Elizabeth Wright is an Australian Paralympic Medalist, Keynote and TEDx Speaker, and writer. She speaks in schools and organisations about disability, inclusion, and character. She also writes for the Guardian and Huffington Post, as well as blogs on Medium, about disability.
Medium Blog: Elizabeth Wright
Can you describe something that has recently amazed you? How did it make you feel?
I love nature and animals and seeing something rare and spectacular always amazes me. Recently I was in Australia, and it was the season for whale migration, and my dad and his partner took me up to the sightseeing point and we saw, about five whales on their way south. I think I stood there gobsmacked for at least 20 minutes. I felt like a child, excitedly yelling whenever I saw one breach. I tried to get a photo, we were too far away though, so in the end I decided to just enjoy the amazing spectacle without a lens in sight. I think that is the best way to experience amazing, awe inspiring things, just immerse yourself in the moment.
How does a 13 year old with a big dream go onto winning 3 medals at the Paralympics? What kept you going?
I set this massive goal, to swim at the Paralympic Games, when I was 13 and I think when you are that age you still think anything is possible. I really harnessed that uncompromising self belief I had, even though I know my parents and others didn’t believe I could make it (that is not to say that my parents didn’t support me, they did, but they tried to keep me very grounded). When it comes to setting goals you really have to be smart about them. I always was a good swimmer, and so it made sense that that was a sport I could improve in if I tried, which I did, try and improve. And it was the improvements that really were the motivation, trying to be the best swimmer that I could be at every moment, whether in training or competition, whether I won or lost a race. You have to be your own motivation.
Should we encourage kids to dream big because they may be bitterly disappointed if they don’t make it? Are you the exception to the rule?
I do believe we should encourage kids to dream big – but be smart about it. When I was little I wanted to be a ballerina, now firstly, my lack of height would hinder my chances, secondly, my prosthetic leg could prove a stumbling block as well… but swimming? I was like a fish, confident, fast, and in love with the water. If you’re going to set a big goal to achieve, it makes sense to set it within a realm of possibility, so that you don’t end up disappointed or disillusioned. With the right support and encouragement, and the opportunities too, kids can dream big and achieve, unfortunately there isn’t always the right support, encouragement, and opportunities, and as a society that is what we have to remedy.
How do elite performers cope with reaching their big goal? For you, does it feel like you’ve led two lives, pre- and post-Paralympics?
Elite sport is tough, you are not only competing against yourself, but you do also have to be aware that hundreds of other people are wanting your coveted spot as well. The pressure can be immense, and I’ll be honest, I have cracked under the pressure, a few times, I have been disqualified from races, have swum really bad times, have felt frustrated, angry, even sad sometimes. But elite sport is like a pressure cooker that cooks resilience. I firmly believe that my resilient attitude to life is because of my sporting experience. It might not be the same for everyone, but for me the pressure was good. I feel like my life is lived in cycles of ten years, I always seem to change my focus, my passion, my career, every ten years. Not intentionally, but it’s a pattern. I swam and focused on the Paralympics from the ages of 12/13 to 20/21, I then did uni degrees in Fine Art and became and exhibiting artist, and then my 30’s have been as an inspirational speaker. I don’t necessarily feel like I am different, but I feel as though I am multi-layered.
From your experience, which character traits are most lacking in schools?
I don’t think it is necessarily a lacking of character traits, as a non-focus on character traits, or only focusing on one or two. Schools have been teaching character since the dawn of schooling, and as with most things, education concepts come and go and often come back again. Character is now having a resurgence, and what I would suggest teachers and schools to do is look at where your school is showing implicit character and where it can possibly be more explicit in developing character. Kindness is the best example I can give of a character trait that a lot of schools develop and build on, but there are a whole kaleidoscope of character traits out there that could be unique to and empower children to be their most awesome, authentic selves.
You mentioned you’re exploring curiosity in your dissertation; can you tell me more?
My latest Masters degree is in Character Education, and I was really keen to explore character with children who are limb different (same disability as me!). One of the character traits we explored was curiosity, because I feel it is one of my prominent character traits, but also one that a lot of children have. And boy were my two case study participants curious, and their disability didn’t stop them from being curious. In the VIA Character Strengths, curiosity falls under the value of wisdom. Curiosity is seen as stepping out into the world and having new experiences, meeting new people, gaining new knowledge. I think it is one of the most exciting traits, because we can all be curious about the world we’re in and towards each other. Imagine if we were more openminded and willing to listen and learn, I think the world would be a much more peaceful and loving place.
Where do you think are sense of wonder comes from and how can we cultivate it?
Wonder (or awe) for me is about transcendence, having an experience that takes you our of your mind and body, an experience that is so intense and inspiring that it makes you feel on top of the world. It is almost spiritual to me. Whenever I feel a sense of wonder or awe I feel as though I have all of the energy, motivation, and passion to make positive change in the world, and nothing feels as delightful as that, to know that you, with others, could have such a positive impact on local communities through to the global community.
Last week you posted a thread on Twitter about how parents & carers can help their children to engage with, rather than suppress, questions about disability and difference. Could you tell me more about this?
Having been born with my disability, my disability is my normal. I have had to deal with, my whole life, people not wanting to understand that my disability isn’t a tragedy to me, I don’t want people’s pity, because frankly, I don’t feel sorry for myself. I love my life, and wouldn’t change anything about it. To stop the stereotypes around disability (such as tragedy, pity, sadness, etc) we have to start by addressing how parents respond to their children’s natural curiosity around difference and disability. Difference should be talked about and celebrated, and that is what I encourage parents to do, don’t be afraid to speak to disabled people with your children, and have them ask questions. Embrace the curiosity! Here is a link to my Medium article on exactly this: Disability, and the dreaded question “why?”: 3 tips to manage your child’s curiosity.
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