Meet Our Inspiring Ambassador James Blackwell

Fresh back from the CP World Championships in Argentina, James Blackwell tells us about his journey, his message for the children in our SEND community and why he is honoured to be an ambassador for SGPC

James Blackwell equality in football.jpg

Like many members of our community, you have cerebral palsy which we know affects people on lots of different ways.  How does it affect you?  

My left hand side is affected (Left Hemiplegic) which means that I mainly struggle using my left arm, hand and legs.
— James Blackwell

As a young boy reaching the milestone of starting school you found that you were not able to attend a mainstream school.  What impact did this have on you?

It was tough and difficult to understand why I couldn’t go to the same school as my friends from the village, the pre-school and playgroup that I went to. It made me question what was wrong with me and why was I different and I would challenge Occupational health and assessors saying that there wasn’t anything wrong and I didn’t need help when I did.
My Parents had to send me to a private school because of my disability, nothing to do with what I could or couldn’t do but because I was labelled as having “Cerebral Palsy/a disability”. Fortunately, a couple of Years later, I was allowed to attend the mainstream school and was actually one of the best athletes, playing football for the older Year groups and being the fastest runner.
— James Blackwell

You kept your CP a secret from everyone except for close family, you even kept it a secret from your then fiance Holly.  This must have been very difficult for you, was this something you decided as a result of your school experience?

Yes, as I mentioned above nobody likes to be classed differently and made to feel different or not as good as others so it was hard. I didn’t want others to think of me any differently and that I was only James Blackwell, not the boy with cerebral palsy. It was hard to hide and difficult to overcome some of the challenges that my CP gives me on a daily basis but I didn’t want anyone to take pity on me or change their opinion based on the fact I have CP. I also think as you grow up you want acceptance and don’t want people to pick on any flaws you may have.
— James Blackwell

Football mad, you started football at age 8 and you showed real talent going on to play semi-professionally, but an encounter coming up against footballer Ibrahim Diallo whilst playing for Kingswood AFC made a huge impact on you.  You decided to make a change of direction with your football and changes to how you related to people in your personal life.  Tell us about that. 

Yes, I heard Ibs went to London 2012 and he had Cerebral Palsy. He is a very talented footballer who has played to a high level and it made me want to find out more about disability football and I found out there was actually an England CP football team. I then emailed Jeff Davis, National Elite Development Manager for Disability football and he called me back about 30 minutes later to ask me some questions and said if I was playing against Ibs then they’d definitely be interested in me joining the squad. The FA then sent a coach to watch me in a friendly and they told me I was good enough and brought me straight into the Senior England squad.
The opportunity to represent England was too big to miss out on and has helped me massively in opening up about my disability and being able to tell people about it. I now shout about it and would encourage anyone in a similar position to do the same and embrace your disability. Football was always my disguise and a way to hide my disability by playing to a fairly decent level.

It helped me open up to Holly, my wife and tell her all about it. It was a couple of months before we got married and I sat her down and said I had something I needed to tell her, I could see the panic in her face and when I told her (she said all of the bad things went through her head, I’d cheated, didn’t want to marry her etc…) She said is that all!? It doesn’t change the way she feels about me and why couldn’t I tell her earlier.

I felt that a massive weight had been lifted off my shoulders and after our honeymoon I joined the England squad for a training camp and have only looked forward since.
— James Blackwell

Being able to wear the England shirt and competing at such an elite level must have been a dream come true.  Was it all you imagined it would be?

It means so much, I think most boys dream of playing for England and it was always a dream of mine although I knew because of my disability it probably wouldn’t happen. The feeling when I put the England shirt on is still the same now and I extremely honoured to be able to represent our country.
— James Blackwell

Tell us about your England team and footballing highlights

The team is always improving and we seem to find new players all the time which is great and shows that the awareness is increasing and we are reaching out to more people.
We’ve reached our highest position in each of the international tournaments that I’ve played in and we’ve been fortunate to visit various different countries.
We finished 5th at the European championships in Portugal, 5th at the World Championships in England which meant GB secured a place at the Paralympics in Rio. We finished 5th in Rio which is the highest place the team has finished. A lot of other countries are fully funded and train a lot more than us with a few training everyday together but we are catching them up and have drawn against and narrowly lost in matches with Ukraine (Paralympic champions).
Scoring for England and GB has been an amazing feeling and in one game in Rio, we had 15,000 fans in the stadium which most professional footballers wouldn’t experience.
I’d say one of the biggest highlights has been my recovery from a broken neck in 2015 to play football again and recover in time to be selected for Rio. I was told that I was very fortunate to be alive let alone walking which was pretty scary especially as I had lost feeling to my arms and legs after the incident.
— James Blackwell

Who is your footballing legend?

There are a few, but I’d have to say Ryan Giggs just for staying at the highest level for so long.
— James Blackwell

Do you have any pre match superstitions or routines?

I don’t really have any superstitions but I will always put my shin pads on my right. Then my left, sock on my right then the left and the same for my football boots
— James Blackwell

There are different classifications for CP football, which classification do you fall under?

Yes, the categories go from 5-8 although this is due to change soon. It goes from the most affected, 5 being both legs affected to an 8 which is mildly affected and usually acquired brain injury.
You have to have at least two 5’s on the pitch and a maximum of one 8 on the pitch.
— James Blackwell

What was the reaction from everyone when you told them about your CP?

It has been really positive and although difficult initially it has helped me by being able to talk about my difficulties and what I’ve overcome. There have been some laughs and jokes about it but I think it helps and I often challenge friends about it and what are they doing when I can do it with a disability.
A lot of my friends came to watch me at the World Championships, especially those who were unaware of my disability and how it affects me but it was great to show them the training we go through, just to get by in life, let alone compete at an Elite level.
— James Blackwell

How do you feel things have moved on since your early childhood days in terms of education and disability?  Have we become more inclusive?

Things have definitely improved and the awareness and understanding is increasing with more and more support there for those affected and their families. I didn’t ever think I’d receive the positive feedback, support and kind words because of my disability and being able to tell others more about it and how it can affect people.
There is still a lot of work to be done and although 1 in 5 people have a disability the awareness is pretty low in terms of understanding and I want to help increase this to help others. I was 27 when I found out about the England pathway in football and there are many different groups/activities, like SGPC which people will be unaware of.
— James Blackwell

Do you have a message or hint and tips for our parent carers who might be looking for ways to enable their child with a disability or special needs follow their ambitions?

Support and encourage them but allow them to do things for themselves, make mistakes and learn from them but most importantly of all let them have fun and enjoy whatever they wish to do.
I think there can be a tendency to overprotect and treat children with disabilities or special needs differently than their siblings or other children.
Don’t focus on their disability but more their ability
— James Blackwell

Your parents Paul and Julie must have been a great source of support and inspiration, they were told that you would never walk.  What in particular are the key things they did to enable you to be the successful footballer you are and the successful man you are outside of football?

I don’t think I could ever thank them enough and the hours spent with me exercising, stretching, trying different activities and taking me to Occupational Therapy or Physiotherapy definitely helped with my development and improving my functionality.
Their continued support, guidance and encouragement throughout especially on the more difficult days when I would struggle with tasks, say I couldn’t do things and give up or want to give up. They would also encourage me to participate in sport and activities with others without disabilities and push me to better myself and not treat me any differently to my brother.
— James Blackwell

Do you have any mottos, quotes or words of inspiration that stay with you to motivate you when the training and conditioning programme gets tough?

Although no-one can go back and make a brand new start. Anyone can start from now and make a brand-new ending.”
“If it is important enough to you, you will find a way. If it is not, you will find an excuse

Your story is really inspirational, is there anything would like to say directly to our SEND children and young people, words of encouragement or valuable lessons from your experience?

I suppose my only regret is not pushing myself further and sometimes using my disability as an excuse and I would encourage anyone to embrace their disability, not use it as an excuse not to do things and make the most of life and the opportunities that may come your way.
I’ve been told twice in my life now that I might not walk and I’ve taken it on as a challenge and with my disability it’s about stepping out of your comfort zone and challenging yourself. Be Comfortable being uncomfortable!
— James Blackwell

Tell us why you are a passionate ambassador for SGPC? 

I felt extremely honoured when SGPC approached me, I really like what SGPC is about in being that supportive network giving help, advice and guidance to others but also being their voice in council meetings etc…
I receive messages from children and parents saying I’m an inspiration to their children. I don’t see myself as an inspiration but reading/hearing these are worth a lot more than any footballing achievement. It’s great that others think I have helped and if I can help others through my experiences.
I tried to hide my disability for so long and being able to talk about the challenges I’ve faced but also the successes I’ve had in life, even with a disability has helped me and hopefully it can help others
— James Blackwell

What change would you like to see for the disability and SEND community?

Increasing awareness not only of the different types of disability and educational needs and how they affect individual and their families but the support and needs required and being able to have a voice when it comes to local and national agendas.
I also think there needs to be more awareness of support networks like SGPC and for those affected to know that they have those around them going through similar experiences as themselves and have that support, advice and guidance
— James Blackwell