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

The NS Interview.

Tanni Grey-Thompson. Photograph: Getty Images

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?
No.

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?
Yeah.

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.