Credit: Lizzie Bennett

What (not) to say to a disabled athlete

In Columnists, Opinion, Sports by Lizzie BennettLeave a Comment

The disadvantage of doing lots of sport is that it warps your perception of what life is like for those who are less active, people who don’t feel compelled to move every time they feel grumpy or tired or stiff or grumpy again. Similarly, the disadvantage of doing a lot of disability sport is that you forget what it’s like not to know about it – you forget that what’s normal to you is often a completely unexplored world for others.

I’m going to guess that most people reading this won’t have spent much time chatting to disabled athletes. Most of you won’t have the opportunity to do so, whereas maybe the rest of you are scared of the way we group together and mutter about how many points you’d be worth if we took you down – but just because it’s like we’re re-enacting Mean Girls every time we get together, doesn’t mean we aren’t friendly really.

If you’re willing to take the plunge and interact with us more, here are some pointers:



  • Remember we’re human even if we might be a funny shape!
  • Recognise that it has taken a greater effort for us to get out training and competing than it has for you, and we don’t back down without a fight. That said…
  • Remember that we have each other’s backs no matter what: there is a bit of a tribe mentality.
  • Talk to us like we’re real people not Dickensian down-and-outs. We’re actually quite normal once you get to know us.
  • Ask us about our sporty equipment – we LOVE talking about the unusual kit that we use to take part in sport! If you’re nosy about our disabilities (which, though not very polite, is only natural) then talking about our adaptations is an easy way into that discussion. I’d sooner show someone the tack I use for riding a horse and be asked why I need it than field the good old, ‘So…what happened?’ (to which the answer is: I was born and I am pathologically accident-prone).
  • Offer to help, but…
  • Accept that we don’t always want or need help. Sometimes it’s dangerous for other people to try and help us and we all have experiences of getting injured because of well-meaning ‘assistance’. We’re already broken so please don’t make it worse!
  • Have patience. Several of my friends with disabilities find it hard to communicate verbally, which doesn’t mean that they can’t do it – they just need the time and space to express themselves. I’m the other way round: I can’t stop talking, but my hearing is bad so I might ask you to repeat yourself endlessly if I can’t see you to lip-read.
  • Always think about inclusion and question it constantly. How could this event or venue be changed to include wheelchair users, people with visual impairments, or people with learning disabilities, or amputees, for example? If there aren’t many disabled people around, ask why. Challenge yourself and the people you know to create opportunities for inclusion. Be a champion and advocate for us!
  • Consider coaching. Plenty of able-bodied people coach disabled athletes: in fact, all of the coaches I’ve worked with in disability sport (around 30) have been able-bodied. I’ve also benefited from advice and feedback from fellow athletes, but it’s the coaches who’ve worked with me on a regular basis who’ve had the biggest impact.
Uphill sections of half marathons are painful for us all (Credit: Lizzie Bennett)

Uphill sections of half marathons are painful for us all (Credit: Lizzie Bennett)


  • Assume that para competition is ‘sweet’, ‘easy’, ‘soft’, ‘all about the taking part’ (argh!) or anything else along those lines. It ain’t!
  • Ask to have a go with our stuff – often it’s expensive and tailor-made. If we’re OK with it, we’ll offer you a chance to try it out. If not, please just remember that my race chair is my (custom-made and very expensive) baby and my horsey tack is essential to me doing some of the disciplines I’m a national champion in – and ask if you’d lend out your equipment to a complete beginner too. Sorry!
  • Assume that you know how disabled bodies work because you know how your own body works. Everyone’s different, and people with disabilities are even more different. Even my friends with a similar diagnosis to me aren’t that much like me, although obviously there are general trends. My condition affects the functioning of almost every cell in my body, so the normal rules for health, fitness and diet don’t necessarily apply!
  • Assume that you know how specialist equipment works because you watched some of the Paralympics and/or you’re a Phys NatSci. Empiricism over intuition!
  • Say something overtly offensive. We might refer to ourselves as crips or similar (or worse), but you need to be in the gang to use the lingo! On the other hand…
  • Don’t get too hung up about saying the wrong thing. We’re not very PC ourselves and it’s sad when people don’t approach us or have normal conversations because they’re too worried about being offensive.
  • Underestimate a disability you cannot see. Some disabilities are obvious; others aren’t. This doesn’t mean that the obvious ones are more serious than the invisible ones – there’s often more to it than meets the eye.
  • Assume that every disabled athlete is aiming for the Paralympics. Just as most able-bodied people do sport recreationally – or at least without the Olympics in mind – most disabled people want to be able to do sport for fun too.
  • Assume we can or can’t do something because of our disability.
If we get bored we can cox too. Watch out. (Credit: Lizzie Bennett)

If we get bored we can cox too. Watch out. (Credit: Lizzie Bennett)

It’s telling that a lot of my ‘don’ts’ start with the word ‘assume’. One of the most damaging things you can do when dealing with people who are in any way ‘different’ is to make assumptions about them. On the other hand, these assumptions are fun for us to demolish – so maybe I should let you make them after all!


Lizzie Bennett is a Cambridge graduate whose experiences in para sport are largely shaped by sporting injuries. She’s generally to be found charging around in a bright green racing wheelchair or on the back of a horse.

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