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Life is about helping each other

Tanni Grey Thompson, Britain’s best-known and most successful Paralympic athlete, reflects on life as a disabled parent, and challenges society's attitudes to disability and parenthood.

Pictured is Tanni Grey Thompson.

When I was born in 1969 and the doctors told my mother that I had Spina Bifida, apparently one of the first things she asked was whether I would be able to have children when I grew up. Not maybe the first thing that most people would ask, but perhaps it shows how much we, as a society, link femininity to motherhood.

As a disabled person I lack femininity. Not personally, but the general assumption is that as a disabled person you would not have the same physical and emotional wants and needs as any other woman, and certainly not think of becoming a wife and/or a mother.

No limits

Within my family, I would have won the vote for the person ‘least likely to become a mother’, not because of the disability thing, but because I am too selfish, wanted a career to the detriment of most of my relationships, and because I didn't really like other people's children. Luckily, one thing I learned is that your own children are different.

I was lucky in several ways. I grew up without facing too much discrimination and a lot of this was down to educated, middle class parents, who believed that I wasn't any different from my older non-disabled sister.

I never believed that being a wheelchair user (I am not sure how disabled I really am) would ever stop me from doing the things I wanted, but when I finally found someone who I thought was not irritating, and would put up with my obsessive behaviour and marry me, I found that the reaction of the general public, and sometimes friends and family was, let's say, interesting.

Reactions of others

It is at times like this (marriage and childbirth) that people's real reactions come out – they just can't stop themselves. You see, there was this presumption from some that disabled people don't get married, or that I married someone else with an impairment to stop `two normal people from having their lives screwed up'. I married a guy who had had a spinal cord injury, because he was an athlete.

The reaction when we finally got around to having a family was even more interesting and not always pleasant. I am not sure it helped that I was 32 when I was pregnant, but no-one can say we hadn't planned it. We had eight weeks to start a family, or the following season would have been disrupted and it wasn't going to happen that year.

There are two distinct groups of people out there – the ones that know me as Tanni the athlete and those who think I am a wheelchair user. To those who know me as an athlete, everything is fine and dandy and it is the most natural thing in the world. Those who think that I am some cripple who doesn't know their own mind come in for a rude awakening.

When discussing the reasons that we may consider not carrying on with the pregnancy (possible kidney failure was something I didn't fancy) I was told by one helpful person that I should deal with what God gave me. There were people who thought that it was unfair to bring a child into the world having two `disabled' parents.

Opportunities

It doesn't matter that my husband has a PhD in Chemistry and has a good and responsible job. It didn't appear to matter that I was in a similar situation. I was asked by one social worker what I would do if I couldn't cope – my answer, however dreadfully middle class, was that I would employ a nanny.

The aftermath has not been so exciting. When we play our game at the supermarket of ‘Let Carys throw things in the trolley to keep her quiet’, there's the odd pitying glance from a couple of people, and she is told "Isn't she a good girl helping mummy like that". The fact is I don't need my child to help me: it keeps her quiet, and actually life is all about helping each other. The idea was given to me by a non-disabled mother of a non-disabled child – I bet they don't have the same issue.

In fact Carys will grow up with two parents who love her, and who will do the best they can to give her opportunities. She travels the world with me – she has had dinner with Sir Bobby Charlton (where they shared a plate of chips) – how many people would give their right arm for that?

Breaking down assumptions

Scope recently carried out some on-going research about how the public felt about disabled people being parents: 74% were fine with the idea (which was an increase on last year), but 23% had reservations, some of them being that it would increase the benefits budget. This shows that there are still a lot of assumptions that we need to break down and at least we are moving in the right direction.

The truth is that disabled people do have sex (I wouldn't admit that to my parents though) and they do want to become parents, and they can be really good ones. Having a disability doesn't mean that you are automatically a nice person, and it doesn't mean that automatically you can't be a good parent.

Anyway all that doesn't matter in the end, because I have a very beautiful and talented daughter (the best in her nursery class of course), and she will grow up to be what she will want to be. I am sure that there will be a time in her life when I embarrass her, but that will be because of my dress sense not my wheelchair. And the other question I am asked is whether she will be an athlete. I can categorically answer `NO' to that. There is more money in golf!

First published DPPI Journal, Issue 50: Summer 2005

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