Nothing changes people’s perceptions quite like success.
Certainly it has been that way for Ireland’s Darragh McDonald, who improved upon his silver medal at Beijing 2008 with gold at the London Paralympics last year in the S6 400m freestyle.
Gone are the days when people stated at his physical disabilities with pity. Those looks have been replaced by a respect for what he and his fellow Paralympians do as elite athletes.
Speaking as Allianz yesterday announced its official sponsorship of Paralympics Ireland up to the Olympics Games in 2016, McDonald said: “The big thing people tend to realise is… you see all the young kids and they’re interested in footballers and all. A lot of them are interested in the allure of the money and when they start to realise that, sad as it sounds, Paralympic athletes, they’re like: oh they’re getting funded by the Sports Council, the same as the rugby players are like Paul O’Connell and Brian O’Driscoll. It clicks in their heads that they are elite athletes.
“It’s not just like a charity case at all: ‘oh there’s some disabled lads in a pool going up and down’. They actually realise it’s sport and it’s high performance. London did a lot for that and people began to realise that. It’s helped immensely, even in the school where younger kids can be influenced. It’s all changed now.”
The bubbly young Wexford man already has titles to his name but points out that the challenges he sets for himself go beyond medals and times.
“My goal beyond the sport, beyond the medals and beyond the records, is to be there in the public eye as, not so much a role model, but almost a resource. So that people can see, the younger parents that don’t have a clue what’s going on, their child is after being born with no limbs, ‘what the hell do I do?’ They need to realise that they should stick them out there, throw them in a pool, they’ll float.
“Stuff like that is what I’m all about and it’s what I want to bring to the table more than medals.”
McDonald is keen to continue changing perceptions and to ensure that the next generation don’t wrap disabled children up in cotton wool, or shepherd them from the lifestyles of able-bodied kids out of fear.
“Mollycoddling drives me mental. I see so many people, especially parents of people with disabilities saying, ‘oh don’t let him do that’.
“My parents let me do everything, literally everything. I am more scared of having one arm now and getting it damaged than my parents ever were,” he laughed.
“I distinctly remember having one of these scooters and I tied the dog to the scooter and was going along. I remember it falling sideways and going over my hand!
Imagine, I let a scooter go over my one good arm and if it had been broken I would have been stuffed. My parents, it’s not that they didn’t care, it’s that they knew you can’t mind it or else you’ll cause more hassle in the end and that’s what I want to get forward. All the parents of disabled kids think you have to be careful — you can’t do this, you can’t do that — but it’s the exact same, you just have to getcreative in the way you do things.”
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