Bake Off star Hannah Cockroft on the most heartbreaking question she’s asked

Hannah Cockroft has 20 gold medals to her name, among them five Paralympic titles.

Yet almost every single day the wheels which have helped speed the elite sprint track athlete to sporting glory attract stares from children, plus the regular whisper: “Mummy, why is that lady in a pushchair?”

And more often than not the response she’ll overhear will not be a gentle correction and explanation but an unhelpful: “I don’t know.”

The world record holder, 26, believes atthe peak of the London 2012 Paralympic Games , where she scooped two golds, the country developed a new appreciation and acceptance of disability .

But since then there has been a disappointing decline, which means young children especially, who cannot remember that glorious summer, have worryingly little understanding at all.

Hannah said: “Now that age are kind of alien to wheelchairs, disability, because it’s not on TV, you can’t just turn on your TV and see someone with disability anymore. It feels we have taken a step back.

“I get a lot of children who point at me or ask their mums ‘Why’s that lady in a pushchair?

“How can they not know it’s a wheelchair?

“I’m slightly embarrassed because they have noticed me, although it’s good they are being inquisitive.

"But when parents are automatically ‘I don’t know’, that’s not educating your child.

"Say: ‘That lady has a disability. Her legs don’t work properly that’s why she’s sitting in a wheelchair, it’s not a push chair, there’s no one pushing her around. She is independent just like you and me.’”

Worse still are the stares from adults on the rare occasions Hannah decides to walk, which she can do over short distances.

“I have a very unique swagger!” she chuckles, very comfortable with her own differences, although that doesn’t make public ignorance any easier to take.

“You feel eyes on you which isn’t very comfortable, which now means I avoid walking in public.

"You shouldn’t ever be made to feel ashamed of a skill that just took me a lot longer to master than other people,” she adds.

Her reaction is to get seen in her chair as much as she can – one reason she accepted a spot on The Great Celebrity Bake Off for Stand Up To Cancer.

She will be appearing alongside John Lithgow, Jon Richardson and Russell Brand – the first wheelchair user to appear on the show.

The cause is dear to her heart after her 18-year-old cousin was diagnosed with leukaemia last year. He is now out of hospital and getting stronger.

Hannah says: “Growing up I never saw people on TV with a disability, I always felt very alone and unique, so it is good I’m going to be on a show that is widely watched by families, and show a disability doesn’t stop you, you can still do what other people can do.”

Even if, she laughs, she couldn’t actually cook that great… and for that, she can’t blame the chair, she concedes.

“I don’t like cooking, I’ll be honest!” she giggles.

“I was like ‘OK, I’ll give it a go, it’s for a good cause, why not’. But it didn’t make me like cooking.

“I get frustrated. I follow instructions to a tee and it doesn’t work. Whatever goes in the oven doesn’t come out how it should!

“Counting to 12 seemed to evade me – I was supposed to make 12 of something, and I made nine.”

She wouldn’t be the first Bake Off contestant to face that particular curse.

Hannah’s disability was caused by two cardiac arrests soon after birth.

They left her with damage in a number of areas of her brain, affecting her mobility, and fine motor skills in her hands.

“I wasn’t great at piping things!” she says, confessing another Bake Off flaw. 

Until the age of 15, and attending mainstream schools, she refused to use a wheelchair because she didn’t want to “be different”.

“Up until then I struggled everywhere to be honest, I wanted to go where my friends went. They would just walk a bit slower and hold on to me,” she explains.

But at secondary school she found sport, first excelling in the seated discus, which won her the UK School Games.

It was at a talent day for the British Paralympic Association she was given her first chance to try an elite racing chair.

And ultimately, her coach told her by pushing herself to walk she was causing unnecessary damage to her body.

“My coach said ‘You’re hurting yourself, you’re not allowing yourself to recover by walking everywhere’, and I’ve slowly become more reliant on it,” she says of her chair.

She views her racing chairs, of which there have been many over the years, almost as teammates.

They get names –  Sally 2, was her London 2012 chair, then Boo, then Tink, for the Rio Paralymics, and currently it’s Anne.

And, she chuckles again, she sometimes talks to them, too.

“They have their own personas,” she explains.

“The 2012 chair was a really well-behaved chair, but my current chair not so much! They all seem to act different ways. 

“Athletics is a very individual sport, it can be quite lonely and I spend a lot of time on the track on my own.

“When you’re at a big competition it’s scary.  It’s nice to feel you have an ally down there.

“I don’t have full conversations, I’m not crazy! Just ‘Come on, we can do it’, like a little bit of motivation for yourself more than anything, but you feel like you’re in a team while you’re out there.”

It wasn’t her wheels that got the talking to in the Bake Off kitchen, though.

“I didn’t talk to my chair on Bake Off,” she insists. “But I think I swore at quite a lot of utensils!”

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The Great Celebrity Bake Off for Stand Up To Cancer starts Tuesday March 5 at 8pm on Channel 4.
  • To donate or for more information please visit www.channel4.com/su2c

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