Dylan Alcott’s journey is extraordinary, his story inspiring. An elite athlete, Alcott won his first Paralympic gold medal as a member of the Australian Wheelchair Basketball Team at 17.
He followed that up with a silver medal at the London games before relaunching a successful tennis career.
In January 2017, Alcott won his third-straight Australian Open quad singles tennis title.
It sits on his mantelpiece alongside three Paralympic gold medals. It is not surprising GQ magazine lists him as 2016’s Sportsman of the Year.
Dylan’s story is extraordinary but his situation is not. Nor is his success just individual.
In 2015, almost one-in-five Australians reported living with disability. And crucially, the promotion of positive role models is a well-established approach to encouraging diversity and social inclusion within a community.
I recently spoke with Dylan before a regional Australia tennis challenge which saw 20 business and community leaders pit themselves against Dylan to raise money for local charity Chances for Children.
During our conversation we talked about the significance of role models as well as the importance of economic participation of people with disability. Research shows increasing workforce participation by just ten percent would result in a cumulative boost to Australia's GDP of $A40 billion in the next decade.
Dylan Alcott: There are 4.3 million people in Australia with a physical or intellectual disability and there is this perception people with a disability are broken, unemployable, less dateable, incapable and not sexy.
That makes our lives really hard to get out there and be contributing members of society. I think we need some more positive role models in mainstream media to change that perception.
The example I use is: imagine if Hamish or Andy were in a wheelchair, or Malcom Turnbull was in a wheelchair, or Beyoncé had cerebral palsy.
The next time a little kid went to school and had cerebral palsy everyone would be more accepting of it because they’ve seen someone on TV. Everyone would be OK with it because they’ve seen it across mainstream media.
I want people to live the life I’ve lived. I’ve travelled the world, played sport, had girlfriends - I want to change the overall perception this can’t be achieved.
CL: You’ve said for every one thing you can’t do there are 10,000 others you can. For every one idiot that gives you a hard time there are 10,000 others worth your time. What were you talking about there?
DA: It’s very important to become the best version of yourself. Don’t worry about trying to be someone else - just worry about what you can do.
One of the things in life I won’t be able to do, if I have a kid one day, is teach him how to kick a footy. I’ll have to ask my brother to teach him. And that sucks.
I have to watch my friends run on the beach and I have to sit a few metres away and watch because I can’t do that. But for every one thing I can’t do there are tens of thousands of things I can do.
I think we as people focus on the things that are wrong and things we can’t do but if you can harness the things you can do and become the best version of yourself you can live a happy and enjoyable life.
CL: Disability is often positioned as a sensitive topic. How do you think we can alleviate some of those barriers?
DA: When people talk about disability it’s really reactive. People think straight away ‘that guy’s in a wheelchair, what do I do, does he have a carer?’
People can get so awkward around disability and it’s not their fault, they’ve probably just not been exposed to anybody with a disability.
When you see things on TV about disability and it all seems a bit scary and taboo you put it in the too-hard basket or you don’t want to offend people. Let me tell you - you’re not going to offend people!
I call it normalising disability: trying to make people comfortable around disability. That and accessing jobs is probably one of the hardest things.
CL: Speaking of, why is it important to bring events like these to regional communities? What’s important and what are you trying to do?
DA: People with disabilities in the city struggle, but they struggle a lot more in regional towns - there’s less support, hospitals, care and job opportunities. There’s high unemployment for people here in Mildura between the ages of 15-24.
Imagine if you have a disability. You’ve got no chance to get out there and do anything. I want to spread my message and lead the cultural shift around disability and the economic participation around people with disabilities.
I want them to want to get out there and study and get a job, because if they do hopefully we can change people’s perceptions. They can work and spend their money, go on a holiday go out for dinner - they can do those types of things.
At the moment, if you can’t, what’s the point of getting a job? You can just sit at home, live off your pension and play video games –that’s not a life I want people to be living.
CL: Is there anything you’d like the business community to do more of?
DA: There are some incredible statistics around people with disability in the workplace – 65 per cent are more likely to be more productive than an able-bodied person because they appreciate their job.
Something like 40 per cent are likely to be retained because they appreciate the role they’ve been given.
But do not give anybody a role because it’s token. Just give it on merit. If you give people the opportunity, present them as a worker - I promise you they’ll be great workers.
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If people become a little more open-minded there’s great opportunity for organisations to get a better return on investment because these people will work really hard for you.
Dylan is not only passionate about changing the perception of disability but is pro-active as well. He recently co-founded Get Skilled Access where he and his fellow Paralympian’s plan to deliver customer service training both face-to-face and online to organisations and governments looking to improve their interaction and inclusion for Australians facing accessibility and disability challenges.
Christine Linden is General Manager, Regional Business Banking at ANZ Australia
The views and opinions expressed in this communication are those of the author and may not necessarily state or reflect those of ANZ.