Last night, I delivered my first public speech after taking the summer off. I have a fairly severe speech impairment, so I am all too aware of the irony of being a public speaker.

I am also mindful of the fact that, when I start speaking, there will be more than a handful of people who are momentarily overcome by the fear that they may not be able to understand me.

I have embraced public speaking because I love the feeling of challenging people’s perceptions and expectations. I know that between my first and last words, the audience will go on a journey of understanding and acceptance.

How can low expectations actively limit disabled people?

We all do it. We all look at the people around us and, without speaking to them, judge them or believe we know them just from their appearances. But, realistically, we often discover we are very wrong.

As someone with a very obvious impairment, I frequently find myself dodging stares, inwardly cringing at the use of patronising baby voices, or smiling at the worried looks on peoples’ faces as I do something that they don’t believe I should be able to do. I, personally, no longer allow such exceptions to affect me. However, many disabled people do and, often, it is society’s judgements and limitations that can be the most disabling factor of a person’s impairment.

The problem comes from society’s preconceptions of disability and belief that we know what it means to be disabled. For example, people with autism often struggle to get jobs, because employers see the word “autism” and immediately conjure up an image in their mind. In reality, however, the autistic spectrum covers a huge range of abilities. It is probably the case that employers are turning away incredibly talented potential employees, on the basis of a single word.

Everyone in this world is different and as a society, we really need to start embracing difference. Not only that but disabled people are fantastic problem solvers. Given the opportunity, people like myself will find a way to do anything and everything to maximise their potential. However, until we stop handing out those unspoken limitations, disabled people will find it that much harder to achieve their goals.

How the Paralympic Games can change expectations of disabled people

I know that not everyone sees eye to eye with the Paralympic Games. I am also aware that some critics do not like the fact that the word “inspirational” is used so often during the Games. However, as a Paralympian, I have no problem with being described as inspirational. In fact, despite having been to two Paralympic Games, I am still inspired by the sportsmen and women in Rio right now.

As we watch the Games, we can almost forget the sport (if we so wish) and focus on the problem solving I alluded to earlier. Ibrahim Hamato from Egypt has no arms but has found a way to be an excellent Table Tennis player. He uses his mouth to hold the bat and his toes to throw the ball. We’ve also seen high jumpers jumping awesome heights with just one leg, and archers firing arrows with their feet. To me, this is inspirational as it shows an incredible ability to adapt and overcome limitations. Such creativity is by no means limited to the sporting world, but we only tend to take note once every four years.

The Paralympics shouldn’t lead to the belief that every disabled person can be a Paralympian - just like not every non-disabled person can be an Olympian. But it should be used to remove the blinkers that surround disability, allowing us to see the potential as opposed to the limitations.

By Fran Williamson, six-time Paralympic swimming medallist and five-time World Champion. Fran is also our Vice President and a committed supporter of United Response.

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