In My Opinion: Stewart Weir: More to beat than a deadline

HER opening salvo was thought-provoking.

“Perhaps we should make a Paralympic pact before we start. Let’s agree, here and now, not to talk of ‘heroes’ and how ‘inspiring’ they are, for in the ten days to come, these words will become wearisome clichés.

“Besides, are they adequate? We stand on the brink of a sporting festival where athletes, just as they did in the Olympics, will do what ordinary mortals cannot do; but this time to the power of two. Unlike that wondrous occasion just passed, where men and women showed what elite but essentially normal bodies are capable of, the Paralympians have had to achieve twice as much.”

And the Scot would know. Since a horse riding accident two years ago, when she broke her neck and back, Melanie Reid has been achieving twice as much in her particular sphere; namely to overcome paralysis and to continue as an award-winning journalist.

Which made her the perfect (if not a difficult) choice to cover the Paralympics for The Times.

But Melanie’s introduction got me thinking. In all the places I’d been, all the events I’d seen, all the folk I’d met, how many people in journalism have a disability? Not many, would have to be my answer.

She is not alone this summer. There are disabled journalists working in London at these games. Radio 5 live have, on occasions, turned to one of their own during the Paralympics.

Alastair Hignell is a broadcaster, former England rugby internationalist and county cricketer with Gloucestershire, a recipient of a CBE and the BBC ‘Sports Personality of the Year’ Helen Rollason Award. And an MS sufferer.

Part of Hignell’s story is one which perhaps typifies the problems faced by – or imposed upon – those with disabilities.

On his retirement from BBC commentary duties, four years ago, he writes of having to be carried down 20 steps, in his buggy, by two doormen from a Twickenham function room with no lift.

Like Reid, Hignell is able to give an insight into what many competing in London have had to face, either as competitors, or just to get there.

But is their ‘expertise’ being used because of their first-hand experience, or, because it seems like the right thing to do?

The facilities in London have been designed with disability in mind. The same could never be said about older, more traditional sporting venues and locations, some of which are hardly accommodating for able-bodied journalists and broadcasters, never mind those who have impaired movement or travel.

That was one of the considerations for Hignell when he gave up front-line broadcasting with the BBC, who it should be said, are ahead of the game when it comes to employing those with disabilities, their ranks including Frank Gardner, the Security Correspondent, left partly paralysed after a terrorist shooting, and the visually-impaired Gary O’Donoghue, who four years ago, won a discrimination claim against his then and current employers.

Hignell, however, was in a position to retire. Others have never been given the chance to start.

If there is a ‘legacy’ (the most overly-used word in sport for which there is no defined meaning) from the Paralympics, might it be that successful Paralympians find themselves covering the next games, either in print, or electronically, rather than being called up for just a quick word by their local newspaper?

We might already know the answer. We just might not admit it.

Back to my own quandary, of how many disabled journalists I’d encountered?

I remember meeting a wheelchair-bound American ‘soccer’ correspondent in the late 90’s, although I always had the feeling that anyone who understood the offside law would have been in the running for that berth.

Then there would be Ken Jones, the ably-bodied award-winning chief sportswriter at The Independent until he was swept under a train in 1992, and lost an arm, but not his perspective on sport.

And some 20 years back, myself and others came across a local radio journalist (his name escapes me) from Sheffield at The Crucible attending the world snooker championship, who walked with the aid of a crutch.

It was obvious he had his interview technique down to a fine art, his tape recorder and microphone in one hand, his balancing and mobility aid in the other. However, his crutch was more than that.

He regularly planted it in to the floor, in front of some escaping player, like some explorer capturing new territory for King and country, so cutting off any possible exit.

On almost every occasion, the players gave their time, although I was never quite sure whether this was because they felt sorry or intimidated. But those were not the reasons behind him getting his interviews.

He was able to broadcast because he was there, treated as an equal who was different, rather than being treated differently.

Stewart Weir is proprietor of weirmediaworks, specialising in online content, PR and media consultancy. He is a former chief sportswriter with the Scottish Mirror and is a regular broadcaster on talkSPORT, STV and BBC Radio Scotland. His media training has included sports stars, Chris Hoy, Stephen Hendry and Ronnie O’Sullivan.