2022 Australian of the Year Dylan Alcott kicks off RESET Live 2022
A clarion call to the advertising industry to increase representation of all forms of diversity in mainstream media
Dylan Alcott, Paralympic gold medallist and Australian of the Year, kicked off this year’s RESET Live with a call to advertisers and marketers to increase the representation of not only disability but all forms of diversity in their work.
Where it all began
An incident of sibling rivalry in childhood helped Dylan start to see his disability in a different light. His brother Zac would put the TV remote out of his reach, treating him like he would any little brother. ‘It made me realise that if Zac didn’t care that I was in a wheelchair, then why should I care?’ Difference didn’t have to be a bad thing he said.
However, in high school, his peers started to call him offensive names, and worse yet, he began to believe them. He wasn’t proud of who he was. At fifteen, he decided to try and get his life back. He highlighted the importance of being bold – if you put yourself out there, good things tend to happen. After turning up uninvited to a friend’s party, he discovered he hadn’t been invited because the host wasn’t sure he would be able to navigate a couple of stairs to get into the house. ‘What I found was, my mates didn’t hate me because I was different. They were just embarrassed to talk about my disability with me. And more importantly, I was embarrassed to talk about my disability with them because I wasn’t proud of the person I was.’ He realised that once he became more comfortable with his disability, everyone around would too. He decided never to let his disability get in the way of anything he wanted to do ever again.
This newfound self-confidence helped propel him into one of his passions in life – playing sport. He launched into a stellar wheelchair basketball career, winning both a gold and a silver Paralympic medal. After the 2012 Paralympic Games, Dylan says that basketball started to feel like a job for him. He lost his passion for it, and as he points out, we all need a passion and purpose.
Passion and purpose
Dylan’s insights about his passion and purpose reveal authentic truths for brands and marketers.
After retiring from wheelchair basketball, Dylan decided he wanted to work in the media. He returned to wheelchair tennis to get fit following a trip to Europe to get fit and healthy for his new television or radio gigs. But his coach saw his talent and suggested he pursue a professional tennis career. His first response was an adamant ‘no’, but he soon changed his mind for several reasons.
Leaving a legacy for Paralympic sport
Wheelchair tennis has the highest profile of all Paralympic sports, and Dylan thought it could help him change the way people view athletes with a disability. He wanted to leave Paralympic sport in a better position for the next generation of young disabled athletes. And hasn’t he ever.
As he says, disabled athletes can now deliver a return on investment to sponsors, broadcasters and ticket holders because, through his career, it’s been shown that audiences want to watch Paralympic sports. And they want to watch them because they know that disabled sport is both elite and entertaining.
Dylan decided to embark on a professional tennis career because he wanted to build a platform to change perceptions. People think Dylan’s purpose in life is to win gold medals and Grand Slams. But he says it never has been, and it never will be. The reason he gets out of bed every day – his purpose – is to change perceptions so that all people with disability, all around the world, can get out and live the lives they deserve to live.
Five years ago, Dylan would have said winning a gold medal was the highlight of his sporting career, but now he says it’s actually the time he played the first-ever Grand Slam wheelchair tennis match on centre court at Rod Laver Arena for a Grand Slam singles title, with 10,000 people in the stadium, including 500 children in wheelchairs and a million people watching on television – one of whom was a young girl in a wheelchair seeing someone like her on TV for the very first time. He says he doesn’t get out of bed to win tennis tournaments; he gets out of bed to try and change perceptions so people like that little girl can be the people they want to be.
The Dylan Alcott Foundation
This purpose motivated Dylan to establish the Dylan Alcott Foundation, which was set up to help young Australians with no opportunities because of their disability gain confidence, fulfil their potential and achieve their dreams. The Foundation pays for equipment to help people become Paralympians, it helps people who can’t find a job establish a start-up so they can work for themselves, and it pays tuition fees for disabled people who can’t otherwise access university. And how does it raise funds for this important work? Through a big fundraising event called AbilityFest.
Like many 20-somethings, Dylan loves music and music festivals. And as Dylan showed us through some personal video’s mainstream music festivals are not always accessible for people with disabilities, so Dylan created a festival that anyone can enjoy.
AbilityFest is the first all-inclusive music festival of its kind in the world, with accessibility features like flooring across rough ground to make it wheelchair friendly, AUSLAN interpreters on stage translating every song lyric and a chill-out zone for people with sensory disabilities. Dylan and his team have now staged three AbilityFests, raising over a million dollars for the Dylan Alcott Foundation.
Dylan recounted how a patient of a doctor friend of his, called Mark, had attended AbilityFest and asked his doctor to tell Dylan it was the best day of his life.
The Advertising and marketing industry can learn from this story. Dylan said; “With a little bit of effort and asking questions, you can actually change someone’s life. Especially in the industry you’re in. And guess what? You’ll probably never see it. Imagine if Mark saw someone like him in your brand marketing, and he felt included. You would change his life. And you wouldn’t know that. You’re just doing your job. You probably wouldn’t think much of it. It’s not just disabled people; it’s all forms of diversity. I promise you, you’ll be changing lives, and you might never even see it.”
Why is representation important?
Dylan says one of the hardest things to get over as a disabled person is the lack of expectation of what people think you can do. As a child, the only time he ever saw a wheelchair user like him in the media was in road safety ads, where someone like him was depicted in tears because their life was over. ‘And I was like, that’s not my life. But I believed it was. And some people might still believe that.’ That’s why, he argues, we need greater representation of disabled people, not only in our ads and on our screens, but absolutely everywhere. In our mainstream schools, our boardrooms, our parliaments, and our dating apps. Because the best way to change perceptions about disability is through mainstream representation.
To this end, Dylan challenged brands and marketers to lift their expectations of what people with disability can do. He pointed out that 1 in 5, or 4.6 million, Australians have a disability. And they have money to spend. By advertising to disabled people, he says, you give them choice and control. And as a result, your bottom line goes up. And if you’re worried about getting it wrong or offending? The answer is to ask.
Dylan’s own consulting firm employs fifty consultants, each with lived experience of disability, to educate governments, corporates and others about disability. He also encourages brands to keep at it. Don’t quit if you try to include people with disability once, and it doesn’t work.
The AANA is passionate about advocating for greater representation in advertising. We recently facilitated a lunch and learn with Twitter featuring Kurt Fearnley, this prompted us to do a little homework on what the advertising and marketing industry in Australia is currently doing on D,E & I. We have summarised some points here.