In those days there wasn't much talk about inclusion...Interview

23rd April 2004 at 01:00
...but Mrs Cogbill didn't treat me any differently from anyone else and just encouraged me to get on with it

The first school I went to was Birch Grove primary in Cardiff. It was just around the corner from where we lived and had a fantastic headteacher called Bewi Thomas.

I was at the school when I started using a wheelchair at the age of seven.

I should have gone to a special school - that's what happened in those days - but Mr Thomas refused to let me be moved. As far as he was concerned, I was doing fine where I was and being in a wheelchair shouldn't make any difference. I suppose it was quite radical in those days when almost any kid like me would have been put in a special school automatically.

Mr Thomas died about 10 years ago. He was a sweet man, very kind and caring. He always seemed to know every pupil. On Wednesdays we would have Welsh assemblies and he always led the singing of the Welsh hymn, "Calon Lan".

The first time I became aware of special education was when it was time for me to go to secondary school. At first I was accepted at the high school my sister Sian went to. But then we got a letter to say they didn't want someone with disabilities at their school. My mother was livid; no one had ever treated me differently before then. They hadn't met me, or assessed me, or anything.

My parents were adamant that I wasn't going to a special school; at one they visited there were 15-year-olds playing with sand and water. I was lucky because they could write some pretty scathing letters, and knew who to write to. They didn't quite threaten to take the Secretary of State for Wales to court over my right to be educated, but they came close.

At the last minute the authorities agreed I could go to St Cyres comprehensive in Penarth, which was 15 or 20 miles away. The local authority had to pay for me to go by taxi - a really cheap way to sort out my education!

I remember there was one very scary woman called Audrey Jones.We called her "Strawbs", I can't remember why. She was the deputy head and was a bit of a dictator. She used to stand at the top of the corridor every morning as we came in, to inspect everybody's uniform. She was a dragon, but she was good for the school, and now I think of her as a really strong influence. She certainly never did me any harm; I suppose she was a bit of a feminist. I remember when we were applying to universities she set up practice interviews and wrote references for everyone. And she arranged for former pupils who'd gone to Oxford and Cambridge to come back and talk to us so we'd believe we could achieve whatever we wanted.

There was also an English teacher, Ann Crawford, who inspired me to take English at A-level. She was the first one who treated us more as grown-ups than children. You could talk to her, and I think that meant we all worked harder.

I started playing sport when I was at St Cyres. A PE teacher called Mrs Cogbill had this attitude simply to get out there and do it. At the time there wasn't much talk about "inclusion", but she didn't treat me any differently from anyone else and just encouraged me to get on with it. I joined my local athletics club when I was 15 and trained at school. Even back then the idea of me being a disabled athlete didn't seem strange to them. When I look back now I think it was way ahead of its time.

It was that sort of school. The ethos was to push us to be the best we could be. That came from the head, Brian Rowlands. I don't think I would have achieved what I have if I hadn't been at a mainstream school. I don't think I'd have been involved in sport, and my life would have been completely different.

Wheelchair athlete Tanni Grey-Thompson is training for the Paralympic Games in Athens in September where she will attempt to add to her 13 Paralympic medals. She was talking to Matthew Brown


1969 Born in Cardiff with spina bifida

1974-86 Attends Birch Grove primary, Cardiff, then St Cyres comprehensive school, Penarth

1987 Goes to Loughborough University to study politics

1988 Wins bronze for Great Britain in 400m at Seoul Paralympics

1992 Wins London marathon for disabled athletes (she has won it six times in total, most recently in 2002). Wins four golds at Barcelona Paralympics. Awarded MBE

1996 Wins one gold and three silvers at Atlanta Paralympics

2000 Wins four golds at Sydney Paralympics. Awarded OBE

2002 Daughter Carys born. Autobiography, Seize the Day, published

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