Interview with international T36 long jumper and creator of Enabled Not Disabled, Ryan Raghoo.
Ryan describes his journey from being diagnosed with cerebral palsy, to becoming a decorated international athlete and creating Enabled not Disabled; a groundbreaking movement.
What was your biggest dream growing up?
Ryan: To play football in the garden with my brothers. People laugh when I say this, but when you’ve been told that you will never walk, you’re pushed around in a push chair, you can’t do anything for yourself, completely dependent on your family AND you’ve got younger brothers who are developing faster than you, all you want to do is just go out and play. When I was younger that was all I wanted to do.
‘Being able to run fast is like freedom’
Having been in a wheelchair, being able to run fast is like freedom. When I became a sportsman it was just about winning, and then my whole psychology changed. I looked around me, I thought to myself; I’m the only person here that looks the way I look. I started to ask, why is that? That’s when I started to realise that this is bigger than just winning medals. I realised that I have a platform to change things on a massive level.
Did you ever imagine that you would be doing what you’re doing now?
Ryan: It just turned into this massive thing. I didn’t have any idea what it was going to turn into. So it was very accidental that I ended up doing what I am doing now. My family were told that I would not survive past the age of 10, never walk, never talk, never do this or that; but, they always said that I was going to do something special, even though they didn’t know what it was.
“My great grandmother always said ‘he’s going to be something’, I didn’t know then, but she already knew’.
Why did the doctors predict that you would never walk or talk?
Ryan: I have cerebral palsy, it’s a neurological condition which affects my movement, and my brain is damaged. So for the first 24 hours of my life, they weren’t sure if I was going to survive. I spent 6 weeks in intensive care for babies. My family weren’t allowed to see me, I spent 4 years in hospital, 8 years in a wheelchair; it’s been a pretty crazy story.
What is Enabled not Disabled and what inspired you to use that name?
‘A lot of people say it’s a brand, but I’d say it’s a movement’
Ryan: I broke down the word to ‘dis’ and ‘abled’. I can’t think of a single word beginning with ‘dis’ that is positive. When you think about it, you’re saying that someone is not able to do something. That’s just such a backwards way of thinking.
The aim is to break down the stigmas around disability, to raise awareness of the fact that disability doesn’t look like what we think. They can be invisible too. Disability is also mental health, physical health and there’s a whole spectrum of conditions that come under that. Really, it’s about breaking down social stigma around disability so that we see people in society as individuals with talent rather than labelling them as people with disabilities.
What inspired you to start Enabled not Disabled?
Ryan: My family. Growing up I couldn’t do a lot of things physically. I always used to say ‘I can’t do it’. Their response was, ‘there’s no such word as can’t’. So I wasn’t allowed to actually say the word ‘can’t’. They always told me that I could do whatever I wanted.
For the longest time, I used to see my condition as a negative thing because of how the people around me perceived me, treated me, bullied me. Having a disability was always a negative thing for me, so being able to turn it into something positive is really the best thing that’s come out of this.
‘I thought to myself, how can I change the way society looks at disability?’
What is next for Enabled not Disabled?
Ryan: The bigger plan is to go abroad. To set up disability sports projects in the Caribbean, Africa and Asia and work with communities over there to break down the barriers around disability. As bad as it might be for me as a Caribbean or Black or Asian person with a disability in Britain, back home where I’m from, if you have a disability, your life is over. If you’re not physically able to work, that’s it.
‘Use sport to break down social stigma’
In sport you might experience something that can unite everybody, Black, White or otherwise. It’s something that can break down a lot of barriers. The idea is to use sport to break down the social stigmas where I’m from and then to create the next generation of Paralympians, so that there’s a more diverse spectrum of athletes in high level disability sport. Because once you’ve got role models then other people can aspire to be like those people.
‘Create the next generation of Paralympians’
What makes Enabled not Disabled stand out?
Ryan: It’s the first of its kind. There’s no one doing what I’m doing. It’s completely new, it’s completely different and it’s not just a clothing brand. Other people might have disability awareness clothing but this is not about me making money. All the money that it makes is being reinvested into projects. Right now the plan is to get the name out there, so that people know what I’m doing.
The vision has always remained the same, and that is to set up projects abroad. It’s about trying to touch as many people as possible. If people already know what I’m doing, when I need to go abroad and raise funds they’ll be more willing to get involved. This can’t happen with just me. It needs people from our communities to get involved: businesses, coaches, investors etc. The idea can come from one person but it needs more than that to get it off the ground.
Describe the process of creating Enabled not Disabled and the challenges you faced.
Ryan: It was born out of a rant I was having about disability at the World Juniors. I was looking around and out of 2,000 athletes (I think there were) there were only 4 of us, including my coach, that were Black or Asian, and this was at World Juniors. I thought, ‘what’s going on?’ There’s no representation from Africa or the Caribbean.
‘Why is disability sport not inclusive of people from different backgrounds?’
One, it is a major funding problem. Racing chairs, basketball chairs, prosthetics etc., it’s a very expensive sport. It’s very exclusive. Only certain people can afford to take part in the sport. I started to look at how disability is perceived on a daily basis. If you look at just Britain, it’s still very much a taboo. Then look at how my community views disability, it’s a no-go topic.
‘If people are given the same opportunities, they can achieve whatever they want to achieve’
How would you describe disability to people who don’t understand much about it?
I noticed a lot of people think that disability is just physical. I’ve got cerebral palsy but because I train, if you didn’t know me, you might not necessarily know that I have a disability. There’s so many different kinds of conditions e.g., learning disabilities, ADHD, Autism, Asperger’s, mental health problems; the fact that they’re called mental health problems really stuck out to me because I don’t see them as problems. I think the fact that we still talk about it in that way is wrong. The fact that we talk about people as being disabled is wrong.
‘I wanted to create a brand that empowers people to be what they want to be’
It’s not just about people with disabilities; it’s about people who don’t have disabilities understanding what people who do have them go through – what they need, what they require. It’s about trying to bridge the gap so that there’s no longer disabilities and non-disabilities, just people.
What advice would you give to others?
‘Go get it!’
Ryan: The best advice I can give to someone is go and get it because nothing has been given to me on a plate.
I didn’t have the financial backing that a lot of people do; I’m not sponsored, I work 4 jobs, I train full time and I’m a full-time student. It’s going to take long hours and you have to stay true to your vision because a lot of people will start something and then along the way they’ll get sidetracked and forget what the original focus was. But if you really want something you can find a way. Talk to people, make use of the people around you.
‘Stay humble, remember where you come from’
Part of an interview series supporting entrepreneurs in the African/Caribbean community at L.U.S.H. Talks.