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Living with a disability: Elle Steele from Paralympian to businesswoman

Ahead of the Paralympics Elle Steele, Australian Paralympian talks about the importance of the Paralympics. Which Aussies are set to smash the completion and how we can cheer them on. Links to our Paralympians:

Elle discusses how the transition from athlete to businesswoman inspired her to help others. Why the 9 to 5 workday doesn't work for her and many other people with a disability. How her relationship with her disability has transformed over the last decade has resulted in her viewing her disability as one of her greatest assets.

You can find Elle Steele: Facebook Instagram


Episode Transcript:

Peta [00:00:00] Hello, how are you? Before we get started, I just wanted to say thank you all for your beautiful messages from Sunday and me announcing that the podcast is now under Nova Entertainment. If you don't know what that means or why that is, I have left a short message as a previous episode to this episode that came out on Sunday. So go give that a listen. But for those who do know, thank you so much. I am thrilled.

Peta [00:00:32] A little bit different this week, and to be honest, I wasn't planning on putting this episode out, but when you get the chance to speak to a Paralympian just before the Paralympics. I think it's only smart to take that opportunity, and I thoroughly, thoroughly enjoyed this chat. I hope you do, too. OK, without any further ado, let's get into it.

Peta [00:01:03] 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. This week is a very special one, and I'm super excited to introduce you to my guest. So guest, could you please introduce yourself?

Elle [00:01:21] Hi, I'm Elle Steele, I'm a five-time Australian representative, Paralympian, a small business owner, and I now work in the spiritual space. I went to the Sydney 2000 Paralympics and I'm really, really excited to talk to you today because I think sticking with other women with disabilities is one of my favourite things to do.

Peta [00:01:44] Well, it's certainly mutual, I'm so excited to talk to you and I'm sort of pinching myself to think that I got you on the podcast, so thank you for being here. You've achieved so much in your life, in so many different facets of your life and you've been successful in many different points of your life, which I think is really interesting. You mentioned that you're a Paralympian and I incorrectly referred to you as a former Paralympian, but you were just explaining to me that isn't correct. Can you tell the audience why that isn't correct?

Elle [00:02:16] Yes. So we never lose our title of Paralympian once we have gained it. Yeah. Once you're a Paralympian, amazingly, you're a Paralympian for life, even if you never got back in the water.

Peta [00:02:29] And as you should be, quite frankly, because of a massive achievement and you know it, it must be so amazing to be on that stage in a global forum, being a representative of your sport and of your country.

Elle [00:02:45] It was pretty amazing. You know, I made the Sydney 2000 Paralympics and I was 17. I was completing my VCE at school. You know, I look back and I think I don't know whether I really could conceptualise how huge it was that I had made that team. And I know it's summertime that had selected me in that team. I was the fifth-fastest in the world for the 400 freestyle in my disability classification. And it's taken me a long time, you know, nearly to the 20-year celebration last year when we would have had the Tokyo 2020 Olympics. But it's been postponed. You know, it took me nearly 20 years to realise that. To kind of stand in my power and sit within myself, was an incredible achievement that not many other people actually do. that And because when you're an athlete, you kind of you're going from one event to the next, you kind of you skim over things because you have to keep your mindset to if you swim badly just move on. Or if you can't do that, you just move on. So it's a very quick succession of mindset changing. And so what happened to me was that I moved into a space of. Well, everyone does those types of things, or I just like swimming. Without realising that people don't like swimming that much and, you know, to be as fast as I was and to be as competitive as I was a unique behaviour trait.

Peta [00:04:17] Absolutely. And not many of us are as good as you were Elle.

Like that is an amazing achievement. And I'm so glad that, you know, you're finally stepped into your achievement. And we're going to talk a little bit about business later on. But what you said really resonated with me because I do sort of forget to celebrate things and achievements, because just like you, I just go onto the next thing. Make sure you get back to that email. Don't forget to do this. Don't fail at this. So I think when you're in that mode of achievement, you do forget to sit back and sort of think about how far you've come.

Elle [00:04:57] Oh, my God. And, you know, it's one of the really big things I talk about with a lot of my clients is, you know, have you sat back and I say, don't do an Elle Steele and wait 20 years to sit back and celebrate something that is really big for you and doesn't compare yourself in terms of who that person has that and I don't have that yet. If if it was a really big thing for you to share your voice for the first time in the work meeting or to leave your job or to speak up to a family member that you've never spoken up to before, you know, that's something that you need to celebrate within yourself. There's no you know, I think in Australia particularly, we focus on the big achievements and we forget that sometimes those little like those little chipping away every day at something is just as powerful as important. And to take note of that.

Peta [00:05:49] Absolutely, and it's I think when you achieve something so early on in life, as you did at 17, you know, it is a natural thing as a teenager to just take things for granted. So how did sport help or hinder you in viewing yourself as a person and a person with a disability?

Elle [00:06:09] It definitely gave me confidence. It gave me something to focus on that wasn't my disability, and particularly when I first started. So I joined an organisation called Wheelchair Sports Victoria, which is now Disability, Sport and Recreation when I was 11 and I began to meet with about five other kids with lots of varying disabilities on a Sunday on Sunday mornings at Richmond Swimming Pool. It gave me such kind of insight into the fact that I wasn't the only person in the world by disability with a disability, because both my sisters, are able-bodied, or Muggles, as I like to call.

Peta [00:06:44] I love that.

Elle [00:06:46] It was such a beautiful kind of realisation that I could achieve something really amazing in my life despite my disability. And so the sport really helped with my physical abilities. And I got a lot stronger. So I had less pain in those early years and it was a really beautiful kind of relationship I had with sport and being fit into my disability. We kind of coexisted all together in this beautiful moment of happiness. But then when I retired and I couldn't really do as much sport anymore like that, that became a place of kind of grief for me. So I've had lots of different emotions related to disability and sport in my life. I retired from swimming because of an injury, not because I wanted to. I could have kept swimming. And then I ended up playing wheelchair rugby for about six years as one of the only females to play wheelchair rugby in Australia. We've got, I think, fingers crossed. I think that now we've got our first Australian female representative going to Tokyo 2020. I'm not entirely sure. But if you follow Shae Graham and hopefully she has made the Aussie squad and team go at that time, I was the only female playing rugby for Victoria and for the most part in Australia. And so that was then a really happy time for me. And then when I had to retire from that injury again, it was a time of grief. So it's been a very up and down kind of adventure for me.

Elle [00:08:15] And I think, again, that really strikes a chord for me because I really am so intertwined with who I am and what my purpose is. And it sounds like for you, sport was that for you as well. So when you had to retire before you were ready with swimming, you were grieving that purpose that you had and then you went into wheelchair rugby. You felt like you knew who you were, what you achieving. You had a goal, which I'm certainly that person of very goal orientated. So, you know, it's really interesting to see how different people thrive with having that goal in mind in their head, whether it's in business or in sport. Are the Paralympics really important to you? And if it is, why

Elle [00:09:04] The Paralympics is so important to me. I believe that it gives us a platform to focus on something that isn't the terribleness of disability, which is what society often goes straight to. You know, it's still it's 2021. And we're still talking about how terrible it would be to be disabled or how weak people with disabilities are and it's all just bullshit. And I guess because particularly in Australia, in the world, people understand sport. When they understand sport, they can see people with disabilities doing it the same or if not better than them. It gives us a bit of an even platform. The Paralympics, you know, for me personally was so important to me in my life because it not only made me partly who I am, you know, the athlete is a very big part of my personality. But it helped me have this community that I will forever be able to lean on. So we have the Aussie as the Australian Mob on Facebook, and we can always go back to the Aussie mob. We've got Danni Di Toro and Ryley Batt, who are our Australian team captains at the moment. And you know, Danni Di Toro I've known her since I was 11. You just know that you always have these people that get you around you. And I think that's really special.

Elle [00:10:24] The Paralympics is about to start when this episode comes out. So who should people look at for when they're watching the Paralympics? And I'll make sure I link everybody's Instagram who you're about to mention.

Elle [00:10:38] Yes. There are so many incredible athletes out there. We've got Ellie Cole, who I mean, she has been to numerous Paralympics. I can't remember what number this is, but she is an S9 swimmer. And so she'll be kind of smashing it out in the backstroke and the freestyle in the pool. We have the Aussie Stealer's, which is the wheelchair rugby team, and Ryley Batt, who is their coach, captain or captain. If you haven't seen a game of Goalball, I highly recommend watching that. We've got Carol Cook in the cycling and this is, I think, her third Paralympics. And Carol is an amazing Victorian athlete. she first began swimming and then found cycling. She's got M.S. and has now gone and won multiple gold medals and world championships. The Aussie team is going in there to absolutely dominate, I believe. And it's just incredible to watch them all achieve amazing things.

Peta [00:11:42] Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, as we say.

Elle [00:11:43] Yeah, exactly. Exactly.

Peta [00:11:48] And we connected on Instagram a few weeks ago because I was talking on my stories about the fact questioning whether the Olympics and the Paralympics should be amalgamated, and I raised my hand and say I didn't know the answer. That's why I was asking, because I just you know, I was really interested to understand why it's separate, why it's not amalgamated, and if that should be something that should happen moving forward. And you messaged me and I love I would love for you to share your perspective.

Elle [00:12:19] Yes, so, I don't believe and I believe that many people don't believe they should be amalgamated because why do we have to share the spotlight with able bods? And also, from a more technical point of view, when you're competing as an athlete with a disability, you are classified with the different levels of how disabled you are and what you can and can't do within that sport. If we combined the Olympics with all of the heats and finals and semi-finals and everything that I had to do, and then and then all the heats in the finals for every different classification, every different event that they would have to do the Paralympics in the Olympics or the "Lympics", if that's what you want to call it would probably go for about six weeks. When we think about the Paralympics, it's it is a celebration of these superhumans. I don't believe it's crass for me to say that I wake up in the morning and I have to, and for you Peta, too. We have to do a full day's work physically of what it is, which might take someone else who doesn't have a disability 15 to 20 minutes. You Know living with a disability, the things that seem like they're really easy for other people, like getting your breakfast organised or having a shower or even just washing your face can use up a lot of energy or as we call in chronic pain land, 'spoons'. You know, you've only got a particular amount of spoons that you can use throughout the day. I believe that the Paralympics gives us a chance to show that despite all of the other stuff that we have to just manage to survive, we can also do these incredible, amazing, amazing, amazing things.

Peta [00:14:01] And you know what? There are not many things that give people with disabilities a global stage. And I think that the whole world is watching like it's awesome.

Elle [00:14:11] Yeah. Yeah, exactly. And, you know, every four years, yeah. We get to celebrate disability. You know, I wish that we got to celebrate disability every day and the achievements and we've spoken about this. The achievements of people with disabilities, not just being athletes, but people with disabilities, achieving really amazing things just because they are humans and they are achieving really amazing things. You know, there's often such a focus on athletes with disabilities. And, you know, this idea that I have to be if I've got a disability, but if I want recognition for people, I'm going to have to be a Paralympian. But that's actually not true. It's about you having a disability and believing that you're worthy and doing going off and doing what makes your heart sing. And that's what I'm I'm really passionate about too. Yes, I happen to be a Paralympian, but I want to celebrate people with disabilities doing whatever they want.

Elle [00:15:07] And I've definitely felt that, particularly from OTs and physiotherapists, they really tried to push me into getting into disability sport, whatever it was. And I just wasn't comfortable. I'm just not a sporty person. I watch all the sport that there is, but it's just not for me. So I totally agree with you. There does need to be a better understanding that people with disabilities can achieve away from a sporting field or a sporting arena.

Elle [00:15:35] Oh, absolutely, and you are just as valid as artists, as podcast hosts, as teachers, as you know, I follow a woman in the U.K. who is a nurse and she's a paraplegic. We don't see a lot of that in Australia because more often than not, you're judged on what you can't do instead of what you can do and what you can bring to an employment situation.

Elle [00:16:02] And did you find the transition between being an athlete to being a businesswoman difficult?

Elle [00:16:09] Not not particularly, but I found the transition from being an athlete to a human really, really hard. So because I had been an athlete for so long when I retired, I had I was very depressed for a long time. I had a lot of anxiety and personality, identity kind of crisis because I'd always Elle the swimmer. You know, I think back to when I first began my business sitting there and crying and saying I just don't want people to feel like feeling right now. And that's how I began my business because I didn't want people to feel like they had to stay in one box for their whole lives. It was about teaching people that they had to give themselves permission to go off and do what made them feel really alive and happy. And, you know, in order to teach people to do that, to go and do it myself.

Peta [00:17:04] So what do you do now just to tell the listeners? Because I think what you're doing is really important.

Elle [00:17:11] So I work predominantly in the spiritual industry, but I also have a business background as well, and I call myself a soul coach, an alignment coach. So I assist people in helping them get really clear on what it is that makes them feel really happy. So often the conversations we have, well, how do you want to feel every day? And what if you know what that is, what then creates that feeling? And then how do you follow that? So that might be going off and starting your own business that might be achieving a top job in the organisation you're working in. It might be moving into a more spiritual practice in your life. I left corporate maybe five or six years ago while I was building this business, because I realised that I asked myself and I thought to myself, it's going to be better than this has got to be more than this. Every day I wake up and I know that I'm going to have conversations that bring people closer to what is important to them or what brings them joy or insert their highest value in their life. And that is that is so, so cool to be able to help people facilitate their own personal freedom.

Peta [00:18:24] So before I move on, I think it's important because what you do is clearly so important and you love what you do and you're good at what you do. So please give yourself a plug. How can people find you?

Elle [00:18:36] My Web site is My Instagram is @iamellesteele my Pinterest is iamellesteele. I am still so everything. If you actually type Elle Steele go into Google funnily enough I now come up.

Peta [00:18:53] Traditional employment is so misaligned and doesn't really understand what it means to have a disability and how challenging that can be in a traditional environment, do you did you find that in your previous corporate life?

Elle [00:19:08] Absolutely, you know, I first got I'd worked part-time in different sporting spaces and in the aquatics industry, and then I got my first full-time job, which then ended up resulting in me having to have shoulder surgery and having to have lots of a different kind of medical intervention because I was just working crazy hours and my body just couldn't cope. And so I then realised that I had to cut those hours back and progressively what I then had to do over my whole kind of corporate working for someone else, career was progressively working my way back to fewer hours. But, you know, for someone who lives with chronic pain, it's just not it's not viable for me to have to be somewhere at a certain time because you might work you might wake up one day and it's just not possible to do that. And so you end up what I felt like being a really bad employee because I never. I never could I never felt like I could really get myself going because I was always on the back foot like I was always kind of chasing my tail. Every day I felt like I was fighting, I was fighting myself and my disability. So it was difficult working in the corporate industry as a person with a disability for sure.

Peta [00:20:34] And it's probably no surprise to you. That completely is my journey as well. When I first came out of uni, I was determined not to work in the disability sector because I didn't want my disability to wholly define me. And I just found that I couldn't get work anywhere else but in the disability sector. But when I finally did, I felt like I was constantly in a race that I couldn't win because I was up against people that didn't have a disability. And I would work really hard, but I never feel like I really got the recognition I deserve. So that really resonates with me.

Elle [00:21:15] Yeah, yeah. It was a hard slog. People just don't look at you even though you might be the perfect person for the job. But they're mistrust in what if this person can't do this because they've already made the assumption that you can't. While we've been in lockdown over these last 18 months, everything's accessible now, like where everyone's having Zoom meetings. People are realising you can work from anywhere in the world, you can work from home. And so, you know, my dream is that when we come out of this, whenever that will be, that we don't just go back into that force employment within a building because it actually evens out the gain for people with disabilities when you can work from anywhere.

Peta [00:21:56] Absolutely. My next question you might have already answered, but if you had a magic wand, what would be the one thing that you would change about disability, employment and employment for people with disabilities?

Elle [00:22:09] It would be to make it accessible in every way possible. Earlier this year, I saw an event pop up from a council that I am related to, and they were holding an event for how to best communicate your rights as a person with a disability and get help with advocacy and all that kind of stuff. And I said, oh, and I wrote back an email. I'm really interested in this event. Who have you got speaking? Who is your disabled person speaking? You know, giving us advice. And they wrote back and said, oh, we don't have a person with a disability speaking. We couldn't get anyone.

Peta [00:22:47] Oh, my God.

Elle [00:22:48] I know. Deep breaths. It's the same as diversity training. If you're getting Whitey McWhite Australian to do your diversity training within your organisation if you're getting an abled bodied person to do go to training within your organisations. If an able-bodied person tells me how to live my life one more time, I'm going to scream. You know, no one knows what it's like to live with a disability unless I've got a disability and there are thousands of us eloquent and have the skills to be able to educate large numbers of people. Like you're doing now Peta, you know, there is there are people out there with disabilities that have the ability to create huge change. And if you're not Googling them, if you're not seeking the people, the experts in the field that you're trying to engage in, then you're just being lazy. You're actually not doing yourself any favours because, in the long shot, it makes your organisations look really stupid.

Peta [00:23:51] And it's just bad business because, in the end, the employees are going to learn.

Elle [00:23:58] We can no longer continue to think that people with disabilities need rescuing, we don't need to be rescued. The spectrum of disability is really long and there are people that need more assistance than others. But none of us need to be rescued. We need to be understood.

Peta [00:24:14] Couldn't have said it better myself, girl. So how do you view your disability in relation to yourself?

Elle [00:24:23] Oh, my God, I've had so many different lifetimes that I have felt really negative about it. I've also for a while I gave it a separate name and so that I could have created an entity for it that was not attached to me so I could understand it. But I think in the last five years, it's become really a beautiful part of me and it's something to really celebrate. This gift I've been given is. One of the most incredible, beautiful things, like my it's similar to I've got really beautiful thick blonde hair and that's a beautiful part of me just as much as my disability is. I'm so grateful for it. There are really hard days when the weather is like this in Melbourne, when it's very cold, it's very uncomfortable. But I would not change my disability and I wouldn't change the thirty-five surgeries or having I've had to learn to walk five times in the last 10 years after each surgery, and I wouldn't change that for the world because every time I experience something to do with my disability that is hard, I go through some kind of personal revolution and I become more myself

Peta [00:25:41] The superhuman that is Elle Steele.

Elle [00:25:45] I'm trying to be

Peta [00:25:47] thank you so much for today. I've thoroughly enjoyed it. I'm sure the listeners did too. I learnt a lot. I will be linking all the accounts you mentioned, both yours and all the athletes heading off to Tokyo very soon in the link description. But thank you Elle for being here. I hope you've enjoyed it, too.

Elle [00:26:08] I've loved chatting to you and I think what you're doing is incredible. And just keep on sharing your beautiful, beautiful light for everyone.

Peta [00:26:17] Thanks, everyone, until next week bye.


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