Taking a break from her preparations for Tokyo, Hannah Cockroft has spoken exclusively to Ben Cropper about her journey into Paralympic athletics and society’s responsibility to support those following in her footsteps.
For many parents getting their daughter a Barbie doll for their fifth birthday might seem like the simplest of gifts. But for five-time Paralympic gold medallist Hannah Cockroft, it was a significant step towards feeling accepted by society.
“My mum wrote to Toys “R” Us in America,” she recalls. “They had just released a Barbie doll in a wheelchair and I was the only girl in Britain to get one and ITV Calendar came to film me receiving it. I looked back at the footage recently and little five-year-old me says something like ‘I don’t feel so different now because Barbie’s the same as me’.”
Her journey into sport was somewhat by chance as the 28-year-old reveals how she was forced to accept that sport wasn’t something she could participate in. “I wasn’t allowed to do sport at school. Especially at primary school, I accepted it. It was explained that disabled people didn’t do sport and I never really gave it a second thought.
“It wasn’t until the wheelchair basketball team came to do a demonstration at my secondary school that I realised that I had been missing out for so long.” Little did she know that she was destined to become one of the most recognisable faces in Paralympic sport.
I still meet kids who tell me they don’t feel included at school
Speaking over Zoom amid the restrictions of a global pandemic, Cockroft speaks candidly about the pressure to ensure that other young people don’t feel socially excluded from society, recalling personal experiences where assumptions have been made about her just because she uses a wheelchair. “I’ve had my own experiences where the able-bodied person stood next to me has been expected to answer on my behalf and that’s simply not acceptable in 2021.
“I still meet kids who tell me they don’t feel included at school or they aren’t allowed to play in the playground.” What message are we sending to the next generation of disabled children if all major decisions about their life are made for them?
“Society has a responsibility to change. It starts with asking the disabled people directly what they want to do and what they want to achieve. So many times, decisions are made for people without them being consulted.”
Hannah is a passionate advocate of disabled people being able to choose their own path in life and wants to use her profile and social media presence to make a lasting change in society. “As sports people, we have a responsibility to use our voices to initiate change.”
The Halifax-born sprinter is acutely aware that the experiences she has had as an athlete are a far cry from those of so many disadvantaged children across the country. “We are aware that the Paralympic movement showcases the very best and most able of those with a disability,” she said. “It’s frustrating that the public sometimes fails to understand that. There’s a tendency to lump all disabilities together and it takes a level of understanding to realise that the same disability can affect two individuals in completely different ways.”
Hannah, who started a journalism degree before dropping out to focus on her training, remarks how the media are sometimes to blame for the “unrealistic expectations” society puts on the diverse disabled community. “There’s a lack of understanding and education about the classification system,” she explains. “I’m forever getting told that I have cerebral palsy even though I just have brain damage. I then face challenges from the general public who think I am setting unrealistic expectations for those with more profound disabilities. That’s not my intention or my fault.
The whole array of disability needs to be showcased
“People need to check what they read, do their research and understand that I know my disability better than anyone who writes about it.”
Similarly, Cockroft acknowledges that the vast spectrum of athletes in the Paralympic movement is often undervalued by broadcasters, with an over-reliance on the ones who are lucky enough to have become household names. “The whole array of disability needs to be showcased, not just ones who look cool.
“There is still too much focus on the ‘attractive’ disabilities. The amputees get a lot of attention as do those of us in sporty, lightweight wheelchairs. We’ve got to be mindful that this doesn’t represent the whole disabled community. It’s a lot more diverse than what we currently see and that needs to change.”
The T34 athlete, who holds world records at multiple distances, reflects on how her view of the ‘Superhuman’ campaign has changed over the years. The narrative was the result of a joint venture by Channel 4, BT and Sainsbury’s to raise awareness ahead of London 2012 and has been the subject of extensive debate. “Initially, I loved the Superhuman narrative. I was part of it and felt it would do great things for society. It was only after speaking to disabled people outside the Paralympic movement that I realised just how damaging that title and description was. It gave people the impression that just because I was able to do something, every other disabled person could do it too. People with disabilities were getting abuse online and in the street.”
“Ultimately, we are not superhuman and while it might be nice to be described in those terms, we all have bad days just like anyone else.
I’m obsessed with seeing how far I can push myself
“We don’t expect every able-bodied person to be the next Olympic sprinter so why do we assume the only acceptable aspiration for a disabled person is to become a Paralympian?”
As she prepares for the delayed Paralympics in Tokyo, Cockroft insists her sole focus is to keep pushing to be the best she can. “I’m obsessed with seeing how far I can push myself and how quickly I can race, that’s my motivation.”
“If one person can look back at my story and use it as a springboard for their own success by realising that they have the ability to achieve their dream, that will be mission accomplished.”
If she maintains her status as Paralympic champion in the summer, one wonders if she’ll spare a thought for the Barbie doll that had such a profound effect on her all those years ago.
All photos used with kind permission of Hannah Cockroft