Elizabeth Wright: Paralympian, speaker and writer
Former Paralympic swimmer, Elizabeth Wright, is an Australian who now lives in the UK. She found time in her busy schedule as author and speaker to talk about travel, life in the UK, and her work at the cutting edge of character education.
Like many Australian women, Elizabeth has taken advantage of opportunities presented by travel. I was curious to know why she chose to settle in the UK.
"My dad was born in Oxford and my grandfather on my mum’s side was from Glasgow, and I have countless other ancestors from all over Britain and Ireland, so I have always had an affinity with Britain and Europe.
This affinity manifested itself in an intense desire to live in the UK, and as soon as I was able to - in both financial terms and in terms of maturity - I moved to England.
Over the last past ten years in the UK, I’ve also had access to Europe, Canada, and the States, which would be far more difficult from Australia.
To be so close to these countries that are powerhouses of industry, their stunning scenery, and to people who engaged me in new ways of thinking, has expanded my sense of who I am as a human being, beyond “just” being Australian, or a woman, or disabled."
I asked Elizabeth about her advice to Australian women thinking about their future and travel.
"For any young women who want to travel, I say do it, make it happen, somehow. Travel opens your mind to the wider possibilities, opportunities and understandings.
You are forever changed because of the knowledge you have gained about other countries, their people and ways of living.
This expanded view of the world will give you confidence, resilience, and compassion, and these are traits that will help you thrive in life, wherever you end up."
Elizabeth's success as a Paralympian catapulted her to a world stage at an early age. I asked if there was a defining moment when she realised what she could achieve in her field.
"I started training for the Paralympics at the tender age of 13, which was a huge wake-up call for me, as you need so many character traits to help you succeed: perseverance, focus, determination, right through to courage and confidence.
I was a shy child, but swimming really gave me that confidence to believe in myself and what I was capable of."
Determination and focus have shaped Elizabeth's life outside the pool as well. I asked Elizabeth about her life following successes at the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games and the Paralympic Games in Atlanta, USA.
"My life since swimming has been so wide and varied. I have two degrees in Fine Art, and it is Fine Art that originally brought me to the UK.
Since moving to the UK, however, my career has changed and I now work in schools all over the country with an aim to inspire and motivate children to thrive and succeed.
I am also doing an MA in Character Education, looking at the impact that development of character and morals in young people can have, not only on themselves, but also on their communities."
Elizabeth's focused much of her work through the educational organisation RWS | Resilience Wellbeing Success. I asked her to explain why this work is so important and timely.
"Resilience Wellbeing Success (RWS) is a character education programme that aims to help schools embed character education, positive psychology, and positive education into their school culture.
With growing concerns over mental health in children and teens, wellbeing and resilience support and education is needed, to run alongside the more traditional academic subjects.
RWS is a whole-person approach, addressing all aspects of a characterful (or virtuous) life as laid out by the Jubilee Centre for Character and Virtue: moral, intellectual, civic, and performance.
The main aim of the programme is to 'facilitate flourishing', a term well-known in character education and positive psychology."
Elizabeth was born with congenital limb deficiency. I was curious to know, from a disability perspective, if her experiences in the UK varied from those in Australia?
"In terms of disability, when I first moved to the UK I thought that they had a brilliant system regarding support, with Disability Living Allowance, and the charity Motability, these are support systems we don’t have in Australia. But as the political tide has changed in the UK, life has certainly become harder.
Since living in the UK though, the Paralympics have gained in recognition, and my own Paralympic experiences have helped me regarding my work, as people are fascinated by what the Paralympic experience is like and what I can teach them about it.
It's hard to say what the future may be like in the UK for people with disabilities and I would not wish to put other Australians with disabilities off moving here. I would say do your research and understand that support and accessibility is not as great here as it used to be."
Statistically, many people with disabilities face workplace barriers and discrimination and so the freedom of self-employment becomes an appealing option. As a highly successful businesswoman and entrepreneur, I asked Elizabeth to share her experience.
"I would want people to understand that I have been there, hundreds of times, and when you get knock-back after knock-back for jobs it can be extremely disheartening.
As someone with a disability, you know your strengths and weaknesses, and it is other people's misunderstanding of disability that creates the barriers to you being able to have a successful career. And yes, that is why many people with disabilities, including myself, end up in self- employment.
When you have a disability you are still the same as everyone else, wanting to make a living for yourself, or build a career, or contribute to your community in someway, and this is why self- employment often ends up the only option.
To someone with a disability who is contemplating self-employment I would say do your homework. Pick a job that allows you to manage your disability, and draw on the character strengths that your disability has provided you with - perseverance, determination, courage, empathy, and so on.
These are hugely beneficial when you are faced with the inevitable hardships that will come with self-employment."
Elizabeth has written about the challenges faced by people with disability as they travel. Given travel unlocks so many networking and cultural opportunities for Australians, I wondered what she would say to people with a disability who travel.
"Traveling with a disability will either go smoothly or will be a nightmare - it’s a risk with every trip. But you enter each trip with a hope that everything will go smoothly.
Don’t let the bad trips put you off, because there is a wide world out there, waiting for you to explore it, and accessibility in many countries is improving year on year.
My top tips for traveling with a disability would be to know and work with your limitations.
I wear a prosthetic, so I can walk, but walking long distances (especially in a hurry) can be tough, so I make use of the wheelchair services at airports and get pushed right through security and up to the aeroplane door.
Don’t be afraid to ask complete strangers for help, most people are glad to assist, just be 100% clear on how you want them to help.
And finally, don’t be afraid to speak up when something isn’t right, my article in the Guardian spoke about the issues with wheelchair assistance, if they want to improve the service they need to know where it is going wrong."
Elizabeth grew up in western Sydney. I asked how her Australian childhood prepared her for her career and life experiences.
"Growing up in Greystanes in western Sydney, I was the only child with a disability like mine in the area, and the only child with a physical disability attending my mainstream school.
It prepared me for life by teaching me resilience, understanding, and empathy. I wasn’t the only child faced with difficulties, many children I went to school with had to deal with poverty, or abuse, or indifference.
Many children I went to school with were refugees and immigrants, whose first language wasn’t English, and yet they came to school every day to get an education. We grew up all the better for having known each other and understanding each other's experiences."
Finally, I asked Elizabeth about her favourite experiences or places within London.
"I live in the north of England, but I do travel to London quite often. My favourite part of London is, actually, Kings Cross. I have worked for organisations there, running workshops, etc, and there is this lovely, villagey vibe there, that hums with an undercurrent of business, creativity, and excitement.
There is an openness and acceptance of difference that I love so much about London, and in this way, it will always be a special city for me."
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