Oli Pizzey-Stratford Was The First Person In A Wheelchair On Neighbours
Oli is an actor and athlete.
Peta and Oli discuss Oli's love of sport, how he got into acting, and how he made history to be the first person in a wheelchair on the TV show Neighbours.
Connect with Oli
Connect with Peta:
Peta [00:00:03] 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. My name is Peter. I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host. This week I'm chatting with the delightful Ollie Prissy Stratford. We discuss everything from disability, sport to representation and inspiration and what it was like to be the first person in a wheelchair to feature on Neighbours, which is a pretty amazing thing to have on your resume. So without any further ado, I'm going to hand over to Oli.
Oli [00:00:56] Hey, my name's Oli Pizzey Stratford. I'm from Melbourne, Victoria. I'm an actor and I play a various variety of sports, including tennis, athletics, basketball. Public speaking, disability advocate. And just an all around jack of all trades. Yeah. Thank you so much for having me.
Peta [00:01:19] I always find it fascinating speaking to people who have a disability and come from a background of sport, because to me, it's quite a traditional way that disabled kids, if you're born with your disability, to be sort of funnelled through and find an activity and a purpose. Do you feel like you would have come to it in your own time or do you think you were guided towards for early on?
Oli [00:01:46] I think a little bit of both. I think my family's very much crazy in the sense of, you know, whether or not it was me participating or not. So it was bound to happen at some point. There is obviously that element of that, that there are. That's the sort of opportunities that you get as far as a sport or or sport. But I've always had a sporty brain, you know, from sort of when I was six or seven, I could watch test match cricket on the couch and analyse that and love that. So I've always, always been around sport and absolutely love it. Growing up, as I'm sure you feel similarly, you know, there just wasn't any representation for for whatever manner that may be. I mean, you had the Paralympics and you had that two weeks, every four years where, you know, people as a whole kind of, you know, look, I wish it, but were like, oh, wow, so amazing. And then that sort of faded into the background. So from my point of view, if I can help be someone that people can look at on screen or in public or in any manner and see someone like themselves that they can relate to, that that's more important than any of my sporting achievements or acting achievements or anything like that. That's that's my goal.
Peta [00:03:13] And I know it's such a cliche, but you can't be what you can't see. How do you sit with the concept of being an inspiration and someone to look up to? Because I know a lot of people in the disability community really feel uncomfortable with the concept of being an inspiration.
Oli [00:03:32] Yeah, I think it's different for every circumstance. If I'm going down to the local grocery store and doing my groceries and someone says, you're an inspiration, that I don't find any solace in it, I don't really see how that could be inspirational. If there's someone, you know, young person with a disability or a young person, general or old or whoever that may be that sees me and and believes they can do it because they saw me and that's an inspiration to them. Then that's I find that mind blowing amazing thought. The openness and forwardness that people feel is always baffling to me. You know, people would come up to myself and my mom or dad or both and would just say, what's wrong with him? And so my dad and mom would get you ask him and they go, Oh, and then they would, you know, ask me what's what's what's wrong with me and I and my illiterate during birth. So, you know, I've only known me as me. There hasn't been, you know, a comparison of life before and life after. So I've always been comfortable with whoever I am. There's obviously elements and I think a lot of people with disabilities can relate. There's a facade that you put up to a certain extent. Some some may be very strong, some may be just a little. But there is a facade that you portray to the world as something that, you know, you don't want to fully let everything on the on the playing field. It's walking. That is the the overarching thing that people oh, my God, it's so horrible that you can't walk. I was like, honestly, I don't really even care about walking. I just would prefer to, you know, be able to have a little bit more cool, functional, bit more hand function or whatever that is. So that I could do a couple of extra things. You know, it's it's an it. I've really started to care about that.
Peta [00:05:52] I can't walk either. I'm in an electric wheelchair. But there was a lot of pressure for me to learn to walk because a lot of people with cerebral palsy learn to develop, to walk. And I've really always pushed back against that because I chose to focus on my schooling and academia and that sort of area. And it really baffles me and sort of makes me uncomfortable. Of how this sort of seems to be the separation even within the disability community of those who can walk and those of us who cut.
Oli [00:06:31] I think there's so many aspects to what you just said in the sense of I think a lot of a lot of people that that have spinal cord injuries in their life, you know, from teenagers sort of onwards. A lot of the people become obsessed with this idea of walking again. And I think, look, if that drives you to and that's amazing. But I think it also can be a dangerous game to put your headspace in, in the sense of you're putting all all your eggs in one basket of, I'm going to walk, I want to walk, I want to get back to who I was and what I was doing. And I think there's there's so much more like I know people that do that and I also know people that go, this sucks that I can't walk, but I'm going to completely dive into wheelchair rugby or I'm going to completely dive into whatever. And I'd say, you know, 7 to 10 times those people are a hell of a lot more comfortable in their own skin than people that just only a tunnel vision for for walking.
Peta [00:07:50] Yeah, I think both experiences are completely valid. Every person's decision for them is fraught for them. But I do feel like there's more value put on people who, quote unquote, sort of push forward and and learn to do something that's more socially acceptable rather than those of us who actively stick out. And, you know, we have more access issues as a result. Yes, I'd love to be able to walk like it would solve a lot of my challenges in life. But at the same time, it does feel really icky when you look at those sort of almost cure all videos on social media.
Oli [00:08:36] Yeah, it's so marketable that that walking just oh my gosh, sure. You know, the people that are you can tell are really low injuries and I've got the abs in and are doing pull ups with their chair or whatever. And absolutely that is amazing. But it's unfortunate that there's not the same love and appreciation for someone that's a see for injury that's moving. They're doing a bicep curl or a tricep curl, something like that. You know, it's just unfortunate that there's not that same recognition.
Peta [00:09:15] What was the decision to go into acting? Was it something that always struck you that you felt like you needed to do? Or did you sort of fall into it?
Oli [00:09:27] My grandfather was a very much a working actor. He was on prisoner and a lot of the shows to the 1780s nineties. And my dad was also listless, so an actor, but he hosted Ready Steady Cook and did a lot of that stuff around film. So I've been around the film industry, but not anything that's given me opportunities just observing. When I was growing up, I had a lot of, you know, I hosted the Good Friday Appeal. People that don't know it's the Royal Children's Hospital every year puts on a fundraising event that's televised. So I hosted that for about four years, segments of that, which was live work. But how I actually got into acting in the first place was back in 2019. ABC were making a production through productions in conjunction with the International Day of a Disability, and they had put out a casting call to essentially all of the wheelchair sports networks. I did the audition for that called Legend of BURNETT Barrie, and I was fortunate enough to to learn that. And that was the lead role. And I absolutely loved it. Couldn't just couldn't enjoy it even any more than I did. That's sort of how I that's how I started.
Peta [00:11:10] And people probably know you most for a very famous Aussie classic that we have or we used to have here in Australia and that's neighbours. What was it like getting that audition and, you know, getting the email or the phone call to say you've got the part that most of an amazing?
Oli [00:11:31] It was absolutely incredible. I pretty much, you know, almost a cold email where I said was. I absolutely love neighbours. It's such an amazing show. One thing that is so amazing about Neighbours is that it's always been a cross-section of society in Australia and throughout its history. It's done such a great job of representing that and representing the people that just live in Australia, in Melbourne, etc.. I haven't seen anyone in a wheelchair that actually has a disability yet. I just posed it to him that maybe a couple of months later I got an email saying that they were writing a a role of a person with a disability in a wheelchair. And then I all of a sudden, maybe two months later after that, I got an email saying, Ali would like you to play the part. For Zane was the actor. And that was that was pretty much how it went. So it was it was pretty much it was a crazy sort of just hustle story. And they've been so supportive and I just can't thank everyone enough.
Peta [00:12:58] Super smart on your part to send that cold email. Cold emails, like as much as they're scary, they've given me so many opportunities, so well done you for taking the initiative and actually doing that. I'm hoping that the script felt true to a disabled experience because this is probably a very poor assumption of me that probably there wasn't anybody on the writing staff, at least with a physical disability. So did you find that the rang true to the cyborg experience?
Oli [00:13:35] One of the great things that Neighbours did was they actually didn't really at all reference me being in a wheelchair. So something that I had a couple of meetings with them about that and I said I don't want it to be a big deal that I'm in a wheelchair as far as on screen. I want, you know, I want to press around it and stuff like that ideally. But as far as the actual episode goes, it was perfect how I just came in and I was just another character in the show that I was Zain, the brother of Freya, who was, you know, not doing well at the time. And I was there to help, you know, so that was that was great. And they did a great job at making me and the character feel as just part of the crew as anyone else.
Peta [00:14:36] And how was the set as far as accessibility? What what's accessibility for you?
Oli [00:14:43] I mean, you could tell it wasn't built for someone in a wheelchair. The studio itself, that was all completely accessible, 100%. The location set that was at the back. That was it was a kilometre walk down through gravel. So that that's that sucked to get through. But as far as the staff went and the people, the crew and everyone that worked on set for neighbours, they could not have been more welcoming and more just accepting that they were perfect in the sense of, you know, I, I appreciate, but I also don't like when people are sort of overbearing in their helpfulness in the sense of, you know, really, really insisting on helping or whatever I prefer in my from my point of view that I'll ask if I need something. You know, that was that was the really nice thing that they weren't overbearing, but they also were really happy to cater to anything that I needed.
Peta [00:15:59] And you said before that you didn't want to make the fact that your character having a disability to be a big deal or a plot point. But quite rightly, you know, that it's important to make noise, particularly in the media, for people to understand that inclusion and acceptance and representation is really important. So what what was the response like once your segments came on air?
Oli [00:16:27] Awesome. Really, really awesome. There's really lots of people that reached out and and said that, you know, that they'd never seen someone in a wheelchair on TV lot themselves and, you know, or they'd seen one or two shows. But to have their favourite show, neighbours have it, it was great. Just, just so rewarding and incredible to see. And not only that, there was also elements of people on Twitter and stuff like that, you know, commenting complaints or comments or whatever. Just about my character in general. No reference to disability at all. Just about like I don't know, you know, was I did X, Y, Z, and that was hilarious to me because it was like, Oh, that's so great that we've got people that are loving it and seeing it for a massive win for inclusion. But we've also got people going, Oh, I didn't like it when I did this, or That was beautiful when I did that. So that was really cool to see both sides of the spectrum.
Peta [00:17:36] That's equality. Like you just being treated just like any other actor. That's awesome. Exactly. Not only that, I mean, I've seen people acting as if they have a disability, but the act themself doesn't have a disability. So I think, you know, it's truly fantastic and refreshing to see someone that is disabled play a disabled person.
Oli [00:18:04] I know and understandably people that vehemently, you know, for a character that has a disability vehemently don't want anyone but a person with disability, apply that from my point of view. I think as long as you give someone with disability an audition, if I get beaten by another actor, that's that's just better than me who happens to not have a disability. That's to me, it is what it is. As long as I get an equal shot at that. I just want the the foot in the door. I want the equal opportunity that everyone else is getting.
Peta [00:18:45] So is there anything you love about having a disability?
Oli [00:18:49] Yeah. I think it's given me some amazing opportunity. I mean, my my life, the people that I've met, everything, a lot of it is due to due to my disability. You know, I'm very grateful for the fact that I've been able to travel to to America and to, you know, up and down and all around America for rehab places around Australia, for the places and the people that I've met for that is, is awesome. You know, I've met worldwide friends and so that's, that's amazing. The sporting community so much stuff that that is credit to my disability.
Peta [00:19:30] It would be okay if you said to me, You know what? There's nothing that I love because I'm not about toxic positivity. It's fine if people don't think that there's anything that they love. They might like certain elements, but love, I acknowledge, is a strong word. So on the offset to that, is there anything you don't like?
Oli [00:19:52] Absolutely. Absolutely. Yeah. There's it's a constant uphill battle in regards to the accessibility and it's a headache in terms of, you know, you have to pre-plan everything. You have to give lots more time and thought and effort into simple things. It's constant and it's it's unrelenting. But, you know, it's something that. As a person with a disability, you know, your brain gets kind of used to it pretty quickly and you know that I think that's probably an unfortunate thing because you let a lot of things slide that you probably shouldn't let slide as far as society goes, you know, people with disabilities put up with so much shit that we shouldn't have to put up with, but that's just how strong we are as a collective. It's not that we want more. We just want the same. You know, it's not this crazy rampant. Oh, my God. They're getting so much oil. The demand is so much. It's. It's not that at all. I just want a level playing field. I want something where, you know, it's it's not a strange thing to see someone on TV, you know, it was a strange thing to see someone on a billboard in a wheelchair or with a disability. You know, it's the standard to have accessible, you know, equipment and accessible access and entry and all that. That's something that you don't have to think about. Instead of Google saying tech for accessible, it has cross for not accessible because everything else is accessible. So if if I could dream and hope for the future, the normality of having a disability is is in full swing. And it's not a weird, hard slog. It's just you're another one of us.
Peta [00:21:54] Well, if you ever want to cold email Google and suggest that changed in their codes, I'm more than happy to sit in that board meeting if necessary and vouch for your say.
Oli [00:22:08] Hey Google, you should change some stuff. You'res sincerely Oli Pizzey Stratford.
Peta [00:22:17] Thank you for listening to this week's episode. I hope you enjoyed it if you did. Can I encourage you to share the show on social media and follow the show on whatever podcasting platform you're listening on? If you have a question or a guest that you think should be on the podcast in the future, please get in contact with me. My Instagram handle is @petahooke. Spelt Katy ih0. K. Okay. My email addresses I can't stand podcast at gmail dot com and my website is icantstandpodcast.com. Until next week. Have a good one, guys. Bye.