'Everyone Has An Ambition, But Most Are Scared To Go For It' | A Q&A with Paralympian Ade Adepitan
We spoke to wheelchair basketball superstar, Paralympian, presenter and broadcaster Ade Adepitan, to find out about his biggest successes, what more can be done for disabled people in the UK and his childhood adventures.
Can you tell us about your childhood, what it was like growing up with polio and what it was like for your family moving over to the UK from Nigeria?
It’s a big question. When I look back on it, it must have been daunting, but as a kid, you just get on with it. We moved to Plaistow from Nigeria. When I went to my primary school, I was the only disabled kid and one of very few black kids, so initially there were the challenges of being different. As a child you just want to fit in, the last thing you want to do is stand out, so it was hard. But, as you grow older, all you want to do is be different. Kids hadn’t seen anyone like me, I had a strong Nigerian accent, I walked differently, looked different, so I had to gain their respect. But fortunately for me, I was good at sport, so they stuck me in goal on the football pitch. After seeing me on calipers, the last thing they expected was a demon goalkeeper, but I was pretty great, so it just took that breakthrough for me to make friends and begin to settle in a little bit more.
How did you first get into wheelchair basketball?
I was introduced to it by physiotherapists in East London, they set up a youth club type thing for disabled kids, it was called the association of wheelchair children, now the kids that go call it the Newham Rollers. They really wanted me to play for them, they were trying to recruit me for ages. They spotted me being raced through the streets by my friends in a shopping trolley, because at the time this was the fastest way for me to keep up with my friends. At first, I thought, I’d never play for them because I’d never get into a wheelchair due to disability stigma. There was a lot of discrimination, there was a lot of negative pre-conceptions surrounding wheelchairs, so as a kid, I just saw it as another way to make me stand out.
"I went from being a school kid and watching the Olympics and Paralympics on my TV screen to, not just being a part of it, but being a part of the team that brings it to the UK, to London, to my hometown. I felt like someone up there was writing a script for me."
But, after they nagged me enough, I went to their junior games and I was blown away by wheelchair sport. The athletes and the wheelchairs are really cool. So, I knew from then that was what I wanted to do.
Can you talk us through this time in your life – what were some of the biggest on-court successes?
From the moment I got into the wheelchair, I knew that I was going to do something for disability sports; it felt right, it felt like me and the chair were one. Being in the chair meant I could do more than walking; I moved around faster, I felt so much more able. I wasn’t great at wheelchair basketball at first; it took me the best part of a year to get the basketball in the net, but I worked hard to get there. I saved up my money to buy an LA Lakers basketball and I practiced shooting hoops everywhere.
It felt like I was leading a double life as I didn’t mention my wheelchair basketball to my friends at school, I was still slightly embarrassed which meant I didn’t start using the chair full time till I was 16, as I got better at the sport I got more confident about who I was, basketball helped me believe in who I was. I got bought into the disability sport culture – there was a huge subculture and I became a part of that, I had my own gang so when I went to school, even though I wasn’t cool, I felt like I could put on this cloak and become this super cool superhero who played wheelchair basketball outside of school. I also think it must have been interesting when kids that I went to school saw me on TV as it would have been a total surprise for them. When I look back on it, I definitely wasn’t a person earmarked to make it.
What did the London Olympics and Paralympics mean for you? Were there any particular highlights for you in that period?
It was just surreal, that is the only word I could describe it. it felt like an out of body experience, it is where legends are made, when I was growing up it was the biggest thing ever. I went from being a school kid and watching it on my TV screen to not just being a part of it, but being a part of the team that brings it to the UK, to London, to my hometown, I felt like someone up there was writing a script for me. I still think someone is going to pinch me and I'll wake up as a Postman in Stratford.
"You know what makes you happy, you just have to work out how to turn this into a career."
For London and for the whole of the UK, it was when perceptions changed for disabilities, Paralympians became household names, and I was certainly very proud to be part of the team that made that happen.
What more can be done for to help the problems disabled people face in the UK?
Definitely infrastructure, the country needs to put an infrastructure in place that helps people with impairments and disabilities. I use the tube, but it is a real challenge, if I wasn’t fortunate enough to have a car, then I'd find it very hard to get around. A lot of the big offices aren’t accessible, London needs to help make these spaces easier – I'm sure it is even worse outside of London. If the system doesn’t help them, it makes people feel more disabled, so change needs to come from government. I really feel it needs to be written into our policies, that we should do everything we can to make our country accessible to everyone. I think that’s why you don’t see as many disabled people out there, as not everyone is confident with their disability. I feel confident with mine now but that is only after a period of 20 years of struggling with it.
"The one thing no one could take away from me is my burning ambition and my goal."
What do you hope your speeches will offer audiences?
Everyone has a passion, a dream or an ambition, but most people are scared to go for it, so they fall into a routine. I want my speeches to inspire people to get out there and go for their dreams. I want people to know it's ok to not quite make it at first, but they should challenge themselves and maximise their potential. For me, I've come from a background where I had a lot to deal with – being a relatively poor, black, disabled kid in London in 70/80s wasn't easy, but the one thing no one could take away from me is my burning ambition and my goal.
You are in control of your dream and your ambition; no one can take away what you want to be, but you need to find it, so keep trying different things until you find your passion. You know what makes you happy, you just have to work out how to turn this into a career.
What is next for you?
I’m writing a book, due to be published in May, it's called ‘Ade’s amazing Adeventures. So, I'll be touring the country with that and doing the Edinburgh festival. It is one of the first children’s books with the main character who has a disability; it's for 7-10 year olds, and it's based on my adventures as a kid. I'm also filming for the BBC, so that'll keep me busy too!
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