Ali Jawad: ‘Paralympians are forgotten about until the next Games’

Ali Jawad takes a deep breath, as if to compose himself, and explains how his recovery from the Paralympic Games is going. “At the minute I’m still in the process of looking at options, to try to start that process of getting into remission,” he says. “I don’t know how long that is going to take and I don’t know what route I’m going to take currently, but yeah. Let’s hope the process is quick. Unfortunately, with the last five years, I think it might take a little bit longer.”

In 2016 the ParalympicsGB powerlifter came to fame with a roar: a 190kg lift earned him a silver medal in Rio and the pumped-up celebration that followed cut through with the audience at home. But Jawad was about to begin a journey that was tougher than anything he had experienced before, the man who was born without legs and also has Crohn’s disease being hit four-square by an enduring, almost overwhelming bout of the debilitating bowel disease which continues to this day.

Effectively shielding for years even before the Covid-19 pandemic hit, and struggling to get within 20kg of his previous best, it was – in Jawad’s words – “incredible” he even managed to make it to Tokyo. Make it he did, however, and he earned a sixth-placed finish in the final at the end of August.

“For me it was a win on my part because I managed to push the disease to its limits and beat it on the day,” Jawad says. “Also if you saw the weight that won gold, my performance from Rio would have beat it. So it shows that if I was healthy I could have been up there. I was at peace with my performance. So now it’s my job to go away and get healthy.”

The way he talks about his fight with an incredibly complex and challenging disease is revealing of Jawad’s mindset. And it’s no surprise to find that in the weeks since the Tokyo Paralympic Games ended, he has thrown himself into new endeavours.

The first is the launch of an app, Accessercise, a rare intervention in the area of disability and physical exercise which aims to help disabled people in their efforts to get fit. The statistics in this area are bad and have been made worse by Covid. Disabled people are twice as likely to be inactive as non-disabled people and the last survey by the disability pressure group Activity Alliance found that only three in 10 of their respondents felt they were offered the same opportunities to be active.

For Jawad, these conclusions are obvious and substantiated by his own experience of being the only disabled person in the gym. “If I go to a normal gym and people don’t know who I am, they just start looking at me in a weird way. It’s like they’re feeling sorry for me that I’ve got no legs but, also, that it’s good that I’m trying,” he says.

“We need to switch that mindset. Everyone’s doing the same thing: able-bodied or disabled everybody’s trying to have the best life they can, right? I guess that’s where the fitness industry lacks when it comes to helping disabled people get empowered and independent.”

Accessercise is a platform that allows users to build a training programme applicable to their disability and to share it with others, gaining feedback from users with similar conditions. It also allows people to locate themselves at a gym or leisure centre and then rate those facilities. For Jawad, who has also begun a PhD looking at doping in parasport, the accumulation of data is crucial.

“Being a researcher myself I know how valuable data is when it comes to informing and guiding the decision-making process at the top level. I knew that with this app I didn’t just want to create something for disabled people, I needed a way to prove to authorities that, actually, change needs to be made and there’s a lot still to go.

“Organisations talk about what they’re doing for disabled people without actioning it. I feel that I’m kind of tired of people saying stuff without actually doing it.”

Another group that talks without action, in Jawad’s eyes, is the media. While acknowledging the real changes in visibility that have followed Channel 4’s coverage of the Paralympic Games since 2012, Jawad says the Games “makes disability front and centre for about … for two, three weeks right? But after that we’re forgotten about until the next Games.” He wants broadcasters to commit to screening more world and European championships, and for journalists to report on them.

“We get to see the World Athletics or even the European Athletics,” he says, “why can’t we see the Para Powerlifting world championships, or the Taekwondo Europeans, which are being held in Manchester next year? It’s little things like that where the media have a big responsibility and they can do way more.”

The struggle for visibility and for equality does not stop with parasport. In fact, Jawad worries that sometimes the focus on elite disabled athletes has been a distraction from the broader needs of the community.

“The Paralympic Games showcase the very best of human performance but what it also does is …” Jawad says, pausing before he makes a sensitive point. “Previously we were seen as superhumans and the disabled community that didn’t compete at the Paralympic Games felt ignored.” It was almost, he says, as if “they felt if they weren’t in the Games they were worthless. I want to change that. The disabled community deserves to be front and centre the whole time, not just once every four or five years.”

Accessercise can be downloaded via Apple Store or Google Play – visit join.accessercise.com for more information

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