Sophie Morgan doesn’t like the word disabled: ‘My friends say diff-abled, as in differently abled’, she tells me, laughing. ‘It’s a funny term, but it would be nice to redefine it – disabled is focused on what you can’t do. The majority of disabled people enjoy finding out what they can do’.
Paralysed from the chest down after a road accident in 2003, Sophie has gone on to prove exactly what she can do, travelling the world as a TV presenter, modeling for Stella McCartney, starting a property investment company, running an arts brand, designing a wheelchair for shop mannequins, and so much more.
Before she heads to Rio for the 2016 Paralympics, we sat down with Sophie to talk wheelchair myths, not being superhuman and why disabled people are too diverse to label.
How do you feel about being called disabled?
Everybody knows when something is broken, it’s disabled. The other day I was using my phone and it got too hot and said it was disabled. But it’s not about how broken we are, it’s about what we’re able to do.
Is broken a word you’d use to describe yourself?
I have a broken back, so scientifically and physiologically, I am, but mentally and emotionally, I’m not. The problem is disabled is used to define a massively diverse category, we can’t find a word that would unite everybody. We’re not all the same, just like we’re not all superhumans.
Speaking of superhumans, I saw some people called the Channel 4 Paralympics video patronising - I thought it was incredible!
So did I, but I totally sympathised with those comments as well because I’m not a Paralympian, I don’t strive to be one. But it’s the attitude I really identify with – ‘yes I can’ doesn’t mean that ‘there’s no such thing as can’t’. I can’t walk, and no matter how positive I am I can’t get up a flight of stairs. But the advert is incredible. Like I said, it’s a huge demographic and not everybody will be pleased.
Do you have a different relationship with your wheelchair than someone who was born with a disability?
It’s like that saying, it’s better to have loved and lost than to never have loved at all. I don’t know what it would be like to be born with a disability, but I do know having acquired one quite late in life that it throws up challenges. It’s just different.
Did it change you?
A lot. Having to adapt was difficult, but I felt a lot more determined. Its quite cliché, but it made me realise life’s really short, let’s crack on. Because there are so many things I can’t do, I’m very driven to do what I can do, because I think there’s nothing that should stop me.
What’s the biggest myth about being in a wheelchair?
I hear people say things like ‘oh, you can’t drive’. For someone with a different disability who’s more dependent on their chair, it’s very different, but for me, it’s the general perception that you’re not as able as you feel you are. My friends always say that we’re the same as everybody else… but you also need to respect us and treat us differently. People say ‘I wanted to help but I didn’t want to ask and upset you’, but we all need help sometimes.
Do you mind people asking you about your wheelchair?
Sometimes I’m like ‘not right now’ because it’s inappropriate or private, but other times if people are intrigued, especially young children, I find it refreshing. It depends on the time and place. My experience is different to the next person and I can’t speak for everyone, but there are common threads.
How did the experience of going shopping change?
It’s hard. I found it a bit depressing at first, because 13 years ago there weren’t any disabled models and I wondered where I belonged. Now, shops are more accessible and I actually designed a chair for mannequins so shops can integrate disability. It’s important for young disabled women and men to know they’re welcome.
So there have been some positives from your journey…
I learned to thinking outside of the box about how I could go about achieving things. Nine months after my accident, I trekked across Nicaragua for the BBC’s Beyond Boundaries, I’ve modeled for Stella McCartney, now I’m presenting the Paralympics for Channel 4… I also get to be part of events like Parallel London, a push/run mass participation event that helps celebrate inclusivity. These events are really important as being disabled doesn't mean you can't be active.
Before you head out to Rio for the Paralympics, what are you most looking forward to?
The opening ceremony! But also the wheelchair racing, and seeing David Weir and Ali Jawad in the powerlifting.
Parallel London, a celebration of inclusivity in the British capital, will take place at the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on Sunday 4th September, 2016. For more information and to sign-up to the challenges, visit parallellondon.com/signup