Ade Adepitan: 'Able-bodied kids were boring – being disabled seemed a lot cooler'

Interview by
The wheelchair basketball player and Paralympics TV presenter talks about overcoming disability – and how his career started in a Tesco shopping trolley
ade adepitan
Ade Adepitan: 'Perceptions of disability have changed – but not enough'
Ade Adepitan: 'Perceptions of disability have changed – but not enough'
Sat 18 Aug 2012 19.05 EDT

Will this be the first ever Paralympic Games to sell out?

Yeah, I think we're pretty close to it. We'd got demand beforehand, but what has actually really helped is that people have seen the Olympics, the atmosphere in the stadium, and everyone has suddenly caught the bug.

How excited are you on a scale of 1 to 10?

Easily over 10 because, for the past seven years, I've been involved in the whole build-up… I went to Singapore for the bid in 2005. It's constantly on my mind because I'm working on the coverage, so I go to bed quoting different classifications for different athletes. The amount of information I know about them, they'll probably think I'm stalking them.

Apparently you were a mattress-tester for the beds in the athletes' village…

I was part of an athletes' advisory group that Locog set up and for some reason I was allocated the bed testing. It's important because you've got to cater for all sizes – from a 5ft gymnast to a 7ft 7in basketball player. And, for some paralympians, it's got to be at the right height to get in and out of your wheelchair.

Do you tend to favour a hard or soft mattress?

Normally, you'd think soft, but I think a hard mattress is more suitable for your back. The beds will see a lot of action, in lots of ways [laughs].

You retired from international-level wheelchair basketball in 2005 after winning a Paralympics bronze medal and taking gold at the Paralympic World Cup. Do you miss competing?

When I'm commentating, I don't miss it, but I would have loved to compete at the London Paralympic Games – those big events are what you live for. You miss the atmosphere, yeah. I was at the opening ceremony of the Olympics and, when Team GB came out, that was just tremendous. It would be great to be out in that – as an athlete, it's the greatest moment of your life.

How did you get into basketball?

By sheer luck, when I was about 13, 14. I used to walk on callipers. I was at a mainstream school and I didn't have any knowledge of disabled sports, but I was into sports: I played goal in football at school, and I had great hand-eye co-ordination. I was spotted by two physios from a disabled school nearby that was affiliated to a sports centre. They spotted me as I was racing through the streets, being pushed by my mates in a Tesco shopping trolley because, back in those days, I couldn't keep up with my mates and it was quite territorial in east London, so if we were in trouble, we'd just be able to leg it.

Do you think disabled people should be educated in mainstream rather than specialist schools?

My experience of a mainstream school had positives and negatives. It was mainly positive, but I think everybody's different. I was very lucky because my mobility needs were quite minimal. I could get about at school. But it was tough. I had a one-mile walk to my secondary school and there were loads and loads of stairs – that was difficult. For me, it worked, but I wouldn't say it would work for every child.

You were selected for the Great British wheelchair basketball team at the age of 18. You're now 35. Have our perceptions of disability changed in that time?

It's a difficult question. For me, yes, we have changed, but I don't think we've changed enough. I also think there are a lot of unanswered questions. People might see someone with a disability, and they will have things in their mind, and they won't ask them out of politeness. Because I'm in the public eye, I think I get treated differently. Are people more aware of paralympic sports? Yes. In the 80s, I had a disability and I didn't know you could compete with other disabled people. For most people in the UK, the word "paralympic" wasn't even in their lexicon 15, 20 years ago.

How has wheelchair technology for athletes changed over that time?

The first chair I was given was a folding wheelchair, and basketball is a full contact sport. I got hit on the side, and my chair folded in half in the middle of the court, and everyone was cracking up laughing. I think people realised in the 80s that folding chairs weren't going to work. It went to fixed frame, then to aluminium and steel and now they're titanium. They share a lot of the technology with bike technology, so it's similar to the guys you see in the velodrome

You contracted polio as a baby in Lagos, Nigeria, and lost the use of much of your legs. Did you ever go through a phase of being angry about that?

Not so much angry about the polio but more about other people's perceptions of me. In my younger, teenage years, I was very body-conscious. I was a little bit ashamed and upset that I didn't walk the way that other friends did. It was only when I saw myself in the mirror that it was obvious; I used to avoid walking past any windows or anything reflective as I was going through puberty. But I grew out of that, especially because of sport.

As soon as I started hanging out with other disabled people, I suddenly thought able-bodied kids were boring. Being disabled seemed a lot cooler because every weekend, I'd be playing in basketball tournaments, travelling all around the country. I think I've done more things with my disability than most able-bodied people would dream of doing.

I remember one time being stopped by some people who said: "Have you ever thought of prayer? The power of prayer will mean you'll be healed." And I remember saying: "That would assume walking is all it's cracked up to be." I think they were shocked.

Who are the Paralympic medal hopes from Team GB?

So many! In athletics, Jonnie Peacock. He's a single-leg amputee who broke Oscar Pistorius's world record for the 100m this year. He's 19 years old, from Cambridgeshire, and he only took up the sport in 2009. Within three years, he's one of the fastest sprinters in the world.

What do you think about the government cuts to the disability living allowance?

It's a difficult situation with the deficit, deciding what to spend money on. I think you've got to look at things from a human perspective. I think the Olympic and Paralympic Games will do exactly what we, as athletes, want them to do because they'll bring sport back into the consciousness of the British public. Sport had really lost its status, especially school sport, and the government didn't want to spend a great deal of money on it.

I think, with grassroots sports, it's a win-win situation. Sport's given me goals, it's given me discipline, and it's meant I've managed to achieve stuff outside sport because of the life-skills I've learnt through sport. That's what the government has got to realise. Sport helps you to become more confident about who you are, and it teaches you to surprise yourself.

I read somewhere that you want to ban the YMCA dance?

It just doesn't look cool, people.

But Mo Farah got his signature Mobot move from it…

Yeah, but he's being specific. He's not doing the whole dance. If he'd suddenly broken out into the YMCA dance then, as cool as Mo Farah is, it would have changed the way we thought about him.

Ade Adepitan is on Channel 4 presenting the Paralympics from 29 Aug. C4 is the domestic host broadcaster of the London 2012 Paralympic Games