Win or lose, Dylan Alcott is changing perceptions of people with disability like me

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<span>Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP</span>
Photograph: Dean Lewins/AAP

The tennis champion, Paralympian and Australian of the Year has helped move the dial towards inclusion

When I was younger, the Australian Open lit up my family’s lounge room. The blue court light reflected off the walls each time a racquet greeted a tennis ball – thwack. It was normal to address players by their last name: Federer, Williams, Nadal, Clijsters, Tsonga. And like many others, tennis was my alarm clock for summer. But in 2015 another name joined our vocabulary: Alcott.

It’s a name that needs little introduction and is rarely met with a question mark. Dylan Alcott: the first man in tennis history to win a golden slam. Alcott: the guy who crowd-surfed at a music festival in his wheelchair. Alcott: who quoted Wu-Tang Clan lyrics on ABC’s Q+A. And most recently, Alcott: the first person with a visible disability to be named Australian of the Year in the award’s 62-year history.

In November, Alcott announced this Australian Open would be his final – and he’s currently on track to take his eighth consecutive title at the tournament.

Related: Dylan Alcott: Australian of the Year calls for people with disability to be given free rapid antigen tests

Over the span of his career, wheelchair tennis has been shot into the spotlight. But Alcott’s legacy isn’t centred on winning. It’s on changing perceptions of people with disability like him, like me, like so many others.

In his acceptance speech for Australian of the Year, Alcott said: “I love my disability, it’s the best thing to happen to me … I love the person I am.”

Alcott openly speaks about his struggles and his personal life, all with self-deprecating humour. You can’t turn away, because this man wears his life and heart on his sleeve.

With thousands of social media followers, Alcott’s appeal is far-reaching. People look to Alcott, the whole person. They see his disability and its wonderful complexity as part of the human condition. He has normalised disability and made us feel seen – that we can be represented and seen as real, everyday people.

Tennis champion, Paralympian and disability advocate Dylan Alcott receives the 2022 Australian of the Year award in Canberra on Tuesday.
Dylan Alcott reacts after receiving the 2022 Australian of the Year award in Canberra on Tuesday. Photograph: Brook Mitchell/Getty Images

Alcott has spoken previously about having no disabled people in the media for him to look up to when he was growing up. “When I turned on the TV or the radio and flicked to the newspaper, I never saw anyone like me. That’s what I struggled with the most,” he said.

Disability advocate and writer Hannah Diviney tweeted after Alcott’s first-round match: “If you had told Younger Hannah that one day she’d spend a Sunday night with her family watching people who looked like her play tennis on mainstream TV, she’d never have believed you.”

Growing up, I felt much the same as Alcott and Diviney. Not seeing anyone like you in the media can leave you feeling as though there is no one like you and that you can’t be successful.

During high school I didn’t believe in myself. I was afraid of life and didn’t know if there was a space for me in it.

Alcott once said that for “every one thing you can’t do there’s 10,000 others that you can”. And he’s made society believe this about people with disability too.

Related: ‘I am so lucky’: five things to know about 2022 Australian of the Year Dylan Alcott

He has taken us on a journey to recognise individuals for their humour, their passion, their ability. He – as well as many disability advocates – have moved the dial towards inclusion.

I know this is just the beginning of change, that there’s still work to be done to have people with disability included in education settings and the workplace, true representation in the media and in leadership across Australia. We need to get to a place where people look around and ask if people with disabilities are truly represented in their community, their friendship circles, who they date and the media they consume.

Now when I watch tennis, I see myself reflected on the court. I’m seen on Rod Laver Arena, on the banner at Melbourne Park, in the commentator’s box. And now in his role as Australian of the Year, people with disability are reflected in that role too.

Win or lose, Alcott has helped change the narrative for people with disability, and I want to thank him for this. Enjoy those guilt-free beers, Dylan.

• Kate Thomas is a copywriter and freelance writer based in regional New South Wales. You can find her on Twitter

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