Dylan Alcott – Australian of the Year and Totally Able

Don’t worry if you have a disability. I don’t care that I’m in a wheelchair – in fact, I love it. Go to work with what you’ve got. I live the best life ever. Please get out there and enjoy life. Even though it’s a bit different, being different is definitely good.

This week Dylan Alcott – Paralympian gold medallist, elite athlete and disability advocate – was named Australian of the Year. It is the first time in the award’s 60 plus year history that it has been won by a person with a visible disability and the disability community is jubilant. Alcott was quick to pay tribute to his predecessor, Grace Tame, describing her as “a fierce advocate for her cause” and I have no doubt that Alcott will be equally fierce as he continues his campaign to change the long-held negative perceptions about disability. Alcott has won gold on the basketball court and on the tennis court, yet he believes that his true purpose in life is 

“to change perceptions so people with disabilities can live the lives they deserve to live, do whatever they want to do.”

Many people may be familiar with Alcott’s achievements on the sporting field, but he has been equally active off the sporting field. As a motivational speaker he reaches out to encourage all young Australians with a disability to make the most of their life and he established his own foundation in 2017 so that he could offer financial support and opportunities to help them achieve their goals. He is a tireless campaigner, seeking to normalise disability and highlighting the invisible barriers that prevent people with disabilities from having a full and active life. He mixes with the rich and famous, and yet he endears himself to ordinary Australians with his humble and humorous approach to life. And this is so clearly evident throughout his book, Able.

First published in 2018, Able tells the story of Alcott’s life from the diagnosis of a neural tube defect in the first days of his life, through all his sporting achievements and life with family and friends. Alcott tells it the way it is, from the highs and lows, to the funny and embarrassing moments of his life. He tells it in his own inimitable style and I swear I could hear his voice in my head as I read about his life, what he has learned and what he is most passionate about.

One of the things I admire most about Alcott is the way he pays tribute to the people who have helped and supported him along the way. When people look at a sporting hero, they can often forget there is a whole community of people standing behind. The parents who have carted them from A to B and back again.  The schools and teaching staff who have implemented accommodations and made allowances for sporting commitments. The friends who have accepted them for who they are and been prepared to help out to enable access and participation, even when it means carrying their friend in their wheelchair. And the athletes and disability advocates who have paved the way as role models and mentors. Alcott thanks them all and honours the contribution they have made in his life.

In return, Alcott is generous with his time, visiting schools, meeting young Australians with disabilities and encouraging them to live their best life. The book is peppered with great advice for any person with a disability, in fact, for anyone at all, no matter their circumstances in life. Such as, never being ashamed to ask for help when you need it and to reach out to those who genuinely care. He stresses the importance of getting outside our comfort zones and being prepared to take a few risks. 

“…you just have to go out there and live with what you’ve got and love life.”

Great advice for everyone.

Like everyone though, there have been some tough times in his life. Times when he hated his disability and himself. It’s hard to believe, looking at the effervescent and confident man he has become, but the schoolyard can be a cruel place. Bullying can have a terrible impact on any young person, but even more so when they are already feeling self-conscious about their difference. Coupled with this is the fact that they have never seen anyone like themselves on television or in the media. Or the negative depictions of disability seen in countless movies. Alcott also points out the inequality in the sporting arena. Many Australians were outraged when they discovered that the Tokyo Paralympic medallists did not receive financial bonuses like those given to their Olympic counterparts. Of course, anyone with any connection with the disability community would not have been surprised. As Alcott notes, disability has long been the one aspect of diversity in which very few have been interested. While wheelchair tennis has been one of the few sports that has been fully integrated, although not at all events, the disparity in prize money is absolutely disgusting. Even for the winner, it didn’t cover the cost of travel. At the 2015 Australian Open, Alcott explains how the singles champions would each collect $3.1 million, while the winner of the wheelchair Quads Singles received $14,000. Even someone who bowed out of the able-bodied competition in the first round still received $50,000. We can only hope that as disability sport receives more attention from sponsors this appalling discrepancy will be eliminated.

One of the most heartwarming parts of Alcott’s story is his long friendship with Heath Davidson. They met many years ago at a Come and Try day for wheelchair tennis. Who would have thought back then that these two boys would one day be playing together to win Paralympic gold at Rio in 2016. Incidentally, their first win together was at The Australian Open in 2002. Heath had some ups and downs in his life too, but it was just beautiful to read about the way Alcott supported and encouraged him and took such joy in his friend’s achievements. 

para: beside, alongside, parallel

The Paralympics has been a big part of Alcott’s life. From the day when he first watched Louise Sauvage compete in Atlanta he set competing at the Paralympics as his goal. He won gold first as part of the Rollers team in 2008 for wheelchair basketball and then later in wheelchair tennis in both singles and doubles. Alcott says:

The Paralympics is a beautiful thing, where for two weeks people with a disability rule the world.”

Why shouldn’t people with disability rule the world all year round?

As Alcott moves into the next phase of his life I think we can expect him to be as fierce on the advocacy stage as he was on the tennis court. After being named Australian of the Year, Alcott said he wanted to “use his new-found platform to continue his work in changing perceptions of people without disability towards those who do live with disability.” As he says in his book, the more we talk about disability, the more we normalise it and make it less awkward for everyone. Changing perceptions is one thing; making life better for people with disabilities is quite another.

We need access and healthcare. We need to fund the NDIS so we can be the people that we want to be.” (ABC, Jan 26, 2022)

  I can see that Alcott is going to be a great advocate for all the participants in the NDIS throughout his time as Australian of the Year, and he notes that all it takes is a bit of smart thinking and a whole lot of hard work and every place, every event, every part of life can be fully accessible to everyone. Alcott said he always knew that one day he… 

wanted to become a disability advocate. I wanted to help normalise disability and improve the lives of people with disabilities all around the world. Hopefully, my sporting success would give me the platform I needed.” 

I think that Dylan Alcott is well on the way to achieving that goal and I hope all Australians get behind him and make full inclusion a reality for all people living with disability.

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