Baroness Tanni Grey-Thompson – In Conversation

Since creating this website, I haven’t touched upon possibly the most obvious thing about me. I have Cerebral Palsy which means messages from my brain become scrambled which results in me having a great deal of unwanted movement meaning that I’m unable to do anything which requires any precision and my speech is difficult to understand to the untrained ear (hence why you hear a selection of different voices conducting my various interviews!). Yet apart from the art of the spoken word, my disability never gets in the way of my career or anything which I have the desire to do.

Press play, below, to listen to the full interview


For this week’s interview, it somehow seems relevant to disclose the above information because it would appear that we have a lot in common. Born in Cardiff during the later part of the 1960’s, Tanni Grey Thompson was born into a middle class family with one sister. Aged seven, Tanni suffered a blow when her spine collapsed resulting in Spina Bifida. By this time, she was already enrolled in school and despite visiting several “special schools” her parents were adamant that she should remain in mainstream education, something which would have been seen as revolutionary for its time. It was here that Tanni discovered her determination not to allow her disability to get in the way of what she wanted out of life and promptly set her on the path to success.


Aged thirteen, Tanni realised that wheelchair racing was something that she could do. Her parents had always instilled a positive “can-do” attitude into her from a young age. Living in a normal family house without obvious alterations, Tanni was forced to learn how to get around without the need for assistance. Therefore the necessity for maintaining a fit and healthy body became second nature. She soon realised that practices such as negotiating stairs, crawling and other activities would only be possible if she kept up a certain standard of fitness. This spurred Tanni onto taking up wheelchair racing as a sport and thankfully triggered her competitive career.


Back in the late eighties, the Paralympic movement had yet to gather momentum and was still perceived by many as the token equivalent of the able bodied games. Seoul 1988 was the first time that the Paralympics had been at the same setting as the Olympic Games. This was the setting for Tanni’s first Paralympics where she won bronze in the 200 metres. Still very basic in its form, the Paralympics never used to be as attended as the Olympics and often would have the same audience irrespective of what sport happened to be on. Crowds made up of Christian well wishers or disability rights campaigners wasn’t exactly the audience for competitive sport. The athletes didn’t want to be patronised or heralded as “superhumans”, they merely wanted the adulation which their able bodied peers were receiving on a daily basis.


Four years later at the Barcelona games it was an altogether different experience for the Paralympics with each sport being well supported by spectators from the perspective nations. The increase in television coverage for the games helped to raise the profile of Paralympic sport. Suddenly broadcasters kept their highly experienced presenters out there for an extra few weeks to preside over the action in the same way as the Olympic coverage. Television presenters such as the late Helen Rollason became invested in the belief that these games were no different. It was here that Tanni became the first women to break the 60 second barrier for 400m and despite competing in a career total of five Paralympic Games, for Tanni this stands out as the greatest.


Three more Paralympics followed as Tanni was able to notch up a career total of eleven golds, four silvers and one bronze medal. Yet she decided that the 2004 games in Athens would be her last and so wanted to go out with a bang. By this time Tanni had started a family and wanted time to be a full time mum to her daughter. Like anyone, being a parent changed her whole outlook on life and the most decorated Paralympian in history was now looking for another avenue to focus her talents on. Her competitive career came to an end in 2007 at the age of thirty seven after over twenty years of being right at the very top of her sport. For this Tanni remembered a premonition that her late father had had when she was around twenty one . He told her that he believed that one day she would be involved with politics and over twenty years on, Tanni discovered that he may have been right.


Unlike many of her contemporaries, a career in sport was always a stepping stone for Tanni to fulfill her true life calling. Throughout her life, Tanni always had a great passion for campaigning for disability rights and always believed that disabled people should have the same opportunities as everyone else. Forever bewildered and disgraced by the low level discrimination which “the disabled” face on a daily basis, Tanni was determined to play her part in raising awareness of minorities in our society. In 2010 Tanni became invested into the House of Lords and now tackles issues facing disabled people in twenty first century Britain. Baroness Grey-Thompson of Eaglescliffe in the County of Durham as she’s now better known to her fellow peers, became a tireless campaigner for disability rights. For Tanni, this is now the second phase of her career and one that she really relishes. These are difficult times for disabled people with; fit to work schemes, the Personal Independence Plan restructure and the constant battle to maintain the Disabled Living Allowance. Therefore Tanni sees her role as an advocate for those who require that assistance to ensure it’s maintained. As she states, as a society, disabled people don’t have equality yet and so this benefit goes some way to reducing the gap between them and everyone else.


So Tanni remains as passionate as ever about the need to reduce the social divide between disabled and able bodied people in twenty first century Britain and although it’s a slow process, let’s hope her hard work pays off. It would be great to live in a world where there isn’t low level discrimination towards disabled people on a frequent basis. I’d love to go into a restaurant and the waiter asks me what I wish to order instead of talking to the person I’m sat next to. There’s still a long way to go before we achieve this level of universal understanding but with Tanni fighting the corner, I’m sure change is not too far away.


It was a great pleasure to meet Tanni Grey Thompson and wish her all the very best for her future successes.