By Marina Reynolds
He’s an Aussie gold medal-winning Olympian and sporting legend, a media personality, a philanthropist, an advocate and everyone agrees, a darn great bloke - meet 2022 Australian of the Year Dylan Alcott, who is only 31 and also just happens to live with a disability.
This is the first time in the more than 60 year history of the Australia Day Awards that a person with a visible disability has been named Australian of the Year, but this recipient surprised no one and delighted everyone.
Dylan was not awarded this prestigious title because he is in a wheelchair but there’s no denying his wheelchair has helped shape the amazing sportsman, commentator and disability advocate he is today.
His acceptance speech, on receiving the award from Prime Minister Scott Morrison this week, is the stuff of, dare I say, inspiration, along with motivation, passion and compassion.
Dylan received his award for achievements in both his sport and his disability awareness work.
He told the supportive crowd on Australian Day he was proud of who he was and took aim at the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and improving the employment numbers of people with disabilities.
"We've got to fund the NDIS, first and foremost, and listen to people with lived experience and ask them what they need so they can get out and start living the lives they want to live and remind ourselves that it is an investment in people with disabilities, so they can get off pensions and start paying taxes, just like their carers and their family members as well,” he said.
"As we start opening up from this pandemic, which is awesome, we've got to think about and prioritise people with disability. Some of the most vulnerable people in our community."
"We've got to get them the vaccines and the tests and whatever else they need so they can get out there and start living their life."
"If a person with a disability needs a free daily RAT test so they feel confident going out and doing things that we all might take for granted, they've got to get that RAT test."
"I love my disability. It is the best thing that ever happened to me. It really is, and I'm so thankful for the life that I get to live."
"I get sent stem cell research on all this stuff and you can honestly not pay me enough money in the whole world to ever do it, because I love the person that I am and the life I get to live and I'm the luckiest guy in this country, easily."
"But I know for the 4.5 million people in this country, one in five people that have a physical or non-physical disability, they don't feel the same way that I do and it's not their fault."
"But it's up to all of us to do things so they can get out and be proud of their disability as well and be the people that they want to be.”
"We've got to keep improving more employment opportunities for people with a disability as well. Of those 4.5 million people, only 54 per cent of them are involved in the workforce."
"The unemployment rate is double that of able-bodied people. Both figures haven't moved in 30 years."
"And, guess what? We're not just ready to work, we're ready to take your jobs, alright? We are coming. We are coming. But we've got to get those opportunities."
"And lastly, we have to have greater representation of people with a disability absolutely everywhere."
“In our boardrooms, in our parliaments, in our mainstream schools, on our dating apps, on our sporting fields, in our universities, absolutely everywhere, so we get the opportunity to start living our lives just like everybody else and I promise you, you won't just enrich the lives of us, but also yourselves in the process.”
The humbled and emotional winner also paid tribute to all who were up for the award.
"They should have been Australian of the Year as well. And I'm honestly so honoured to be up here and it's because of them and everybody in my life that I sit here as a proud man with a disability tonight.”
Dylan said that, as a teenager, he hated using a wheelchair because he didn't see anyone who looked like him in the mainstream media.
"I've been in a wheelchair my whole life … I've known nothing but having a disability," he said.
"If I'm honest with you, I can't tell you how much I used to hate myself. I used to hate having a disability. I hated being different."
"And, whenever I turned on the TV or the radio or the newspaper, I never saw anybody like me. And, whenever I did, it was a road safety ad where someone drink drives, has a car accident and what's the next scene? Someone like me in tears because their life was over."
"I thought to myself, 'That's not my life', but I believed that was going to be my life."
“But I'm so lucky that I had one of the best families, some of the best friends, my beautiful partner and my whole team who told me that I was worthy."
"I'm honestly so honoured to be up here and it's because of them and everybody in my life that I sit here as a proud man with a disability tonight."
While accepting his award, Alcott made light of the crowd's standing ovation.
"I think standing ovations are one of the most ironic things in the world, by the way. But I'll take them, without a doubt," he joked.
He said he also didn't believe he was in with a chance for the top award, but the "really good-looking ramp" at the award ceremony at the National Arboretum in Canberra made him think he might stand a shot.
"The last two years have been so tough on so many people and I feel honestly ridiculous being here," he said.
"To our front-line workers, our nurses, our doctors, people running our vaccines, ambulances, firefighters, you deserve this much more than a guy who hits tennis balls and loves talking. I really mean that. It's such a huge honour."
Alcott began his athletic career in wheelchair basketball, then switched sports to tennis. He now has 23 quad wheelchair grand slams and a Newcombe Medal, and is the first male in history to win a Golden Slam in any form of tennis.
But Alcott's sporting achievements are not the main reason he was named Australian of the Year, he is also being recognised for his work uplifting Australians with a disability.
He received an Order of Australia medal in 2009 for services to sport, and in 2017 he founded the Dylan Alcott Foundation to provide scholarships and grant funding to marginalised Australians with a disability.
In the same year he co-founded disability and accessibility training start-up Get Skilled Access.
He organised AbilityFest, Australia's first and only inclusive, fully accessible music festival, and wrote his best-selling autobiography Able.
Alcott's achievements do not end with his advocacy, he is also a philanthropist, and in 2014 set the world record for the longest continuous playing of wheelchair tennis – 24 hours non-stop – to raise funds for The Starlight Foundation and the Children's Charity.
He received an Order of Australia in 2009 at just 18 years of age, was named GQ Sportsman of the Year for 2016, and 2016 Paralympian of the Year.
Real Dylan’s full speech here, as reported by the @ABC.