I've Won Gold, Silver And Bronze At The Paralympics, More People With A Learning Disability Should Have The Same Opportunity

17/10/2016 00:23
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I'm Jessica-Jane Applegate, I'm 20 years old and I'm an elite swimmer. I've competed in competitions all over the world, I've set over 75 new British Swimming records and I've won Gold, Silver and Bronze medals in London 2012 and Rio 2016, and in 2013 was given an MBE. I also have a learning disability.

This summer, I competed at the Paralympics in Rio, where I won two silver and one bronze medal, something I'm really proud of. I was one of only seven Para GB athletes with a learning disability who got the chance to do this. If you have a learning disability and are an elite athlete, you can only compete in 9 out of 252 events.

Between me and the six other athletes with a learning disability on the Para GB team, we won 12 medals. I think it's amazing that athletes with a learning disability won so many medals, but it makes me sad that others who have a learning disability aren't able to get the chance to win medals. I am quite good at rowing but I can't progress as high as I have in swimming because it's one of the sports that don't permit athletes with a learning disability to compete. Just 3 out of 23 sports at the Paralympics are open to athletes like me.

A lot of this is to do with when the Spanish Basketball team cheated in 2000 and faked having a learning disability. All athletes with a learning disability were banned and only allowed back in 2012.

I'm an ambassador for the learning disability charity Mencap. They launched a petition just before the Paralympics calling for more events and sports to be made available to athletes with a learning disability at the Paralympics. This is a great idea.

Lots of the feedback to Mencap's petition was that people didn't understand how a learning disability affects how an athlete performs. When I'm training, I face a number of challenges. I really struggle with pacing myself and making sure my stroke rate is right. I struggle with working out the clock times. I have to remember all of the equipment that I need and not to leave it poolside or in the changing rooms. I struggle with counting the number of lengths, stroke rate and strokes into a turn. It's so hard to remember and concentrate.

One of my biggest struggles is learning to do new things. Everyone in my squad learned a new tumble turn in just a few weeks and it took me over a year before I could do it, even now if I don't do it regularly I struggle again. I was so happy when I finally learnt it, my friend filmed it and posted it on my Facebook page.

I do 'What If' sessions with my coach. I know that if something changes or goes differently when I'm competing, it can affect how I perform. In the sessions, we'll go through possible things that could happen when I'm competing and work out what I should do. It makes sure I am prepared for anything and I know what I should do whatever happens.

I also need different support in day to day life. In Rio, I stayed in a flat with some other GB athletes and there was staff there to make sure I was okay and support me with everything. I think I was the only swimmer with a learning disability who had this but I needed it, so I was really grateful for the help. All of the swimmers who had a learning disability on the team were accompanied to the GB house because most of us are well known for getting lost, distracted and confused.

I was the first British swimmer with a learning disability to achieve a Gold medal at the Paralympics in 2012, and it's really important that athletes with a learning disability, no matter what their discipline is, can do the same. The restrictions athletes face need to be lifted.

There are 4 years until Tokyo and there are lots of athletes with a learning disability who are dreaming of being part of the Para GB team and competing for their country, just like Stephanie who fronted Mencap's petition. The Paralympics has done a lot to change attitudes to disability, and we need to make the same happen for people with a learning disability. If you want this to change, then please sign the petition so Tokyo 2020 can inspire more people with a learning disability to take up sport, and compete at the highest level.