At Torrens University, we want to become the university of choice for people with disabilities. We want to be a trusted partner and collaborator with the disability community. This is no small vision and one that will require significant energy and focus.
But on the International Day of People with Disabilities, Paralympian, world champion wheelchair tennis player, media personality, entrepreneur and advocate Dylan Alcott reminded us that our actions can’t just be tokenistic. We must take a thorough and wholistic approach to championing and supporting people with disabilities. It must reverberate through our teaching, curriculum, research, and also in our employment practices and our community engagement.
I was privileged to join Mr Alcott in an extended conversation as part of our Speaker Series. Watch the full conversation here, or selected highlights here. The discussion not only threw out social justice challenges to educators and employers – but provided profound insights into how we can level the playing field for people with disabilities.
Smashing stigma, changing minds and making a society fit for everyone
In addition to winning three Paralympic gold medals and ranking number 1 in wheelchair tennis, Dylan Alcott oversees two businesses and a foundation that supports people with disabilities. But when the COVID-19 lockdown lifted in Melbourne he was taken aback by an encounter with a stranger.
“This lady came up to me in tears and she said, it's so inspirational to see you here getting your own coffee,” recalls Dylan.
Sharing the experience at Torrens University Australia’s Speaker Series on International Day of People with Disabilities, the sports star says he’s worried about that individual’s expectation that he can’t do anything.
“What if she is the chancellor of a university, a lecturer, a schoolteacher, a politician, a recruiter, or an HR manager. That's where it gets scary.”
Dylan’s reflection on being told he was an inspiration for the simple act of buying a coffee reminded me of a term often used by the late Stella Young, comedian, writer, thinker and someone I had the great pleasure of calling a dear friend and sister. Like Dylan, Stella used her platforms to bring the conversation about inclusion and the social model of disability to the mainstream. Stella often referred to “Inspiration Porn”. She said:
“I want to live in a world where we don’t have such low expectations of disabled people that we are congratulated for getting out of bed and remembering our own names in the morning. I want to live in a world where we value genuine achievement for disabled people.”
Like Stella, Dylan Alcott believes changing perceptions is one of the most powerful ways of creating a more equal, accessible and just world for people with disabilities.
“The reason I get out of bed every day is to, even in a very small way, try to change those perceptions and break those stigmas, so people with disability can live the lives that they deserve to live,” says Dylan.
“And the best way to do that is if we lift expectations of what we think people with a disability can do.”
Dylan himself admits that when he was younger, he struggled to talk about his disability. He remembers difficulties connecting with other people who would be afraid to mention his disability, and the effect that had on him. But gradually, he developed something that changed everything: pride.
“I was embarrassed to talk about my disability,” he says. “And I realised, as soon as I became proud of my disability, my life changed immediately.”
Since then, Dylan has indeed worn his identity with pride – and he has led by example when it comes to changing perceptions and championing what people with disability can and can’t do. Not only through his sporting achievements, but through other projects, such as helping create Ability Fest, a fully accessible music festival. Because people with disabilities should be able to enjoy music festivals too.
“I think people with a disability deserve to live a life just like everyone else, straight up!” Dylan emphasises.
“They deserve to go to any sporting club, they deserve to have sex, they deserve to get drunk at a bar, they deserve to get lit at a music festival.”
People with disabilities make ‘bloody good’ employees
But enabling people with disabilities to enjoy sport and music isn’t Dylan’s only priority. There is still a drastic underrepresentation of people with disabilities in the work force.
Get Skilled Access is a training provider that helps government and industry to better understand and work with people with disabilities. Co-founded by Dylan, it sits alongside Able Foods, which he established to provide fresh, not frozen ready-made meals to people on the NDIS.
Both businesses have one secret to their success, which Dylan was happy to share.
“Top to bottom. From the board to our warehouse. Every one of our consultants, every one of our associates – everybody has a disability.”
Of the 4.4 million Australians living with some form of disability, only 53 per cent of those who are working age can get jobs.
“People with a disability, are 90 per cent more likely to be equal to, or more productive than an able-bodied person. They have higher retention rates, lower absenteeism and are ready-made problem solvers because of our disability. That's what we do every day.”
“The reason we employ people with disabilities is not to get a warm, fuzzy feeling in our stomach. It’s not to be socially responsible. We do it because they make bloody good employees,” punctuates the tennis champion.
Employees with disabilities deserve fair pay
It’s a sad irony that on a day created to acknowledge people with disabilities, employers are more likely to underpay them – or not pay them at all.
“People with disabilities get asked to come speak at some company for free because they say you've got to advocate for your community. Yet, if you get a leadership coach in, are you going to pay them to learn leadership?”
“Of course you are. So, if you're getting educated about disability, why would you not?”
On a day-to-day basis, Dylan emphasises the need to support the careers of people with disabilities and pay them accordingly.
If more employers copied Dylan’s secret to success by offering employment to more people with disabilities, he admits he would fist-pump the air with pride. As well as boosting employability for people with disabilities, his businesses are paying their staff by making a profit, not through government handouts.
“They’re earning what I’m earning, they’re earning what you’re earning. They’re earning what they should – what they deserve to earn.”
Universal design trumps disability access
The number of ramps we see retrofitted to buildings is more than enough evidence to show that the inclusion of people with disabilities hasn’t always been part of the design of our world.
Technology innovations are increasingly making disability access easier, but as Dylan points out when design is universal, it benefits all of us.
“Has anyone heard of Siri before? You think that's to make your life easier? No, that's so people who are blind or low-vision can use a phone.”
He makes the same argument for automatic sliding doors.
“They make your life easier. But they make my life possible. So, when universal design’s done properly, you don't even notice it. But it has to be built from the start.”
Universities have a bigger role to play
As a B Corp organisation and as part of our pledge to Be Good, Torrens University is committed to becoming the university of choice for people with disabilities. However, we know we have a lot of work to do.
As Dylan highlights, it’s not just about universal design in physical spaces.
“Universities are quite good at the hardware. We look like we do well – we see ramps and elevators and things. But the software and the lack of opportunities – that’s where we fall down.”
The software he’s referring to isn’t inside digital devices, but rather the soft skills to understand the experience of life with disabilities. Many of us in education need a software upgrade to eliminate unconscious bias and develop empathy.
“The software is actually easier to change than the hardware. It's a lot cheaper, but you've got to invest, and you know how you find out?”
“You educate yourself and communicate with people with lived experience.”
Future generations won’t need an International Day of Disability
With the changes in community attitudes and adaptability of technology, Dylan declares several times that there has never been a better time to have a disability.
But when I asked him to gaze into the crystal ball and tell us his vision for the future, he doesn’t mince his words.
“I can’t wait to look back and think ‘Oh my god I can’t believe we even used to have those international day of people with disability things, where we talked about it’. It’s just a part of our culture.”
Between here and there, Dylan points out that we all have a social responsibility role to play and there’s a lot of work to do.
“Challenge your own unconscious bias. When you see someone have a bias, call them out. Talk to them about it, educate them, provide stories, listen to lived experience.”
“I know that's a huge reach for the stars, but I don't see the reason why people with a disability can't be everywhere – just being people.”
These are just five of the many frank and honest messages that Dylan Alcott shared in a conversation that was free from judgement but filled with practical insights. You can watch the full conversation here, or watch selected highlights here.
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