The training was tough. Sessions at the crack of dawn almost every day of the week, pushing my body to its limits, maintaining the mental focus needed to beat my time and meet race qualifications - it was all-consuming.
Being an elite athlete is an intense experience which is both mentally and physically exhausting. I loved my career as a Paralympic swimmer and the rush that comes from competing, but there’s no denying it was hard.
This was coupled with the fact that the Paralympic movement has had to fight for a long time to achieve even a semblance of parity when it comes to the acceptance and recognition that is afforded Olympic athletes.
However, whilst being a professional athlete is not for the faint hearted, since retiring two years ago I’ve seen just how many privileges it affords those living with disabilities.
After stepping outside of the world of competition, society’s warped attitude towards disability was thrown into much sharper relief for me. As an athlete I, and others, focused on my body in terms of what it was able to do: the speed I could swim and the records I could beat. And the Paralympic movement has done a phenomenal job in creating an environment where this could happen.
But, by comparison, disabled people’s bodies outside of professional sport are viewed in the negative, the primary focus being their limitations and the ways they fail to match ‘normal’ standards and ways of being. It was easy for me to embrace my abilities because my career allowed me to fall on the ‘right’ side of the disabled dichotomy, which sees disabled people as either burden or inspiration. Competing was brutal but, in the pool, my body and what it could do was valued.
Research from Scope published earlier this year found that one in three see disabled people as being less productive because of their difference. As all prejudice translates to a real-world impact, this regressive attitude takes on a material form in that disabled people are twice as likely to be unemployed as non-disabled people.
With our bodies seen as being difficult, expensive and awkward, employers still shrink from making a job offer. Society is quick to make assumptions about what others can and can’t do rather than asking individuals themselves, and this is compounded by a lack of visibility and fear of starting conversations.
Even a Paralympic past doesn’t always offer immunity to this prejudice and a number of my ParalympicGB friends have told me about the difficulties and discrimination they faced when trying to forge a career in a different field.
And it’s not just the individual cost of this disability employment gap (stubbornly staying at 30%) which we have to count. Businesses and our economy as a whole are missing out on a wealth of creativity, intelligence and ideas from the 13.9 million people who are disabled in the UK.
We’re waking up to the spending power of the disabled - last month saw the launch of Purple Tuesday, the UK’s first accessible shopping day in recognition of the £239 billion collective ‘Purple Pound’ - but we need to look at both sides of the gold coin.
In these politically and economically uncertain times, the disabled workforce is an untapped resource we can’t afford to miss out on. With their high levels of resourcefulness, problem-solving skills and adaption, a candidate with a disability can be a massive asset to your team.
So, moving into the new year what can be done to incorporate disability into our economy?
Disability action isn’t just for charities or fashion campaigns but for businesses of every size and sector. And it shouldn’t be a CSR exercise; the aim isn’t to token-hire but to achieve authentic inclusivity. Start by examining your hiring process: there are many simple, practical ways your company can be truly inclusive.
One of our consultants, Adil Ghani, explains how by just adding the line ‘we welcome applicants with disabilities’ to job adverts you actively encourage more disabled candidates to apply, helping address workplace representation.
Ask candidates themselves what they need to carry out the job rather than imposing your own limitations on their capabilities. And embrace the available technology - from speech recognition software through to corporate messaging platforms which enable flexible working, there’s a wealth of tech aids at your disposal.
We need to create a society where there’s more than one career path for the disabled. The onus is on all of us to start these conversations and push for lasting change, for ourselves and the economy. It really is that easy.