Kadeena- Can You See Her?

[Image description: Kadeena Cox in her white, red and blue tracksuit,  smiling and holding up her gold medal  next to a picture of herself.]

Before the Paralympics started I did an interview with a couple of other young disabled people about what we thought about the Paralympics, which you can read in full here.

“In the future I would like to see more athletes with chronic conditions and less visible impairments in the Paralympics.”

The piece drew upon the charity Scope’s recent poll which highlighted that only less than a third of disabled people felt that watching the Paralympics  gave them a greater sense of belonging in society or made them feel better about their body image.

For me I understood this, because in the past my experience of the Paralympics didn’t ‘fit me’ and my impairment. I had an understanding of Paralympic athletes as amputees, wheelchair users, or visually impaired. My chronic condition that fluctuates, wasn’t really represented.

I made the point that although I feel empowered by the Paralympics, I often felt that it did not fully represent my experience as a disabled person as there are very few athletes in the Paralympics that have hidden disabilities.

I understand that the Paralympics are incredibly inspiring and show athletes overcoming their barriers in their respective sports. It changes the narrative of disabled people as objects of pity. Which is great, and really important.

However the games don’t show the everyday barriers Paralympians face in society in terms of accessibility or stigma. It often felt to me as though the Paralympics were a stage exclusive for a few disabled people to perform to make the able-bodied population feel warm and fuzzy about how far we have come. But it doesn’t show the exhausting reality of the ‘behind the scenes work’ of being a disabled person in our society.

As a young woman with a hidden disability, the ‘behind the scenes work’ includes not being believed that I am disabled. This has a huge impact on my access to support in things like work, benefits, accessibility and educational support. This is essential to overcoming the barriers I face that make me disabled.

So basically, I understood why disabled people felt disenchanted with the Paralympics. Because they are a select few of very talented athletes, and it isn’t representative of life as a disabled person, or people with hidden disabilities.

But the Rio Paralympics this year changed my perception of the Paralympics, mainly due to one athlete- Kadeena Cox.

Kadeena Cox had a stroke and was subsequently diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis two years ago. Prior to her diagnosis she was an athlete and studied physiotherapy.

During the Rio Paralympics she became the first British Paralympic woman to win two medals in two different sports in 32 years, in cycling and athletics and four medals overall. This is an inspiring and empowering feat in itself.

Fighting Through Uncertainty

But for me, I identified so strongly with Cox , purely because of the frank and honest way she talks about her fluctuating but often hidden condition.

Anyone with a long term health condition, knows how difficult it can be to plan your life and achieve things when your health can be so uncertain. It is this uncertainty and fluctuating symptoms that I couldn’t see represented in the Paralympics. Until I learnt about Kadeena Cox and her story.

In a recent article in the Telegraph, Kadeena made the excellent point:

“I change day to day, not year to year, so I’ve no idea how I will be by the end of another full Olympic cycle. Come Tokyo 2020, I don’t know whether I’ll even be able to do one sport, let alone two.”

Her achievements suddenly felt so much more inspiring to me, as I knew exactly how she felt.

With an invisible and fluctuating disability, from day to day I have no idea how it is going to affect me, some days I cant walk more than 100m, other days I can, but need regular rest. It’s a constant battle to achieve my goals. Kadeena Cox made me realise that you can achieve your goals despite fluctuating symptoms, if you manage your condition and gain access to support.

“Initially it was a journey about one girl who wanted to go to the Paralympics but over the two years it has become something I was doing for everyone else. The reason I wanted to do it so badly was so I could stand here and show it can be done even if you have setbacks.”- Kadeena Cox, in The Guardian

Inspiring People With Invisible Disabilities

One day during the Paralympics I overheard somebody talking about Kadeena Cox and said:

“But is she really disabled? She looks fine to me”

Obviously, I had to stop myself from confronting the stranger about the absurdity of this statement.

But this is probably something that Kadeena has had to deal with over the past few years as she prepared for Rio. It highlighted precisely why I struggled to identify with the Paralympics. For so long the Paralympics has (to me) only represented a certain type of disability. Which is not representative of the experience of disability in the UK, or indeed the world.

Kadeena Cox has shown that your impairment doesn’t have to be obvious to be a disabled person.

Her achievements have therefore meant so much more to me, and have empowered me far more than other Paralympians in the past.

She has inspired me to believe in myself, and that even though some people may not see your disability, or your condition may fluctuate you can achieve your goals, and that the label of ‘disabled’ can be empowering.


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