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As well as delivering disability awareness training for Enhance the UK, I also give motivational speeches, mainly in schools, for presentation evenings and assemblies. It is quite possibly my favourite kind of work, as I feel that there, just by being merely present as a 20-something in a wheelchair, I am making a difference. Disability awareness starts in schools, and this is where we need to focus our efforts, collectively. This is why:
- Children listen, and can still develop their own opinions.
Children are by far the most interactive and engaged when it comes to my impairment. They marvel at my pink and purple spokes, and find all the similarities between my chair and their pram, rather than focusing on the differences between us. They are still open to new ideas and forming their own opinions. To me, it is vital that I give them a positive and welcoming view of disability, especially before their parents ‘shoo’ them away!
- They can teach adults too!
Young people are often the ‘ice breaker’ that enables an older person to become flexible with their own thoughts. If a child knows how to help a visually impaired person cross the road from what they learnt at school, for example, there is no reason why they can’t educate those around them, too.
- Preparing for a more inclusive future generation.
The youngest amongst us have the pressure of providing the brightest future they can for all. That future is one that I want to be accessible, inclusive and welcoming. Let’s focus on making our school children so disability aware that, finally, it is normalised and accepted.
I’ve now been volunteering for over ten years, for causes I care deeply about and with friends I’ve made from all over the world. As a wheelchair user, a huge focus has been on disability awareness and its importance, which has ultimately led me to a brilliant role with Enhance the UK, but still I am often asked why I volunteer when I could be spending that time and energy bettering my bank account. Granted, I have a mortgage to cover and a car to run, but nothing quite compares to the ‘buzz’ of helping out at a major sporting event, a gig, or cheering others on from marathon sidelines…
Volunteering became a meaningful part of my life at the age of 16 when I travelled to southern Africa with the Journey of a Lifetime Trust, a charity that takes young disabled or disadvantaged people literally on a ‘Journey of a Lifetime’ to an exotic location. We rode elephants in Lesotho, climbed sand dunes in Namibia, and cage-dived with sharks off the coast of Capetown, but we also taught in schools and visited HIV/AIDS clinics. This made me want to come back home, share a little bit of what I had experienced overseas, and encourage others to look out for opportunities to help others.
I then joined lots of great societies at Queen Mary, University of London, where I studied English Literature. I also went on a year’s exchange to Melbourne, Australia and helped out in a juvenile prison. All of these experiences opened my eyes. I was no longer going through life in search only of my own progression, and ventures that would help me to succeed. When you unleash that desire to think about and help someone else, and realise that this also helps yourself and makes you a better person, then you’ve unleashed a beautiful potential. And it’s a potential that everybody has.
Nothing quite compared, however, to my experience as a Gamesmaker at the London 2012 Paralympic Games. I made some wonderful friends, got to see the performances of so many incredible athletes, and I even got a personal mention from Sebastian Coe in his Closing Ceremony Speech! I had told him that the Paralympic Games had ‘lifted a cloud of limitation’ for anyone who may have previously been seen as limited, be it through a physical impairment, or even a lack of confidence to follow their dreams. I was lucky enough to also help out at the Glasgow 2014 Commonwealth Games (a city I totally fell in love with, and where I now live!) and the 2016 Olympic and Paralympic Games in the incredible Rio, an amazingly vibrant city I consider to be my second home.
On a broader scale, this is what volunteering does for me. When asked, I can never ‘put a finger’ on why I do it, but to know that I’ve helped to make something wonderful happen, whether that’s helping a young person with their CV and interview skills, giving an offender hopes and opportunities for when they leave their institution, or being a part of the amazing event that was London 2012: that is one great feeling.
There’s always an opportunity to volunteer with us at Enhance the UK: visit us and see what you think! www.enhancetheuk.org