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Why British Cycling Need to Stop Using Disabled People to Distract From Their Partnership with Shell UK

It’s been accused of sportswashing, greenwashing and cripwashing; the fact that so many agree that the newly announced partnership between British Cycling and Shell UK is dirty in the first place speaks volumes. 

I don’t need to add to the existing commentary on greenwashing and sportswashing, but – as is often the case – the issues around how problematic this deal is for disabled people is on the periphery of the discussion.

Since the announcement of the deal, the reaction has been overwhelmingly negative. Hundreds of people have contacted British Cycling to cancel their membership. 

However, some have come to the defence of the National Governing Body (NGB) – how many cars follow pro-bike races? How do the teams travel to grand tours and races all over the world? If you don’t like it, find another sport, right? 

But this is different. The NGB is funded by the UK Government. “Their job is to support grassroots cycling for non-disabled and disabled people,” Hannah Dines, Paralympian trike racer and para-cycling pundit, explains. “and to support elite cycling for non-disabled and disabled people.” 

So, you’d think the likes of me and Hannah would be excited by the aims of the new partnership, which they claim “will see a shared commitment to supporting Great Britain’s cyclists and para-cyclists…and helping more – and wider groups of – people to ride, including ways to make cycling more accessible for disabled people.”

We’re not though. Through their practices, Shell – and companies like them – have contributed to more people becoming disabled, sick and dying, due to the impacts of the climate emergency. 

Last year, following legal action from Friends of the Earth Netherlands, The Hague ruled that Shell must reduce its CO2 emissions by 45% within 10 years. Shell is not only appealing the decision, but each year pours millions of pounds of their astronomical profits into ‘lobbying designed to control, delay or block binding climate-motivated policy.’

The world is burning, yet one of the world’s biggest polluters is lobbying for the right to pour fuel on the fire and become even richer as they do so. 

Earlier this year, a study found that disabled people are being systemically ignored on the climate crisis; only 35 of the 192 countries in the Paris agreement referred to disabled people in their climate pledges and policies. When Hurricane Katrina hit the US in 2005, many wheelchair users were left stranded because there was no plan to evacuate them. America did not learn from this; history repeated when Hurricane Sandy hit in 2012. 

The Tory Government has failed to implement a windfall tax on the energy companies who have made obscene profits during the cost-of-living crisis, leaving many disabled people fearing more cuts will be sent their way instead – despite so many already living in food and fuel poverty. 

“Disabled people have also been pushed into car dependency through the Motability scheme, poor public transport infrastructure and locations of accessible homes – which are in short supply,” Jamie Wood, who has MS and uses an adapted cycle has his primary mobility aid, told me.

“This makes disabled people even more exposed to rising fuel prices than they need to be. Cycling and active travel are possible routes for some disabled people to evade this aspect of the cost of living and yet this deal seems a way of appropriating the messaging from a highly visible and successful ambassador for disabled cycling.”

Paralmypian Hannah Dines

Dr Harrie Larrington-Spencer, a research fellow at the University of Westminster’s Active Travel Academy, resigned from the British Cycling diversity and inclusion working group, saying that their “partnership with Shell is unethical & antithetical to the grass roots cycling the group supports.”

Some people believe that BC has failed to support grassroots and inclusion, prioritising medals and elite athletes. “I know first-hand they haven’t successfully followed through on grass roots initiatives to get more disabled people cycling,” Hannah told me.

“I wanted to get into cycling for a long time and the opportunities weren’t there; in fact, I found another sport and it was through that that I joined the elite para-cycling programme.”

“Previous funding between Rio, Tokyo and Paris cycles have not seen effective commitment to supporting disabled athletes,” said Hannah.

So, I asked British Cycling how much money they were receiving from Shell – and how much of that will be spent on the disability initiatives cited in the announcement. They were unable to answer those questions, but did expand on the existing information on their website, telling me that:

  • Through investment in clubs, it is anticipated that opportunities will be created for 5,000 disabled riders to regularly take part in cycling activity, with further support for an inspiring competition programme to support riders wanting to progress along the competition pathway.
  • More than 7,500 volunteers and coaches will be trained and upskilled to support Limitless.
  • It is the ambition of both partners that five riders at the LA 2028 Paralympic Games will benefit from the support of Limitless on their journey.

My fear is that British Cycling is using disabled people to divert from the negative connotations of the partnership, through the charity model of seeing disability as tragic and para-athletes deserving of support. 

But as Hannah outlined, the national governing body should not need this unethical and controversial partnership to create opportunities for us – those should already exist on an equitable level to non-disabled cycling opportunities.

There is a lack of transparency; why can’t they tell anyone how much money will be invested into the disability programme? 

One would hope that if the grassroots development that’s so needed is to become a reality, it’s a substantial amount; accessible bikes are not cheap; the one I dream of costs over £5,000. 

If that money isn’t substantial, it will be a case of history repeating – too many sporting disciplines have relied on Paralympians as inspiration porn to encourage more disabled people into sport, and it fails. 

Of course representation matters, but if the pathway between seeing it and achieving it is littered with barriers that prevent others from even trying out the activity, it is not an accessible pathway. 

Many disabled people also haven’t forgotten the 2016 scandal surrounding then-technical director Shane Sutton’s conduct, referring to disabled athletes as ‘gimps’ and ‘wobblies’. Sutton was suspended, then quit, and the majority of BC’s directors were accused of covering up a report into claims of bullying within the GB team. 

Instead of clearing the barriers to disabled people that exist in cycling pathways, British Cycling continues to contribute to building them; they can’t even caption their social media videos, let alone create meaningful opportunities for us to take part in what should be an accessible activity. 

They need to invest in disability awareness training for all staff and volunteers – delivered by disabled people and on an ongoing basis – as a high priority. They need to understand and fully implement the social model of disability, to understand intersectionality, and to stop cripwashing.

Better still? End this grotesque partnership. 

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