Five months into his tenure as 2022 Australian of the Year, Dylan Alcott says he is still “incredibly humbled” by the appointment, but also cannot wait to hand over the baton.
“It’s opened so many doors that wouldn’t normally get opened,” he told Leigh Sales.
“And I cannot tell you how hard I’m going to work until January 25.
“But on January 25, I’m going to do what Grace [Tame] told me and say, ‘Please take this.'”
The Paralympian says the journey has been “very busy and very full-on”, and he still can’t quite believe he’s been named Australian of the Year.
“As a kid with disability, if you told me anybody in a wheelchair, let alone myself, would be Australian of the Year later, I would tell you to get stuffed,” he said.
“I really would have because I just thought it was so far away.
“Worthy of love, worthy of support, worthy of recognition, worthy to be on TV.”
Alcott says he hopes to use his platform to amplify the voices of other people with disability and to change perceptions so people with disability can live their life to the fullest.
“I’m going to work my arse off,” he said.
‘I used to get called a cripple … and I believed that’
Reflecting on his time as a teenager, Alcott said he used to hate himself because of his disability.
“You might see me now and be like, ‘Oh, he is the luckiest guy in the world,’ and I am — but I used to hate myself so much,” he said.
“I felt like a burden on society, a burden on my parents, a burden on my brother. I was embarrassed.
“I used to get called a cripple everywhere that I went, and I believed that.
“I sat at home for two years of my life eating junk food, playing video games, embarrassed to go to school or leave the house because I wasn’t proud of the person that I was.”
But he has a message now to other young people with disabilities who may be feeling the same way he once did.
“We all want to be different — different hairstyles, different cars, different clothes, different schools, different everything.
“What better way to be different than to have a disability, if you can embrace it … and be proud of the person that you are.
“But you can’t expect every child to have that inner confidence to feel like that.
“It’s up to all of us in society to create a space where they feel included.
“There is a difference between accessibility and inclusion — you can have the best ramps and elevators in the world but not care about the people that you are letting in your store, in your school.
“I just want to create a society and environment where that kid can not only survive but thrive … I think that’s up to all of us to try to provide that.”
‘Poking’ the glass ceiling
Alcott has been praised for breaking the glass ceiling for people with disabilities, but he says he has only gotten this far because of the advocates that came before him.
“I just poked it (the glass ceiling) because I was standing on top of them … to help me get there,” he said.
“Paralympians like Louise Sauvage, Kevin Coombs, Kurt Fearnley, advocates like Stella Young.
“I am the one who has been given that platform [as Australian of the Year] to get out there and talk about something that is very important, which is changing perceptions.”
Alcott said he was trying to do the best he could to get “greater representation everywhere”.
“As a Paralympian, we’re the lucky ones that people talk about on TV,” he said.
“But we need people with disability with greater representation across all industries … as lawyers, as doctors, as mums, as dads, whatever it is.”
Liberation after tennis retirement
Sitting in front of Melbourne’s Margaret Court Arena, Alcott said it was the first time he had visited a tennis court since his retirement.
“You could not pay me enough to have a hit, to be honest,” he said.
“It’s quite liberating.”
Alcott said he was set to retire a few years ago — but the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic changed his plans.
“I was just hanging on until the Paralympic Games and then it got delayed by a year because of the pandemic — and I’m not going to lie — I was gutted,” he said.
“I didn’t know if I was going to be able to hang on.”
Then in 2021, Alcott went on to achieve the Golden Slam, winning titles in the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, US Open, and the singles gold medal at the 2020 Summer Paralympics.
“Obviously, it turned out really well and I am forever grateful for my sporting career,” he said.
“But my purpose has never been to win tennis tournaments, not gold medals, not grand slams.
“It’s to change perceptions so people with disability, people like me, can live the lives they deserve to live all around the world.
“And I honestly don’t think I needed to play tennis anymore to do that.”
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