Elizabeth Wright: Living Limb Different
In her youth, Elizabeth Wright was a successful Paralympian. Now, she is a successful journalist with our National broadcaster The ABC.
In this chat, Elizabeth talks to Peta about her love of the water, determination, the importance of representation and being comfortable in her body, just the way it is.
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Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to the I Can't Stand podcast. The podcast answering your questions on what life is like when you have a disability. My name is Peter. I have cerebral palsy. I'm your host. This week I'm thrilled to bring you Elizabeth. Right. In the first half of her career. Elizabeth was one of our amazing Paralympians on the Australian team. She even represented Australia during our home Olympics in 2000. But after her retirement in the second half of her career, she finds herself a successful journalist on the ABC. So without any further ado, let's hand over to Elizabeth.
Elizabeth [00:00:56] Hi, everyone. I'm Elizabeth, Wright. I am. I don't even I don't even know where to start when I do introduce myself. I am a little different. I was born with limb difference. I wear a prosthetic leg. I was a Paralympic swimmer for Australia, and I won a few medals along on that journey. I've lived in the UK for 13 years. I now work at the ABC, so I just yeah, I think that's as succinctly as I can put an introduction.
Peta [00:01:29] You've had a very amazing and full life already. No doubt about it. And I'm really interested to hear about your swimming. First and foremost, I want to start there. As you mentioned, you had great success in the pool. I think you won three medals. Please correct me if I'm not right. But I think you won three medals, including at our home games at the Sydney Olympics, which is just amazing. Tell me, to begin with, what attracted you to the sport?
Elizabeth [00:02:01] I think for me, and the best way to describe it to people is that being in water feels like freedom. I've just always, always loved being in the pool. My first ever swimming race, it was at primary school. I went to a mainstream primary school, so I was up against a whole bunch of non-disabled kids. I remember that race diving in and just swimming as hard as I could. I didn't know what I was doing at all and and getting to the end and realising that I'd actually won the race. And I think for me it was just that combination of feeling free in the water and then also realising that perhaps I had this talent. It's actually the Sydney Games that drove me to want to become a Paralympian. Really. I was 12 years old when it was announced that Sydney had won the right to host both the Olympics and Paralympic Games. And I remember once it was announced I turned to my parents and I said to them, I'm going to swim at those games. I just knew. So to then have set that goal at 12 and then at the age of 20, to have actually achieved that, it was just it was it was remarkable and it was wonderful. And it was an experience that I'll never forget. Don't get me wrong, it was hard. It was it was tough. Certainly. You know, you mentioned the medals that some that I won during my parent career. And yes, two of them were at the Sydney Games and one of them was in the 400 metre freestyle where I won the silver medal. And that was a race where I went into that, that final ranked 58th in the world. Just thought, you know what? Give it my best shot. Let's see what happens. And came out with that silver. And it was just so special. So, so special to be able to do that at my home games in front of family, in front of friends, in front of Sydney, in front of Australians, and feel really proud about about doing that and achieving that.
Peta [00:04:09] Talk to me about your determination and competitiveness. I feel like possibly my disability has definitely fostered these aspects in me as well, and I'd love to hear your perspective.
Elizabeth [00:04:22] When you're disabled. Certainly for me, this might not be the case for every disabled person, but two quite a few friends who I've spoken to. And obviously you've just mentioned that yourself, Peter. It's almost like you feel like you have to prove yourself and almost go that extra mile of proving yourself to people that I am capable of doing these. I am able to achieve this, I can do this. And so I think you certainly you develop, I think, a sense of, yes, determination and I think also a sense of resilience. I think, you know, when you're disabled, you face so many knock backs that aren't is even really anything to do with actually what you're capable of or not capable of. It's these stereotypes and beliefs that people have about you that that they then place on you and it holds you back. So at least for me, it's been about decoupling, being proudly disabled and being vulnerable, you know, expressing, showing some form of vulnerability. It's taken me a lot of work to get to that point that, you know, actually, at the end of the day, being vulnerable and honest about my disability and what I can and can't do and what I may need help with is actually it has to be part and parcel of that, that pride, that acknowledgement of, you know what, at the end of the day, I'm a human being and disability is part of humanity. It's part of being a human being. And there's nothing to be ashamed about that. And if that involves the need for assistance in some way, then actually that's more than okay. You know, it's hard to juggle. And I think I think we can all agree that it can be very emotional and hard to understand that it's okay to be vulnerable. But I think for me, certainly it's been about that, how you understand your vulnerability and how you manage that and that that's just part and parcel of who you are as a disabled person.
Peta [00:06:35] I think a lot of my internalised need to prove to people is it looked down to the fact that people don't understand, and that's due to the fact that they have no representation of what a disabled life is. Now, I know you're really, really passionate about disability representation. Tell me about the day that you found out you were the National Disability Affairs reporter at the ABC.
Elizabeth [00:07:01] I was very aware of the work that that Nurse Campanella, the wonderful nurse Campanella, had been doing in that role as National Disability Affairs reporter. So when I found out that there was an opportunity to to take on the maternity cover for Arnaz, I just had to go for it. So when I, when I got the role, I just I couldn't believe it at first. I was excited, astounded. Not just for myself. And obviously the opportunity that this role was for me to learn and grow and develop myself, but also, of course, that opportunity to be that limb difference representation on the national broadcast. I mean, it's it's a dream role. And I think fundamentally, as much as I'm so proud of what I have achieved within the role and everything like that film for myself, that sense of personal achievement, I think the biggest, most important thing for me is that I hope that there are kids and teenagers with limb difference, you know, sitting at home. Perhaps they're watching the news with their parents or some of the other programs I've been involved with, and they've seen me standing there proudly, limb different and going, wow, does this mean that I could actually be on TV, that I could have a role as a journalist or a presenter or, you know, a job in the media? And to actually have them recognise that they can do this, that the world, particularly the world of media, is starting to open up and embrace more diversity and inclusion. And that that does include disability and that that does include limb difference and that, you know, they, they potentially have a future that they may not have thought that they could have before.
Peta [00:09:06] I just. I'm so happy for you that you got that opportunity and were able to illustrate to people with limb difference and also people with with other disabilities and without disabilities that, of course, being a very respected journalist on our national broadcaster is possible, as it should be.
Elizabeth [00:09:27] You know, I was born in the late seventies, and when I think of the any any representation that I had on Australian television in the eighties and nineties, that to be frank, there wasn't much. And when there was some form of representation, it was usually a stereotype of some kind that was really offensive and upsetting. And you would sit there and go, But that's not my life. I interviewed the creator and producer of the cartoon Llama Llama. They'd introduced a character called Audrey Audrey the Antelope, who was limb different, and Audrey had upper limb difference like me. So she was missing part of one of her arms. And she was also missing like me, part of one of her legs. And she had a prosthetic leg. So she almost looked exactly like me. And all I had, I cried when I watched like, it's a kids cartoon and I'm a grown up adult. And I cried when I saw this cartoon because I think I cried for, you know, myself when I was a kid who didn't have this representation. I cried for the kids today who are getting this representation. And Audrey's just fantastic. She she represented what my life was like as a kid. And so to see this character is so fantastic. It's so exciting. It goes to show how important actually that representation is, because fundamentally, it's it's for me, it's for those disabled kids and those disabled teens. But it's also showing non-disabled people that this is what disability is. It isn't what you think it is. It isn't this box that, you know, you kind of shove disability into. It's actually disability. So much more than that. And the lived experience of disabled people is so much more than you can imagine.
Peta [00:11:30] How are you going with your internalized ableism?
Elizabeth [00:11:34] The New South Wales Government Education Department wanted to send me to the special school in the next suburb over on my. My parents, particularly my mom, really fought for me to go to a mainstream school and in the end the Education Department relented and they said that I could go to my local primary on a three month trial and if I coped okay, then I could continue to go there. You know, that's a four or five year old being told that, you know, at that age that, oh, well, you don't belong here, but we'll say we'll see how you go. But if, if you, if you don't can't handle it, then you've got to go over to this school like this area. That's where you belong. And you start internalising all of this idealism from that very young age. And it's really hard to unpick. For so much of my life. I then this is probably been the hardest thing of that internalised ableism to unpick is the staring in the comments that you get. And so you hide your body. You learn to try to hide your disability. And and obviously I have a very visible disability. So for me that entailed through my teens and my twenties. You know, I'd wear jeans all the time or a cardigan or a jumper with a long sleeve. And even in the middle of an Australian hot Australian summer, I would do this because I didn't want people to stare or comment because it it made me feel really awful about myself to feel like that I was some kind of weird oddity or freak show or something like that on display for people to just comment on and stare at. And it took well until probably my early thirties before I got myself psychologically to a point where I was like, I'm missing out on being able to wear the clothes that I want to wear and look the way that I want to look because of what these idealistic attitudes from others was having on me, that impact. And now it's it's kind of I'm at the point where I, you know, I you know, after after our podcast chat today, I'm wearing a dress. I need to go up to the shops and get my my niece a birthday present. I am aware that I'm going to get stared at. I know that already. The moment that I step into the shopping centre, I know that I'm going to get stared at it and some days I can be okay with that. I feel okay about that. Today. I'm like, Whatever. It's their problem. It's not mine, but Peta there. There are other days where I won't leave my apartment because I'm too scared. I just can't face the stares or the possible comments on that particular day. And it's, it's understanding that as much as I've peeked through, I've unpicked so much of that internalised ableism that something can just slide me right back right back into it. And that's why I say that this is kind of I think for me anyway, is going to be a lifelong journey. I think I'll still get to, you know, hopefully fingers crossed, too, like my eighties or nineties, I will still be on picking that internalised idealism because it's something that has been ingrained in us since we were babies, Since we were children, you know, if you're born with a disability. If you had a lifetime of ableism happening to you, it's probably going to take a lifetime to unpick it all.
Peta [00:15:19] So what do you wish people better understood about living with a disability?
Elizabeth [00:15:25] Especially someone born with my disability. I wish that people would understand that this is my normal. I've been told a number of times before by people in these kind of adverse comments that have been said to me, like, I feel sorry for you. Oh, I pity you. Oh, I. I couldn't handle it. I was missing limbs like you are. And. And that hurts because that's devaluing my body and my experience of my body. And I what I wish that people would understand is that having been born different, this is my normal. I don't know what it's like to have two arms and two legs. I have absolutely no idea what that is like. So for me, with my my body and my limb difference, I don't feel sorry for myself. I don't pity myself because I can't. How can I when I have nothing to compare this to in any way, shape or form? It's the way my body works and moves is the way that it works and moves for me. And because it's my normal eye, that's where I draw my sense of pride about my disability. Because my body is me. It's it's the way that I move through the world and it's never going to change. And I actually take pride in the fact that my body can move me through the world the way that it does move through the world. I'm proud of my life and I'm proud of what I've achieved and I'm happy with what I've achieved and how my life has been. So that's what I think. I really want nondisabled people to understand that that disability doesn't have to be this tragedy. That actually life does go on and with the right support and having your accessibility needs met and having people understanding that you can do this sport or take on this role or this position or engage with the community that actually disability can just be that neutral term of disability. And we are a community of disabled people and we have people joining it all the time. But guess what? It's okay that it's okay.
Peta [00:17:57] Absolutely it is. Okay. And not only that, many of us thrive while living with a disability despite what other people think, just like you are. Liz It's very clear that you're thriving in life, which is great to say what you like or even love about your disability.
Elizabeth [00:18:16] I can't help but. Be happy and excited that I had been born with my limb difference because you know what I used to do? I still do the odd speaking engagement, but I used to do a lot when I was in the UK and a lot in schools. And and one of the most common questions I would get asked by kids was, Do you wish that you hadn't been born disabled? And my very honest answer to them all the time, and I'm not not at all generalising this. I understand that that a lot of people in our community have many different thoughts about these. But for me personally, I say no, I don't wish that I hadn't been born disabled because if if I had been born with two arms and two legs, I know that my life well would have certainly been very, very different. And yes, it may have been different, but it also may have been bad different. I don't know. I will never know. But all I can say is that this life that I've had as a limb, different person, is that it has given me some amazing opportunities that I certainly wouldn't have had if I had been born with two arms and two legs. I know for certain that there are people in my life who are very important to me and a very loved friend. Friendships that are so, so precious to me with people that I probably would not have met if I hadn't been born them different. So for me, I wouldn't change my disability personally. It's it's brought me so much in my life. It's brought me a lot of joy. Yes, it's brought me hardship and a lot of difficult times, but it has also brought me a lot of joy. And it's that joy that I try to remember and focus on, especially when I am having those hard days.
Peta [00:20:23] And is there anything that you don't like about living with your disability?
Elizabeth [00:20:28] For me. And, you know, I've spoken about this earlier, that it's the stairs and the comments that are always the hardest and knowing that, well, if if I wasn't disabled, I wouldn't get these looks. So these comments and and that would certainly make life a lot easier. But for me it's it's certainly that that ableism that we we butt up against every single day that certainly I don't I don't like about being disabled in the UK near where I used to live there's a little boy who has upper limb difference little Tommy Tommy's only I think he's about seven or eight now. But when I first met him, he was about four or five. And I remember the first time I met him and he realised that I had an arm like him and the first thing he wanted to do was high five, our little arms. He was so excited to see someone who looked like him in the flesh, like he was like, Oh my God. He couldn't stop looking at my arm and and wanting to compare our arms. The reason I do this work, why I've done this work for years, is I want Tommy to grow up and not think that he doesn't belong anywhere, that he can grow up knowing that he can have a choice in careers that he wants, that he can go to university if he wants to, that he can get married and become a parent if he wants to, that he can have these options in life. This this is why this work is so important. This is why this podcast is so important. This is why what the ABC is doing is so important because it will hopefully have that impact for those four or five, six, seven, eight year olds today that, you know, in the next ten, 20, 30 years they can have the life that they want and dream of that maybe we've had to fight for every single day.
Peta [00:22:38] Thank you for listening to this week's episode. I hope you enjoyed it if you did. Can I encourage you to leave a writing interview on Apple or Spotify? Or if that's not quite your style, share the episode with friends. It'll help more people find the podcasts and for the podcast to grow. If you'd like to suggest a guest for a future episode of the podcast, you can contact me via my Instagram. My handle is at @petahooke. Spelt P 88. H. I. K. E. O. You can send me an email. My email is The I Can't Stand Podcast. Actually mail dot com. So until next week. Have a good one, guys. Bye. I'd like to pay my respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, but especially to the bunurong people where this podcast was recorded.