000 people in my constituency who would happily take a £1,000 pay cut, then we'll cut welfare". Small wonder that Boris Johnson is already making loud noises about the coming cuts, making his opposition to them a central plank of his 

Tory nerves were already jittery enough when the cuts were passed through the Commons - George Osborne had to personally reassure Conservative MPs that the cuts wouldn't result in the nightmarish picture being painted by Labour and the trades unions. Now that Johnson - and the Sun - have joined in the chorus of complaints.

There are a variety of ways the government could reverse or soften the cuts. The first is a straightforward U-Turn: but that would be politically embarrassing for Osborne, so it's highly unlikely. They could push back the implementation date - as one Conservative remarked - "whole industries have arranged their operations around tax credits now - we should give the care and hospitality sectors more time to prepare". Or they could adjust the taper rates - the point in your income  at which you start losing tax credits, taking away less from families. But the real problem for the Conservatives is that a mere U-Turn won't be enough to get them out of the mire. 

Why? Well, to offset the loss, Osborne announced the creation of a "national living wage", to be introduced at the same time as the cuts - of £7.20 an hour, up 50p from the current minimum wage.  In doing so, he effectively disbanded the Low Pay Commission -  the independent body that has been responsible for setting the national minimum wage since it was introduced by Tony Blair's government in 1998.  The LPC's board is made up of academics, trade unionists and employers - and their remit is to set a minimum wage that provides both a reasonable floor for workers without costing too many jobs.

Osborne's "living wage" fails at both counts. It is some way short of a genuine living wage - it is 70p short of where the living wage is today, and will likely be further off the pace by April 2016. But, as both business-owners and trade unionists increasingly fear, it is too high to operate as a legal minimum. (Remember that the campaign for a real Living Wage itself doesn't believe that the living wage should be the legal wage.) Trade union organisers from Usdaw - the shopworkers' union - and the GMB - which has a sizable presence in the hospitality sector -  both fear that the consequence of the wage hike will be reductions in jobs and hours as employers struggle to meet the new cost. Large shops and hotel chains will simply take the hit to their profit margins or raise prices a little. But smaller hotels and shops will cut back on hours and jobs. That will hit particularly hard in places like Cornwall, Devon, and Britain's coastal areas - all of which are, at the moment, overwhelmingly represented by Conservative MPs. 

The problem for the Conservatives is this: it's easy to work out a way of reversing the cuts to tax credits. It's not easy to see how Osborne could find a non-embarrassing way out of his erzatz living wage, which fails both as a market-friendly minimum and as a genuine living wage. A mere U-Turn may not be enough.

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog.