#HeForShe – Women & Disability Sport

by Tom Weir

I’ll start with a quick question. In 30 seconds, name as many British Paralympians as you can:

Let me guess what you might have come up with (in no particular order)…

Dame Tanni Grey-Thomson,
Jonny Peacock
Hannah Cockcroft
David Weir
Ellie Simmonds
the table tennis guy from Strictly Come Dancing? (Will Bailey)
Dame Sarah Storey
and to balance out the Strictly references the triathlon woman who was on as well (Lauren Steadman)


Bravo if you beat eight

Think about that list quickly. Five women to three men would not be a ratio you would find in almost any other sporting setting. The reasons for this require at minimum another blog – but owe largely to the historical baggage present in traditional sports not being present in disability sport. It should not though be a surprise – as disabled sport has long had women at its core, not just as athletes but also, as this article will describe, as key organisers. That is my second area of exploration in this blog; the first is about the power sport has had in both the disability and women rights and equality movements.

“Physical advocacy”

Disability sport is currently having a moment in the sun. You may have recently watched the new documentary film, Rising Phoenix. If you haven’t I would encourage you to do so. It is a beautifully told story of the last decade within the Paralympic movement – centring around nine ‘superheroes’ of both genders, with Tatyana McFadden especially emerging as a particularly inspirational force of nature. Whilst there are some real problems with the ‘superhero’ portrayal – not least that it has led to alienation of parts of the disabled community – all the athletes powerfully show what, through my research, I have labelled ‘physical advocacy.’ The term describes the process of fighting against discriminatory attitudes by elite displays of physical ability, something that in the last 30/40 years has led to a transformation in attitudes toward the disabled community. It is a concept – although perhaps not a terminology – that should be familiar to all women.

Ideas of the weaker, gentler, fragile sex abound throughout sporting history: banned from running long distance in the Olympics and from marathons for fear of ‘reproductive damage’; prevented from getting licensed for boxing and other combat sports; and ignored, unfunded, and occasionally humiliated when attempting to play rugby. Nothing is a more powerful repost to such nonsense than literally and figuratively being folded up in a tackle like a beaten up pocket map. So too with disability. For all the pretty and eloquent verbal arguments put forward by political advocates, to my mind the single most powerful challenge to public attitudes about disabled fragility or inadequacy is an athlete smashing physical expectation. It is also one that cuts through to the lager swilling, football shirt wearing, pub misogynist (a stereotype I know – but we’ve all met him…) Lucy Bronze smashing a ‘worldie’ of a volley into the top corner is unarguable.

The hidden women behind disability sport

Back to disability sport, where women have been at the heart since its inception – not that this is especially evident from any official histories or Rising Phoenix, where Ludwig Guttmann is lionised as a key pioneer. He was even heralded by the Pope in 1960 as nothing short of saintly. I do not intend to play a zero sum game of trying to tear him down – he deserves his statue at Stoke Mandeville and place in the Pantheon of Paralympic heroes – but others have to be remembered too. First, he relied through much of his career on his indomitable secretary, and biggest cheerleader, Joan Scruton. Although an unreliable historian, she was a remarkable and dedicated organiser and fundraiser. The tyro for much of disability sport in Scotland was the indomitable Jean Stone – sadly recently deceased – who, from 1960, was a key reason the nation excelled across all impairment groups and was being vastly over-represented in Special Olympic and Paralympic teams. Another key organiser was Elizabeth Dendy, a leading female voice on the Sports Council for decades, co-founder of the United Kingdom Sports Association for Mental Handicap, and Cerebral Palsy sport. And then around the country thousands of individual clubs existed off the back of their volunteers, who coached, chauffeured and catered for their charges.

In America from 1968, Eunice Kennedy-Shriver, off the back of her energy, drive and passion – and I will happily mud wrestle anyone who claims otherwise – proved to be the Kennedy sibling that made the widest and deepest impact on the world through founding Special Olympics. Returning to Britain, and particularly those hidden figures that organised clubs, my last hundred(ish) words go to the woman who proved a remarkable pioneer, founding the very first club for people with intellectual disability. Joyce Robinson founded the Cardiff Chameleons swimming club in Cardiff, against a mighty tide of medical and parental opinion – in an era that the societal orthodoxy still placed the ‘mentally handicapped’ into institutions and people would cross the road to avoid interaction. Given this lack of support it is unsurprising that the first training session attracted no attendees. She returned, however, for a second go and gained three – including Leslie Clark, a club stalwart for over 20 years and her first successful swimmer. By 1961 the club had thirty regular members; competed in a Cardiff-wide swimming Gala in 1963; members competing in Special Olympic world games from 1979; and, from 1973, had fundraised enough to build their own pool. The club continues to run today, and has meant generations of people that society had otherwise left at the bottom of the ladder had their lives changed by Robinson’s incredible vision, drive and organisation skills.

Robinson in the centre, Pamela Bailey (BL), Denise Pearson (BR) and Robin O’Donovan (TR) who I had the privilege of interviewing for my thesis research.


About the Author:

Tom is currently in the final stages of completing his PhD on Learning Disability Sport: A History, based at the International Centre for Sports History and Culture, De Montfort University. Part of this research involved over 50 interviews with athletes and organisers around the country. He has also previously worked with Saracens Rugby Club on a history of their players in WW1, and with the World Rugby Museum, Twickenham. He currently works at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.


Recommended Reading:

For more on women’s sport there is a fantastic emerging generation of historians: Dr Raf Nicholson on women’s cricket, Dr Lisa Taylor on women’s rowing, and keep an eye out for Lydia Furze’s work on women’s rugby. They add to the pioneering work of Dr Fiona Skillen, Dr Carol Osborne and Prof Jean Williams. All are worth a google. 

Disability sport is sadly poorly served generally, with Dr Ian Brittain being a standout on the history, and Dr Emma Pullen instructive on societal and media perceptions. Also worthy of mention is Sue Barton’s history of Special Olympics in Britain. For more on Joyce Robinson, Glamorgan Archives has a short life history amongst enough of her papers and ephemera to merit a biography…

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