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Why Athletes With A Learning Disability Should Have More Opportunities At The Paralympics

08/09/2016 16:57
TASSO MARCELO via Getty Images

My name is Stephanie and I'm an elite athlete. I compete in the 100m and 200m and have competed all over the world, and have won medals at both the European and World Championships. I also have a learning disability. It is my goal to compete at the Paralympics, but that isn't possible because of the current restrictions on athletes with a learning disability competing.

Over the next 2 weeks, athletes with disabilities of all kinds will be heading to Rio to compete in this year's Paralympics. Of the 252 events that will be competed in, athletes with a learning disability are only allowed to compete in 9. This means that lots of athletes with a learning disability, including me, are not able to try and compete in their chosen event at the Paralympics.

I've helped to launch a petition asking the International Paralympic Committee to tackle this inequality and make the Paralympics more inclusive for athletes with a learning disability.

There are just 3 out of the 23 sports open to athletes with a learning disability, these are swimming, athletes and table tennis. In athletics, I have a choice of just 4 track and field events, and none of these are the 100m or 200m. I have tried to retrain for an event that is open to me so I could try and compete at the Paralympics, but it is not that easy. Adjusting to a new event means that you have to change everything about how you train and how you compete. The sessions are a lot harder and trying to adjust to the different stages within the 400m.

With physical disability, people can see how a disability can make it difficult for someone to compete. But as a learning disability is 'hidden', people find it hard to understand how it affects an athlete.

A learning disability is something that happens before, during or just after birth, it's lifelong and it means that it is much harder to do everyday things and learn new skills. This affects people differently, and for me, it means I need more support to understand things.

Sometimes, I don't understand my training sessions, so I have to ask my coach to explain things so that I can get a clearer understanding. Because I want to compete at the Paralympics, I have tried to change my running distance to the 400m, an event that is open to athletes with a learning disability. But it has been really hard to do.

For some athletes with a learning disability, the pressure of competing can be difficult to handle. The stress can mean that competing and remembering what you need to do is a lot harder to understand and cope with.

In 2000, all athletes with a learning disability were banned from competing in the Paralympics completely, because some members of the Spanish basketball team pretended to have a learning disability. It's frustrating that even though athletes were allowed to compete again in London 2012, there are still lots of sports and events that are not open.

There needs to be more opportunities for athletes with a learning disability at the Paralympics. I have trained most of my life to reach the top level in sport, and there are many more athletes like me who are being excluded from being able to compete at the highest level. We need to see better equality for athletes with a learning disability.

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