Somerset woman challenges stigma around disability with sporting success

2 May 2017

Maria receiving her medalMaria Francis, from Timsbury in Bath, is a sport loving woman who is used to challenging perceptions around disability. Now she is part of a new fundraising push to pay for more inclusive sporting opportunities across the county.

Maria, 43, originally from Plymouth, has cerebral palsy and has lived at the Leonard Cheshire Disability care home Greenhill House for 12 years.

She recently won a bronze medal in the Boccia England’s first ever individual competition for the inclusive ball sport. Now she has set her sights on helping to make sure sport is more accessible to disabled people.

She said:

‘Disabled people are just the same as everybody else. It doesn’t matter if you are in a wheelchair.

‘I don’t like the way people stare at you in a wheelchair, that’s what my pet hate is.’

Maria’s team, the Greenhill House Boccia team, first started competing with the Boccia England National league in 2014. Along with staff and residents at Greenhill House, they are throwing a spectacular masquerade ball at the Assembly Rooms in Bath this year, with top sporting celebrities on the guest list.

Maria said sport has made a big impact on her life.

‘It has really changed me. Before finding Boccia, sport did not interest me. When I’m doing Boccia, I feel great and it’s made me stronger. The more I do sport, the bigger difference it makes.’

She added:

‘The number one thing in sport must be accessibility. When everyone can take part in sport, you get to meet lots of other people. I enjoy meeting children and seeing older people out in the community.’

Greenhill volunteer coordinator Ann Birtwistle, who supports the inclusive sport in Greenhill House and in the wider community, said:

‘The best way to challenge assumptions about disability is to get out and participate. Only then will clubs and facilities see their shortcomings and have a chance to find solutions.

‘Sport brings people together in a way which improves confidence and resilience.

‘It gives people the strength to tackle any uncomfortable experiences they might face as disabled people in the community, perhaps on a daily basis.

‘The psychological benefits of sport and exercise for mental health and well-being are well documented.’

Greenhill House have set themselves a fundraising target of £10,000 for the ball on Saturday 23 September. There are a host of special prizes as part of an auction. These include a University of Bath donated bobsleigh run for 10 people with 90 minutes instruction on its 140 metre skeleton/bobsleigh track — the only one of its kind in the UK.

Tickets are already on sale and can be bought by emailing Greenhill Events or call 01761 479 902. Tickets are priced at £95 a person. Seating will be in tables of 10 (masks are not compulsory!).

Olympic gold medal winning athlete Jason Gardener MBE is one of the special guests, along with multi-medal winning Paralympians Ben Rushgrove and Nigel Murray MBE. Local radio host Dom Chambers from Somer Valley FM will be master of ceremonies at the event.

The event is part of Leonard Cheshire Disability’s centenary celebrations, marking 100 years since the birth of its founder, war hero and global humanitarian Leonard Cheshire.

The ball runs from 7pm, with carriages at midnight. Any local businesses interested in sponsoring the event should email Ann Birtwistle or call 01761 479 902.

Media enquiries

  1. For media enquiries, high res images and interview requests please email Claire Farrell or call 020 3242 0204.
  2. Current local businesses supporting the event include: Honeybourne Facilities Group, Moneta Wealth Management, Minuteman Press, Recreational Coatings and Wessex Water.