Paralympics 2012: Do you have to be ‘superhuman’ to be an inspiration?

Like the huge and growing number of devotees tuning in to Channel 4’s fabulous coverage, I love the Paralympics.

And having them here in London at the moment is a major source of national pride in the UK.

The whole world is getting a huge dose of inspiration from disabled athletes showing what they can do – their capabilities not their disabilities. As one Paralympian said on the Paralympic show:

“Walking round the athletes’ village is quite some experience. To see so many disabled people with so many different technologies aiding them all in one place is initially overwhelming but starts to seem just normal after a while.”

As the uncle of a wheelchair basketball Paralympian in the making, I’ve been delighted by Channel 4’s great ‘Superhumans’ campaign, which has been difficult to miss in the UK over the last year.

It’s great to have disabled people talking on the TV about their preparations for the games most nights: the challenges… the humour… the character needed to excel in sports that most of us Paralympic audiences are still trying to get our heads around.

But not all disabled people are athletes, and it’s not only Paralympians who have amazing stories to tell about overcoming challenges.

So I was delighted to get a call from Yves Veulliet asking me if I’d read his book ‘Turning Point: The Fall and Rise’ about his experiences of overcoming the trauma of having an accident when he was 21, the impact of becoming disabled on his social and professional life, and how important accessibility and inclusion are to enable disabled people to have the same kind of opportunities as everyone else to be the best they can be.

I loved the book so much, and felt its messages were so timely, that I wanted to share some of it with you all.

So I managed to get time with Yves last week over skype to discuss some key messages from his book (the transcript is below, if you need it): the need for a more business-focused view of accessibility, whether the Paralympics and Olympics should be integrated to achieve real inclusion, how rehabilitation should care more for the emotional side of becoming disabled, and why being human should be enough.


Get the book

Like what you’ve seen of Yves’ story and want to read more? You can get Yves Veulliet’s book Turning Point – The Fall and Rise from amazon. It’s a funny, moving read, and includes more insight and inspiration into the highs and lows of living with a disability than an evening in the Paralympic Stadium. I’d highly recommend it.

Inspired? Have your say!

Now I’m sure Yves isn’t the only one who has an opinion on rehabilitation, accessibility and the Paralympics. In fact, I’d love to hear what YOU have to say in the comments section below.

If you agree with Yves that we need to look at accessibility from a business angle to be effective, check out my hints and tips for how to get beyond some common myths that often hold back this business-oriented view of accessibility.

If Yves’ points on the importance of listening to disabled people when you are creating products and services chimes with you, Hassell Inclusion can provide user research advice and services to help you do this.

And finally, if like Yves you think that organisations should not have to think about including or integrating accessible features in their products as it should be natural and mainstream, check out my summary of BS 8878 – the British Standard for embedding accessibility into organisations’ business-as-usual processes, which is another great thing the UK should be proud of.

Want more?

If this blog has been useful, you might like my blog on How to secure the Paralympic legacy or to sign-up for the Hassell Inclusion newsletter to get more insights like this in your email every week or so.

Yves Veulliet interview transcript

>> Jonathan: Hi it’s Jonathan Hassell, and you are watching a video blog from Hassell Inclusion, bringing you perspectives on how disabled and elderly people use technology so you can create products to appeal to this 20% of the population as well as everyone else.

Well, here in London the Paralympics are just about to start – you can feel the whole of the city holding it’s breath again for another huge opening ceremony tonight and hoping our transport infrastructure will triumph as well as the athletes again.

And the whole world is hopefully going to get a huge dose of inspiration from disabled athletes showing what they can do – their capabilities not their disabilities.

As the uncle of a wheelchair basketball Paralympian in the making, I’ve been delighted by Channel 4’s great ‘Superhumans’ campaign, which has been difficult to miss in the UK over the last year. It’s great to have disabled people talking about their preparations for the games most nights… the challenges – mostly those of being the best they can be at their sport, as well as challenges from their disability… the humour, the character needed to excel in sports that most of us Paralympic audiences are still trying to get our heads around.

As one Paralympian said on the show last night: walking round the athletes’ village is quite some experience. To see so many disabled people with so many different technologies aiding them all in one place is initially overwhelming but starts to seem just normal after a while. I’m hoping viewers of the Paralympic coverage and myself will go on the same journey over the next couple of weeks.

But not all disabled people are athletes, and it’s not only Paralympians who have amazing stories to tell about overcoming challenges. So I was delighted to get a call from Yves Veulliet asking me if I’d read his really timely book ‘Turning Point: The Fall and Rise’ about his experiences of overcoming the trauma of having an accident when he was 21, and the impact of becoming disabled on his social and professional life.

And I’m even more delighted that Yves can join me via skype today, to discuss his book, and the challenges he has in it for how society includes disabled people.

So, Yves, thanks so much for finding the time to chat with me today. Welcome.

>> Yves: Thank you very much Jonathan. And thank you very much for having me today and allowing me to speak a little more about my own experience and the lessons for the inspiration it could bring to other people.

>> Jonathan: That’s great. So, just an initial question: I know your job takes you lots of different places, you travel around the world a lot – we met via skype in Toronto. So where are you at the moment?

>> Yves: I’m based in Belgium. I work in IBM in Belgium at European and Global level, but my office is located in Brussels.

>> Jonathan: That’s great. So talking about your book – Turning Point: the Fall and Rise. I loved it. It thought it was great. It’s a funny, moving account of your story – of the accident you had when you were 21, your experiences of the different stages of rehabilitation after it, and how you made a path forwards for yourself to reintegrate with what you call the ‘main road’ of what you wanted your life to be. It’s a brilliant book. So firstly, can you tell us something about the accident you had, the emotions you went through in the first months afterwards when you didn’t know what you were and you weren’t going to be able to do as a result of the accident?

>> Yves: Actually, yes, I was 21 when had this motorcycle accident. It occurred in 1987. I fell down into a gully because the back wheel of my bike slid on the gravel. And I fell down into the gully, four feet lower, and I broke my spinal cord which, you know… When I work up at the hospital I was in a state of shock because I was completely lost. I had no memory at all about what had happened. And then, you know, when something happens to you, something really bad in terms of health issues or an accident, all human beings are going through the same stages. But not all of them do react the same way, because we all have the different personalities and education etc. So basically the stages that you are going through when something similar happens is: first, what I call the state of shock. You don’t know where you are. You’re completely lost. You’ve lost all your point of who you are, what you can do, what you cannot do, you’re completely lost.

Then comes the denial stage. You realise slowly but surely that your body has been damaged. You don’t know yet, how much you will recover or not… whether you will recover or not. Which means that it creates confusion. And also frustration. So you are in a state of denial. You know, when the doctor tells you, you know, “we’re not sure if you’ll be able to walk again” when you’re 21 it’s almost unbelievable. You cannot hear that. You cannot accept it. At all. You’re in the state of denial. Then, after, you believe your life is kind of at the end. If it’s true, that’s over, that’s it. For me, life is over. Then starts the frustration period. It’s like you see, you know, this eternal story of the ‘half glass, half full or half empty’. And, your glass, my glass was full. It’s like you can no longer dance with your girlfriend. You can no longer go to the swimming pool. You can no longer ride your bike. You can no longer walk. You can no longer dance. You can no longer enjoy your daily life. And so, I would say that this stage is certainly one of the most difficult ones to deal with.

Then comes the state of passivity. Then you realise that even if your life is not completely over, it’s going to be very difficult, very challenging for the rest of your life. Your next question is: shall I be happy, happy during the rest of my life? Will I find some moments of happiness being in a wheelchair? Because the idea you have is that you will be stuck in this wheelchair. And so, progressively, you start realising that your life will be more difficult. But you will find happiness.

>> Jonathan: Can I stop you there for a second because I was really interested in… So one of the things I always do when I help clients understand how to create products for disabled people, and services, is to start by listening to the people that we are creating the products and services for. So, one of the questions I wanted to ask was: did the rehabilitation treatment that you received make you… make you think your doctors, the nurses, the carers, really understood your needs, or did they kind of assume what you needed without asking you? And did that have an impact on how how well they cared for you, and how well you were able to progress through those stages?

>> Yves: Those specialists are very well educated technically. They can treat the disease or, you know, the damage your body had. However, when it comes to human interactions – listening to people, taking the time to listen to what you have to to say, what you have to ask – then it becomes very difficult because they are not trained, they are not educated to do that. They are technical specialists. And even when you speak to these pshychological experts etc. they do have so many patients to see, to treat, that they don’t take enough time. And it’s not really their fault. The issue is broader than only man-to-man relationship. It’s really about the way the society is working. And so the pressure on them is so hard, that for them it’s very hard to be able to spend 10 minutes with each individual patient, every day listening to them. So it’s really a source of frustration for people who acquire disability in their life. And they should be, you know, they should be trained about how to interact positively with any kind of people with disabilities. And, I think, in the long term it would benefit both the health community as well as the patient.

>> Jonathan: I would agree. And you talk brilliantly in the book, this part of the book, about the emotions. So we’ve had the emotions of shock and denial, frustration, depression, passivity when you are in rehabilitation itself. There’s a very moving part of the book when you start making those steps out into the ‘real world’ which is how you phrase it in the book. The emotions when you leave rehabilitation and start to think about how you, kind of, how your new reality works in the real world… where you live, with whom, whether you’d get a job, what you do with your time. And you were also saying you were experiencing a lot of barriers. That the world you were going back to wasn’t necessarily set up for the fact that you were now re-emerging from rehabilitation with a wheelchair. Can you tell me about how you coped with those barriers, and with thinking about what you were going to do with, if you life, your new life, the rest of your life?

>> Yves: I spent 8 months in the hospital. It was more than a hospital, it was a re-education centre. And so the objective of this centre was to help me being more confident interacting with the external world. And so, what is really difficult when you leave this protective place… because this hospital is a protective environment, people look at you as you as ‘normal’ as they are accustomed to interacting with wheelchair users, and any kind of disability. And the environment is also fully accessible, both virtually and physically. So, of course, you need to go through this stage in terms of being able to educate yourself about your possibilities and limits. And so it becomes very difficult the first time you get out of this protective environment. You… it’s a very strange feeling because the other world, the external world, the real world has not changed. But you have changed. But in your mind you have not changed. So, for me, when I was 21, before my accident, whether the narrow doors, the staircase, the high sidewalks was not an issue for me. I’d never thought of all this before. But then I realised how many different obstacles, especially in Belgium where the level of accessibility was very low, as compared to the US, or the UK or Canada. It’s very, very difficult.

It was even more difficult personally when you have to go back to what you thought were familiar environments. In other words, I came back home – I was living with my parents at that time – and then this house where I lived for 21 years, then you realise that this house is no longer a nice place to be, because the environment has become hostile. Because, you know, my bedroom… and, you know, all kids like their bedroom… my bedroom was at the first floor, and I could no longer go to the first floor. Which means they had to redesign the house itself so I was able to live on the ground floor. But then you realise that its no longer the nice place you used to know. It’s a totally new world, and a less attractive one. Because you are no longer familiar with it this world, You have to get accustomed to this new world as well. And, psychologically, it’s very very hard. You realise you have changed physically, but you realise that the environment, both virtual and physical environment, need to adapt to yourself, and this is not taking place, this is not happening. You need to speak again and again and again about the needs you have in terms of accessibility. And people do not always understand it, so you have to repeat yourself again and again. And it’s… it’s very difficult because it obliges you to look at yourself differently. So educating other people who are not familiar with disability is very difficult, when you’re not yourself familiar with it yourself.

>> Jonathan: So that’s your home life. Now obviously you’re in employment at the moment, and we’ll come on to that in a moment. But can you tell us about those initial steps into employment for you at that time? How easy was it for you to get a job?

>> Yves: Well, as we said already, I was 21 when this motorcycle accident occurred, so I was still a student at that time. But then, in terms of accessibility, back in 1987 the level of accessibility in schools and high-schools and universities was even lower than today. So I had to, yeah, I didn’t really have a large number of choices. I had to think about whether… To consider two options actually. Whether I would try to – because I wanted to be included in society. They way to do this is… Well… There are only two ways of doing that. One is sport. Practising sport at a reasonable high level which allows you to get some visibility around your activity and around yourself. Or through a job. And it turns out that I chose the second option because I’m very bad at sport.

>> Jonathan: Me too.

>> Yves: So the choice was very limited for me. And so I started to investigate what kind of work… You know, when you start realising that the world is difficult for you, then the inclusion in the society in general will be challenging. However, you start to be conscious of your possibilities and your limits. Then you have to consider what… what are your abilities. What are… which… What kind of things you would like to do to be included in this society. And then I realised that, er, well, using a computer… Thinking of IT in general, back in 1987 we were still at the very large box, large screen, very heavy PC etc. So for me it was, you know, computer IT technology was maybe the most attractive way for me to feel included in society. And so I started work in a school as a computer administrator to, you know, to create some, to computerise all the administrations in this school. Which was really a good experience for me, both in terms of professional experience and personal experience. Because I had to interact with kids on a daily basis. And they are very open at asking very key questions about disability, about what it means to use a wheelchair. How lucky I was to be able, not to have to walk. That I could use wheels instead of legs to move around. So how lucky I was. So then they ask key questions, very valid questions, and it was a very interesting experience.

>> Jonathan: Sure. That’s good. So now you’re Diversity leader for IBM Canada and Europe. Obviously there’s a lot of growth of career between being in the school and now. I’m just interested in what your job involves now, and how your experiences actually help you be effective in what you do.

>> Yves: Thank you. Well, actually, I joined here at 1982, 1992, and after different functions, since 2005 I am Workforce Diversity Leader for IBM Canada and Europe as you said. And my role is really to try and implement programmes to facilitate inclusion of any and all full employees in the IBM organisation regardless of their difference, whether it’s disability or cultural difference etc. Actually we’re all humans. We all want to be valued for our opportunities, for our skills, regardless of our culture, of our physical differences etc. So my role is really to think of the best ways to make sure that all people in IBM feel comfortable working in the organisation. So it’s really interesting to me to have this global experience, because although I’m labelled as a mobility impaired person, I have a job that requires me to travel frequently. And so, in terms of, you know, breaking the stereotypes, I’m a very good example of this, because I spend quite a lot of time in planes, in trains etc. And it’s really… I was very lucky to have a manager who was straightforward enough to ask me the key questions: will you be comfortable in this job, although, despite the fact that you use a wheelchair? Which is a key question that other people daren’t ask. And so it’s really a very good experience for me as well, in terms of culture. But of course I have to educate people, especially in lower economy… in countries were the economy is less developed, because the accessibility level is currently linked to the stage of the economic development of this country.

>> Jonathan: Sure. And one of the things I loved about your book that comes over is how your mindset and humour kind of comes through all the way. You seem to be saying, and I think this is your view of inclusion, that disabled people don’t need to be given any favours, they just need to be freed from unnecessary barriers that get put in their way to living the same life, competing for the same jobs, as everyone else… Would it be right for me to sum up what you are trying to say by saying that the challenge for disabled people should be like everyone else: how to be the best that they can be, rather than how to get around a world that was not set up for them right… Did I get that right?

>> Yves: Absolutely. There is a key parallel between the world of sport and the world of work. We all want to be the best in what we do, regardless of the activity that we decide to undertake. Which means that for the athletes, whether they are disabled or not… I’m not sure we have to call athletes with disabilities ‘superhuman’. They are human. Right? I am human. I want to do the job the best I can. They want to do their sport the best they can. Regardless of whether they use a wheelchair or they use sneakers. It’s exactly the same way of approaching things. I believe that, you know, to be honest with you, I still don’t understand why Paralympics are separate from the Olympics.

>> Jonathan: I thought you would have a view on that.

>> Yves: Right! You know, all those people are athletes. And the sweat, whether they are disabled people or they are athletes, able-bodied athletes, their sweat is the same. So why don’t we have…? You know, that would be a tremendous example of inclusion… Having all those athletes with a wheelchair on their legs, with two arms, with one arm, whatever… You know, being together during the games. Being together in the stadiums etc. during the opening ceremony. You would have all athletes regardless of their physical experience all together. That would be the ultimate example of inclusion.

>> Jonathan: I would agree. Did you see… I think, whether or not it’s on it’s way I don’t know… But did you see Oscar Pistorius running in the Olympics. I mean, for me, and I think possibility for his competitors, the other athletes that were running in the race against him and with him, that was a quite an emotional moment. For those two worlds to be in one place. Competing at the same level. Did you have thoughts on that?

>> Yves: Yes, it’s exactly the same in the world of work. Because I work with people, maybe I’m the only one using a wheelchair in my team… In terms of relationship, it’s exactly the same model as with the athletes. When they have to run with Oscar Pistorius… My colleagues have to work with me as well. And so they were also questioning my abilities, my capabilities. Then they realised that the fact that I no longer walk is not an issue when it comes to discussion together, to work together, to try to do positive things for the company, for the work. And it’s also true in the world of sport. Mr Pistorius is running like any other people, regardless of the kind of sneakers he has or has not. It’s exactly the same in my job. When I interact with my valid colleagues, they no longer consider me someone using a wheelchair. I am not my disability. I have a disability. I am not my wheelchair. I am using a wheelchair. That’s totally different. And once the people you work with, or you interact with, have got the message, you know, it’s like business as usual.

>> Jonathan: Yeah, absolutely. That’s really powerful. Thank you for that. That’s great. You end the book by including quite a rousing open letter to people who create products and services, and actually people who legislate, who create laws as well, advocating them to take accessibility… to create them inclusively… You travel around the world for your job. So, presumably you experience a lot of inclusion and exclusion in the sorts of products and services and environments that you’re in. Do you see signs that the world is improving in inclusion?

>> Yves: I think so. Yes, yes. But I would say that… maybe it’s not politically correct, but I’m going to say it… However, it believe that when you speak to the business world, you must speak their language. So if they come to realise that people with disabilities represent not a niche market, but a real powerful market… Because a lot of people live with a disability – with a visual impairment, with a mobility impairment, with a hearing impairment, mental disability etc. – that require an accessible environment: an accessible website, an accessible marketplace with ramps, with elevators etc. Then they realise, slowly but surely, that making their business more accessible, both virtually and physically, allows them to enlarge… to grow their profit, their revenue. And so if you… I’m not against taking disability from this business perspective. You should not be ashamed. You know, we are humans, right? So we have the power, we also have the right to be consumers. And so if you offer products and services that are accessible, from a pure business perspective, you enlarge your pool of clients. So thinking about inclusion, at the end of the day, what we all want is a world as accessible as possible. I wouldn’t say fully accessible – I’m not dreaming. As accessible as possible. And if we take this accessibility issue from the business angle that would be one of the most effective ways to achieve this.

>> Jonathan: Absolutely. I was saying exactly the same thing to people at google yesterday. That’s my message to everyone that I speak to. There are a number of models, business models, for why inclusion is important. You can think of legal models, you can think of ethical models. But, for me, the bottom line – whether or not you can actually make more money is you make inclusive products – is where it’s at. That’s the one business model that never goes away – in a recession, or when laws change, anything like that. It’s key. So one last thing: I like to end blogs by encouraging my readers and viewers to do something, to make some sort of response… There are lot of creators of digital products in my audience, do you have a particular challenge for them?

>> Yves: Erm, not really a challenge. But just one thing they should always keep in mind… When they create products, er, including or integrating accessible features in their product should not be something that they have to think about. This should be natural. This should be mainstream. This accessibility feature should be included from the beginning, from the very beginning, when they start thinking of creating products. Including accessibility features in their products should be as natural as thinking about a keyboard with keys.

>> Jonathan: Sure, absolutely, well, as I say, the Standards I’ve created here in the UK, BS 8878, is all about enabling organisations to do that. That’s great. Thank you so much for that Yves. As always on Hassell Inclusion video blogs the best comments happen after the episode in the comments over on so if you’re watching this somewhere else come back to and tell us what you think.

And don’t forget, this is Yves’s book ‘Turning Point: The Fall & Rise’. All of the information for how to get this will be below the video on

Thanks so much Yves for inspiring us today. This will be going a few days into the Paralympics. So hopefully people will be starting to think, yeah, I’m being inspired by disabled people, I’m getting used to being inspired day after day. What more can I do? I think this has given us a number of key insights for what would be helpful to, er, set up the right sort of world where the barriers are not so high and people can achieve their full potential. So thank you everyone for watching. We’ll see you next time. Bye everybody.

>> Yves: Goodbye Jonathan. And thank you.


Lynne says

This was a great video. It’s nice that time was allowed to really develop ideas. The question of the Paralympics is worth a lot of discussion. You see it come up over and over in the US with respect to Special Olympics. It’s a good way to move to the whole question of “fairness” and what it means, if it really means anything at all.

Jonathan Hassell says

Really glad you enjoyed the video, Lynne.

One of the joys of the web, as opposed to broadcast TV, is that you have the time to let your interviewee really get their point across.

And in some ways it’s great that the discussion around what’s fair and what isn’t at the Paralympics – mostly because of the Pistorius-Oliveira blade-length controversy – is echoing the same discussions on fairness of equipment at the Olympics. It shows the popularity and media converage of the two events drawing closer and closer together, which can only be a good thing.

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