Tanni Grey-Thompson: “We need to teach how to register to vote in schools”

The 11-time Paralympic gold medallist and life peer looks back on overcoming fear of failure and how to engage the next generation in politics

At 16, I was a huge Eurythmics fan – in my head I can sing like Annie Lennox. I listened to quite a bit of the music of the time but sport took over everything. I wanted to play basketball but I couldn’t throw, catch or shoot. I was eternally optimistic that those things would just come to me, but I would tell my younger self to quit the basketball and focus on the wheelchair racing.

I had a tough time getting into mainstream school because I was disabled. My parents threatened to sue the Secretary of State for Wales to get me in. I realised from the age of 11 that if I hadn’t had parents who knew how to fight the system, who knew what legislation existed, who knew how to write the right letters, my life would have been so different. And I remember feeling quite sad about that. We saw the files when my dad died, and he wrote some cracking letters. He knew the right words to use and who to send them to. My parents were keen for my sister and I to have a go at stuff, and if it didn’t work out, try something else. That parachute was really important – it took away any fear of failure.

I was told to lower my ambitions. When I was 16 and told a careers advisor I was planning to do A-levels and go to university, he said in this really patronising way, “I can get you on a secretarial course, they’ll teach you to answer phones.” I think I said, “Well don’t you just pick up the handset and say, hello, how can I help you?” I got used to people not looking at me as an individual or looking at my skills.

My younger self had a quiet determination to keep going that I admire. I experienced a lot of disability discrimination, so it would be nice to be able to tell her that you can keep going through that. At 16 it can be quite hard to articulate it and deal with. People saying, “you can’t do that” to a disabled person can spur you on but it’s not easy for everyone to think that. I was really stubborn. But you kind of need that to get through. I am less stubborn now, I think, but maybe ask my husband. He might give a different answer.

I would tell my younger self that the man who buys you a carbon fibre front wheel for your racing chair is the man for you. He’s a keeper! One of his latest presents was a bag of titanium bolts, which is not quite so impressive, but you need to find someone who lets you be yourself within a relationship. My husband has been amazing. He changed his career for me, to allow me to be involved with politics and was a huge supporter of my racing career as well as being a great dad. At school, there was a lot of pressure to have a boyfriend. I would tell my younger self, don’t panic about stuff like that. The idea that you could only be happy if you had a boyfriend is rubbish. Don’t define yourself by the relationship you are in.

I wasn’t great at wheelchair racing for the first five years. So when people talk about overnight success, it’s because you work really hard. You might be discovered overnight, but you haven’t suddenly become brilliant. When I talk to young people, I always say that even if you’re good at stuff you’ve got to work at it. Sport taught me that. The big change for me happened at 16. I’d been doing OK at wheelchair racing and then in my last year as a junior athlete I won the Welsh national championships.

My younger self would be more excited about the Paralympic gold medals than going into the House of Lords. Because at 16 I was so far from thinking that could happen to me. Every Paralympics was different. Seoul in 1988 was huge because I wasn’t expecting to make the team, Barcelona I had to go and win, and each one after that was about trying to vaguely maintain that. Within each Games I had ups and downs, but Barcelona, where I won my first four gold medals, was where it all came together. Sometimes, if you’re really lucky as an athlete you have a moment where you know you’re in the best physical shape. But in the whole of my career, there’s only been two races out of thousands where I’ve known on the line I could break the world record.

I just wanted to be a good athlete but we needed more media coverage and it was hard to manage financially, because even at the end of my career there was not a lot of sponsorship. In 2010, there was a survey asking how many people could name a Paralympian – and loads of people named me. Somebody said to me, that is amazing. But it was really not. Because I’d been retired for a number of years by that point. You need a whole tranche of current athletes to be known, because the public need to care enough to come and watch us. We’re in a better position now.

I grew up in South Wales so I went to school with kids whose families were miners and who had no money for food.The miners’ strike had a big impact. Seeing it from lots of different angles and seeing the anger. Not understanding that those valleys will be devastated for generations. We always talked about stuff like that at home. We talked about issues rather than party politics. So maybe being a crossbencher fits into that because I can’t just vote one way on everything. As a crossbencher, it’s like you are always in opposition. So whichever party is in power, I will probably be voting against them. Because, they bring the legislation and our job is to change it and improve it.

If you don’t like it, change it. I’m really interested in ensuring young people vote. It is so important to be engaged, and if you don’t vote in the first election after your 18th birthday, your chances of voting go down. Children and young people need to have a voice. It is so powerful to see lots of young people walking past Parliament. We are really lucky to live in a country where you have the right to protest. There are still issues here about safety at protests, but if you protest here you are not going to disappear. We need to teach campaigning, how to vote, and how to register to vote in schools.

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Most of my work is around disability. What are we going to do to genuinely change representation? What are we going to do to make sure more disabled people have the ability to stay in work and use public transport? Every time I get left on a train I get told, that is really bad. Well, stop leaving me on a train, then. I’ve never chained myself to anything, but at some point I might.

I would tell my younger self to stop cutting her own hair. And to always read the instructions on a package of hair dye because you do not know more than the manufacturer who makes this stuff. I have had some really bad home hair dye experiences and bad colours over the years. I am sort of purple-green at the moment, which is pretty good.

If my younger self had known I would be writing public letters to the Prime Minister, she would be really proud. She’d also be worried about whether I got my grammar correct and checking it with my dad. My recent letter was asking the government for clarity about gyms reopening because it doesn’t make a lot of sense to me how pubs are deemed safer than gyms – this is a national health crisis. I would love to know what my dad thought about me writing to the Prime Minister – he was one of my fiercest supporters and biggest critics. He would probably be proud but tell me to write another one – that there are a few more things I need to add.