The face of Britain’s Paralympic success and a tireless campaigner for the rights and recognition of disabled people, Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson is an inspiration to millions. Against a backdrop of ongoing cuts to welfare budgets and her continuing work influencing the UK Government’s Welfare Reform bills in the House of Lords, Dame Grey-Thompson visited The University of Manchester to celebrate the life and legacy of one of her greatest influences – Lord Alf Morris of Manchester, Britain’s first minister for disabled people. Here she reflects on the impact his pioneering work had on millions of lives, including her own:
We sometimes need to believe in ourselves and one person had belief in the power of change was Lord Alf Morris – Britain’s first minister for disabled people, pioneer for equal rights and a noble friend.
On becoming a crossbencher Alf taught me that sometimes you can achieve more having a cup of tea with somebody than in the chamber. He also shared with me that when you first go to the House of Lords, it doesn’t matter what your background is, it is always daunting to walk through the door. We talked about the history of disability rights and about the upcoming Olympics and Paralympics (2012). I was already interested in this area; the impending Games gave me a platform to talk about disability, something I struggled to do when competing because I think that you have to keep focused on one thing.
I had parents, who like Alf, believed in the ultimate power to change things, either through legislation or whichever way was needed. I was brought up to be really persistent and to always keep going, much like Alf and his tireless campaigning for the Chronically Sick and Disabled People’s Act .When I reflect on my life and disability rights legislation, they have always been closely intertwined. When the bill was passed in 1970, it gave rights to physical access, to mobility.
As a child I didn’t realise I didn’t have those rights, I thought I had the right to be the same as everyone else. I didn’t realise I needed legislation to make that happen, and the person to make that happen was Alf.
One Woman, many labels
These days I’m treated in three different ways: As a Paralympian, which is mostly nice, as a Parliamentarian and as a disabled woman – which unfortunately still trumps the other two in a negative way. As the latter, it’s really easy to believe you can’t do something if you’re told it often enough. I’m lucky to have resilience from sport because the discrimination is still a real challenge.
Welfare Reform – the bill that keeps on giving
In 2012 I started looking at the Welfare Reform Bill – it was one I had to get involved with. The plan was to sit back and watch and learn. But as it got going I started to put my name on other people’s amendments, then having my own amendments, and then, when we got to the crucial stage, I found myself leading. I felt a huge pressure like never before. Sport is amazing but nobody lives or dies; the decisions we make in the chamber will affect tens of thousands of people. I’ve discovered it really is the bill that keeps on giving, engaging a great group of disability rights campaigners who watched every moment of the bill. It’s these sorts of things which really keep you going.
Something else I’ve learnt in politics is that things do come back around; we’re always going to have another Welfare Reform Bill. For now disability is always going to be an issue. The recent Green Paper on improving lives for disabled people outlines halving the disability employment gap. Disabled people struggle to stay in work, they use food banks and disability hate crime figures are at an all-time high. This is hard to understand when you compare to the growing popularity of the Paralympics movement, especially following the success of Rio this summer. But what you need to do to challenge these inequalities is to keep your energy; be resilient and be determined. This is what Alf did, he always had another go: the next Welfare Reform Bill will be better than the last.
Playing it smart
So as well as the Welfare Reform Bill in 2012, it was a big year for another reason too; I had a chance to work on the London Games after retiring from sport. At the time of bidding the negotiation to host the Paralympics took place afterwards. This changed after 2012 and now cities bid for both Games. I thought I might have to be the person who had to say “what about the Paralympics?” all the time. I didn’t because the Organising Committee just got it. In the end the Paralympics had their own opening ceremony for the first time ever. It was about celebrating disability rights, on home soil, and I was proud.
There is still a fight to get disabled people fully integrated into society. I might never achieve it, but building on the work I have seen other people do, we have to keep trying to make that happen. Regardless of disability or impairment, it’s about making sure everybody has the same opportunities as everybody else.
Keeping going, making change
In sports I went around in circles a lot – literally – on a track. Sometimes it feels like you are doing it in politics, but it is a privilege to talk to some amazing people about what we can do for disabled rights. It’s about never being afraid to sit in the chamber and just having a go, a sentiment echoed by Alf; he kept going and going until things changed.
Sport is still incredibly important to me, but so are disability rights. I feel that my brief dalliance into sport was about giving me a way to do other things, the stuff I did in my career as an athlete was to make me do the things I do today. As Alf said, ‘Inclusion for disabled people is about being a part of society not apart from it’ so if I can make some difference doing what I do then why stop now?