On the 4th September 2016, in the run up to the Rio Paralympics, the world’s first fully inclusive and accessible push/run took place in London’s Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park. Attended by more than 5,000 people, Parallel London was hailed a huge success and a national celebration of inclusion and diversity.
Now billed as an annual event, we chatted with Parallel London’s Founder, Andrew Douglass, about the inaugural event and the company’s plans for the future.
Where did the idea of Parallel first come from?
I have spent most of my career creating and managing large-scale events all over the world for many fantastic brands and organizations. One of these brands is Red Bull. It’s a little known fact that Red Bull supports a spinal cord research charity called Wings for Life. It originated in Austria, but when they set up the charity in the UK, I had an opportunity to help them pro bono, as they wanted to create lots of events.
I took an active interest and not only did I start to learn a tremendous amount about physical disability and spinal cord research, it also opened my eyes to many of the challenges in our society around inclusivity.
Furthermore, through Wings for Life I met a really amazing guy called Nick Ashley-Cooper – aka Lord Shaftesbury. As we got to know each other, Nick shared his story with me and his own lived experience of disability. The combination of my own personal experience of the challenges around disability and learning about a real sense of purpose from Nick galvanised me to create the world’s first large-scale accessible and inclusive event.
Was it hard to get off the ground?
I first had the idea in April 2011 and we eventually staged the event in September 2016. I think this demonstrates how challenging it has been. Perhaps it might have been easier if I had wanted to stage the event outside of London, but I very much want Parallel London to become the UK’s National Celebration of Inclusivity.
The main challenge was finding a date and a venue that could accommodate us. You would not believe how hard this is - London hosts so many events it’s quite difficult to find a slot.
However, the Mayor of London’s office recognised that our event was differentiated and we also demonstrated that we had a lot of demand. This lead to a significant breakthrough - The Mayor of London’s office committed to giving us their support for an initial 5 years. So, eventually after many meetings and actually having to tender our event to The Olympic Park, we finally won a slot to stage our event.
What were the main objectives of Parallel London?
By creating an event like Parallel London, I think it presents a very good opportunity to look at the inner workings of how inclusivity is represented in society and completely flip it on its head. I think that this can help change the narrative and perception of disability - particularly if the event experience is fun, dynamic, surprising and celebratory.
So, we created a fun event that was open to individuals that aren’t necessarily elite athletes, but just want to take part, with the aim of encouraging people with disabilities to have more active lifestyles.
Beyond this we wanted to start a conversation about how disability is integrated into society and how we can break down barriers and generally challenge perceptions around disability.
What were the main outcomes?
The event was attended by 5,500 people. 3,000 of these participated in push/run challenges - more than 40% of whom declared they have a disability. To maximise opportunities for participation we organised five different challenges with no cut-off times: 100m, 1km, 5km, 10km and Super Sensory 1km. We welcomed participants of all ages and abilities. People ran, walked, wheeled, pushed - and everything in between.
Conscious that many people with disabilities (58%) also encounter barriers to participating in cultural activities or events, we made the most of the iconic venue with a huge free family festival that showcased accessible attractions and entertainment across technology, culture, food and drink, active lifestyle, community and family.
Feedback has been overwhelmingly positive and the media coverage helped to shine a positive light on the benefits of accessible and inclusive environments. As a result, there has been significant national interest in our event and aims.
How did you finance Parallel?
Parallel London is run as a not-for-profit event and all surplus funds generated are redistributed to participating charities. Livability and BBC Children in Need were the leading charity partners this year.
Our key corporate partners: Barclays, Toyota, Cathedral City, innovision and Livability sponsored the festival zones. Irwin Mitchell, Gatwick Airport and BP were also among the supporting partners. Encouraging mainstream brands to engage was really important. I think brands need to stand up and align themselves with the positive attributes of disability.
With the festival, we also had many exhibitors and there was so much on offer during the day: film workshops, digital orchestras, live art, pop-up book shops, superheroes, wheelchair rugby, Eagle Labs, photography and live music and performance.
Furthermore Parallel London provided a platform for charitable fundraising, enabling beneficiaries to become benefactors for the first time.
Do you have a personal highlight of the day?
Can I have two?
I must confess, I had a few butterflies hoping that, despite the encouraging sign-ups, we would get a really big attendance. I remember vividly arriving at the event site with my family and looking out at a sea of people of all ages and abilities; surrounded by a beautifully branded and vibrant environment. That was a really great moment.
The atmosphere on the day was just electric. But if I was to single out just one of the challenge events it would be the Super Sensory 1km, a multi-sensory challenge particularly tailored for individuals with profound and multiple learning disabilities, people of all ages on the autistic spectrum and those who need sensory support. Over one hundred people took part in this landmark challenge. This, to me, was a true representation of Parallel’s success, demonstrating that if the environment is accessible, more and more people will get active.
So, what’s next?
We are already counting down to Parallel London 2017, which will take place in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on the 3rd September!
My hope will be to double in size and double the number of participants.
We are also looking at some smaller regional Parallels across the UK. I recognise that for many, travel and transport remains difficult and expensive; so we would like to make our events as accessible as possible by localising the experience.
Beyond 2017 I also have the ambition to create international Parallels and we are already in discussions with some forward thinking cities, who believe in creating inclusive societies.
How can people get involved?
If anybody fancies participating in any of the challenge events you can simply sign up on the website. The festival is free, so you can just come along on the day – it’s as simple as that...