‘Children will see The Witches and think they must hide’ – Paralympians unite behind #NotAWitch campaign

Paralympic champion Hollie Arnold is part of this year's I'm a Celebrity cast


On Sunday evening as Paralympic champion Hollie Arnold heads to Gwrych Castle, the new location for this year’s I’m A Celebrity series, her inclusion in the line-up as the first ever Paralympian to join the show represents an important breakthrough. The 26-year-old F46 javelin thrower, who won gold in Rio 2016, will line up alongside Mo Farah, in a programme that has always included famous sportsmen and women – just never Paralympians.

For GB para-rower Lauren Rowles, seeing her compatriot Arnold on our screens, “shows that Paralympians are now recognised for their success and deemed figures of public interest just like Olympians are”.

Yet it also brings the opportunity to shine a light on another issue which has angered numerous Paralympians in recent weeks and has spawned the viral campaign #NotAWitch. Rowles, who won gold in the mixed double sculls in Rio, has supported the campaign which has grown in response to the film remake of Roald Dahl’s The Witches, which depicts the grand high witch – played by Anne Hathaway – with three fingers on each hand.

“I find it outrageous that this has been put in a film in 2020,” says GB basketball player Jude Hamer, 29, who took to social media to air her disappointment at the Warner Bros’ movie that stigmatises those with missing limbs as villains. Hathaway has since issued an apology “for the pain caused”, but the limb difference community are frustrated at a continued lack of awareness around disability. “The book was written in the 1980s,” Hamer says. “The first film came out in the 1990s but we are living in a very different time now. We don’t need to be making depictions of people like that in this day and age.”

Her words are echoed by girlfriend Rowles, in an interview over video call. “Of course, we are a lot further ahead in society than we previously were,” Rowles says, “but that’s not to say this movie isn’t a problem.

“Para-athletes are not always at the forefront of people’s minds. Kids aren’t watching para-sports every day but what they are watching are children’s shows and movies; that is where representation is needed.”

For Hamer and Rowles, the exposure and normalisation of disability is what is needed to reflect modern-day society. Arnold’s inclusion on one of the biggest reality TV shows feels significant. “Though Hollie has a disability she is not someone to make it her weakness and I’m sure that she will show the public the incredible nature of Paralympians and their ability to overcome challenges,” Hamer adds.

Please educate yourself on #LimbDifferences and the support the idea that you are #NotAWitch because you look different!

You can also actively support the limb difference community by using words that describe us as PEOPLE, as it’s not the difference that defines us. pic.twitter.com/JHz3uSPWWa

— Amy Marren (@amy_marren) November 3, 2020

For Hamer and Rowles, among Britain’s most celebrated Paralympians, their disabilities are now associated with positivity – winning medals, meeting some of their Paralympics heroes and competing at the Games – but it has not always been that way.

“One of the reasons I had my leg amputated was because I wanted to look more ‘normal’ and being an amputee was more common placed then having a limb difference,” Hamer says. “It worries me that kids will see this [film] and think they have to hide themselves. I don’t want other kids to only start accepting their bodies and disabilities in their late twenties.”

Former swimmer turned para-triathlete Claire Cashmore agrees. Now celebrated as a multiple Paralympic medal-winning athlete, she emotionally recalls her experiences of growing up with a limb difference.

“I remember being called Captain Hook as a child and that was very upsetting. For me, the scariest thing as a child was dancing in the playground and being asked to hold hands with someone; I knew no one wanted to hold my hand and it was horrible,” she says.

In a 2018 survey by leading disability equality charity Scope, negative attitudes and prejudice remained a major problem for disabled people, with one in three (32 per cent) disabled respondents saying that there is a lot of prejudice against disabled people in Britain. This was a stark difference to responses from non-disabled people, with just 22 per cent agreeing there is a lot of prejudice.

Cashmore and Rowles shared experiences of people assuming that they “need to be helped”, or being the recipients of awkward “apologetic stares” while shopping. The same survey found that 75 per cent of respondents thought disabled people needed to be cared for some or most of the time.

“If we continue to just accept misrepresentation or comments because that’s just how society is; nothing will change,” Rowles says.

“We only have the world stage for a few weeks every four years, but films are a day-to-day thing that everyone engages in and we need that representation there.”

“I’m not talking about this for me, because I’ve gone through this journey, and I’m now comfortable,” says Cashmore, explaining why she is speaking out. “It’s for younger kids who are going through it. There is no representation of them anywhere else, there is no other place they will see themselves on TV, yet the one time they see themselves now is as a witch, and that’s not right.”

Whilst this depiction was not meant to offend, it is a classic example of the type of unconscious biases and carelessness that occurs in a creative environment that is lacking the insight and benefits of true diversity and representation.#NotAWitch #LimbDifferent #Witches pic.twitter.com/IjHd0UsNnS

— JJ Chalmers (@JJChalmersRM) November 6, 2020

In a statement, Mike Sharrock, chief executive of the British Paralympic Association, said: “We fully support ParalympicsGB athletes who have expressed concerns around the representation of disability in the new film The Witches.

“The Paralympic movement is a celebration of humanity in all its various shapes and sizes and has achieved so much to challenge perceptions and breakdown barriers in the UK since the watershed moment of London 2012.

“Athletes have a powerful voice and should speak out when they see things which they believe promote a regressive view of disability, whether intentional or not. We also want to see more disabled people in positions of influence across all sectors of society to ensure greater equality for the millions of disabled people in the UK.

“This year the world was meant to have witnessed a thrilling summer of sport, climaxing with the Paralympic Games. The pandemic has not only delayed the Games but limited the representation of disabled people on our screens, which plays a major role in moulding the public perception of disability.”

Rowles says: “Before, I lived in this bubble of me against able-bodied people, but being part of the Paralympics community was the first time I really felt at home.”

Cashmore continues: “Embrace your difference, everyone is beautiful no matter what. It [disability] makes you different and makes you unique, but do not think that movie is a representation of you.”