Swimming superstar Ellie Cole on diversity, accessibility and bringing people joy

Ellie Cole is a bonafide Australian sporting champion. Yet as other women athletes, or sportspeople of colour, or other minorities can attest, success is no shield sometimes.

“You know, six years ago, I was working at a place and I was told that I was a ‘diversity hire,’” she tells Guardian Australia from a training camp in Cairns.

The star swimmer believes the comment was made in jest. But she was disappointed. “And I think that’s when I really started asking myself questions about what’s happening outside of the sporting space," sy sê. “Because as a prolific athlete, I do live in a bit of a bubble. What’s actually happening out there in the real world needs to be spoken about more.”

Op Donderdag, the International Paralympic Committee – along with dozens of other major organisations – will launch WeThe15, which they hope to be the world’s largest human rights movement. Die 15 refers to the estimated 15% of people across the globe who have a disability.

The lofty goal of the 10-year campaign, which will be a key feature of the Paralympics Opening ceremony on 24 Augustus, is to “act as a global movement publicly campaigning for disability visibility, accessibility, and inclusion”. Organisers say the opening ceremony will embrace the inclusion agenda in an unashamed way that past games have not.

The campaign is being launched with a slick 90-second film with a thought-provoking message that boils down to: people with disabilities don’t need your pity, they deserve your respect.

When Cole was asked by the International Paralympic Committee to take part in the campaign, she thought of her parents.

“When they were told that I was going to have my leg amputated at three … their first response was that they felt this overwhelming sense of fear about what my future was going to be like,” Cole says. “They didn’t know anyone else who had a disability.”

As kind, Cole’s parents enrolled her in swimming to help with her rehabilitation. Hierdie week, at 29-years-old, she will jet off to Tokyo for her fourth Paralympics.

Cole is the reigning champion in the 100m backstroke S9 and has 15 Paralympic medals to her name – six of them gold.

To put that in perspective, Emma McKeon, Australia’s most successful Olympian after Tokyo, has 11 medals, five being gold.

Cole has received an order of Australia and a striking photograph of her perched on the rocks at Wylie’s Baths in Coogee, prosthetic leg and Australian flag in the foreground, is among the collection at the National Portrait Gallery in Canberra.

She first went to the Paralympics in Beijing aged 16. She recalls skipping maths class in order to watch Libby Trickett win gold in the 100m butterfly in the Olympics.

The fact she would be competing at an equivalent meet weeks later didn’t dawn on her. “I didn’t even think like, ‘I’m going to be over at this thing competing myself,’” she says.

Her sense of what the Paralympics are has changed since then. And so has the public’s.

Cole traces that shift in attitudes back to London 2012. Cole recalls seeing billboards depicting athletes with a disability as she made her way around the city.

“I was walking down the street, and I was with a friend of mine who had no arms and no legs," sy sê. “So he was walking on two prosthetic legs. And another friend of mine who had no legs, and another woman who was short statured, and I was thinking like, ‘We are going to be a sight for sore eyes. It’s like a disability cocktail.’

“We didn’t get like a second look in the streets of London. I couldn’t believe that. I’d never been anywhere where that hasn’t happened before.”

Which brings us back to WeThe15. Ja, things have changed, and are changing. But there is much more to do.

Cole does not tell the story about being called a “diversity hire” to elicit pity. Her point is that companies should see there is genuine value to having a diverse workplace. It’s not about tokenism.

“People need to just not look at someone with a disability as simply a diversity hire, but somebody who can create that conversation, who can provide a different voice," sy sê.

“You see low employment rates, because if [businesses] have one person as a ‘diversity hire’ then businesses feel like they don’t need to employ anybody else.”

She points out that access to health care is still an issue for some people with disabilities, even more so during the pandemic and that poverty rates among people with disabilities are disturbingly high. Another issue close to Cole’s heart is accessibility.

'Nou, whenever I’m walking around the streets of Australia, I try and see how accessible everything is," sy sê. “Say [a person is] in a wheelchair, and they live in a community that isn’t accessible via ramps or anything, they are going to face so many barriers.

“But if we can just make small changes throughout our community, and they can have access to anything that they like, the same opportunities as all of their peers, then do they actually have a disability? I’m always asking myself that question.”

Representation is also important. When Cole was growing up, her idols were Susie O’Neill and Petria Thomas. “I didn’t have any role models that looked like me when I was younger," sy sê. “Although I can swim fast, I was never going to be able to swim like them.”

Recently, the mother of a young girl posted a photo of her daughter in front of a cardboard cut out of Cole installed at a Woolworths supermarket. The caption said: “Mum, she has a leg like me.”

“When Mia’s mum sent me that photo, it actually made me tear up,” Cole says. “And I think the reason why I got so emotional seeing that photo is because she’s already growing up in a world that looks very different to how mine looked.

“For her to be able to see someone that looks like her celebrated is game changing. Because when you’re a kid, you have so many big dreams. When you’re a kid with a disability, you have the same dreams as all of your friends do.”

With large swathes of Australia in lockdown, it’s likely the Paralympics will take on a new significance, as the Olympics did. Cole has picked up on the unprecedented excitement.

“I was speaking to Cate Campbell on the phone yesterday and she said to me, Ellie, ‘So many people are looking forward to the Paralympics. It’s crazy,’” says Cole.

“And I said to her, ‘This is unbelievable that people are talking about [Dit]. I think the Olympics gave people so much joy. But I think the Paralympics is just going to be that next level. The thing that I love is that it has an extra element. It’s elite sport, but also sharing incredible stories.

“And I think right now, a lot of people are going to need to hear those stories. I think it’s going to bring a lot of joy for people.”

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