Paralympic medal winner and TV presenter, Ade Adepitan inspired his audience at the University of East London (UEL) with a message of overcoming life’s challenges and recognising talent.
“My mum sent me to school with a massive afro and bright pink flares on my first day,” he recalled with a grin. “More seriously, being the new boy who was black, had a funny name, and had a disability was when it first hit me that I was different, that life was going to throw all sorts of challenges at me.”
Some heroics during a school football match earned him the admiration of peers and sealed new bonds of friendship.
Mr Adepitan, who grew up Newham in east London and received an honorary doctorate from UEL in 2010, shared his life story with students, staff, alumni, and the public, at the University’s Royal Docks School of Business and Law.
Aged three, he contracted polio, resulting in the loss of his left leg and needing to use callipers and later a wheelchair. But that did not stop his becoming an elite wheelchair basketballer player, winning bronze at the 2004 Paralympic Games, and gold at the 2005 Paralympic World Cup in Manchester.
He said, “I think perceptions in the sporting world need to change, including the perception of Paralympians.
“I don’t think we’re quite there yet, as disabled athletes are not seen on the same level, but I do think the London 2012 Games went some way. Channel 4’s Meet the Superhumans springs to mind as an outstanding example showing the talent of disabled athletes.”
Mr Adepitan spoke about his move to TV presenting, praising commissioners and production staff for taking a chance on him. He said, “I had no TV experience, came from east London and sounded it, and used a wheelchair.
“But I’ve been fortunate enough to have presented the London Paralympic Games, Dispatches and Unreported World documentaries, and travelled to New York, Cuba, and across Africa as a presenter.”
He said having more diverse people in front of the camera has a positive impact on young people, as they see people who look like them, whether from Black Asian Minority Ethnic (BAME) backgrounds or living with a disability.
He added, “Bigger changes are needed and will happen, but it requires having more diverse people at the top, the people who make the decisions, who commission shows; these people can make a real difference.”
More recently he was invited by Sir Lenny Henry to co-author and sign an open letter encouraging tax breaks for media and creative businesses as an incentive to employ more women, BAME, and people with disabilities.
Asked whether he thought greater transparency around gender pay was a useful example to follow for BAME communities and people with disabilities, he said, “What’s needed is action. It’s a good move, and everyone should be paid fairly, but only time will tell whether decision makers feel compelled to bring about change.”
The event was opened by Professor Sunitha Narendran, head of the department of business at UEL. She said, “Ade’s focus on talent and diversity really resonated, as UEL and east London are diverse in so many ways. He is someone who has excelled in sport, the media, and as a role model for anyone who feels the odds are stacked against them.”
Among the guests was Suzanne McDonald, a school business manager at UEL, who brought her brother and sister-in-law to hear Mr Adepitan speak. She said, “His life and message were inspiring, but it was also fun. He found ways to use humour to tell his story about recognising talent wherever it’s found, whatever the person looks like. I’ve definitely taken something away from it.”
Mr Adepitan’s most recent TV project, BBC Two’s four-part series, Africa with Ade Adepitan, took him through Cape Verde, Senegal, the Ivory Coast, and finally his birthplace of Lagos, Nigeria, where he met old friends: polio survivors like him, who love sport.
“Everyone in life needs an enabler, someone who believes in you, who can see your talent more than you can see it yourself. I’m thankful for those who believe in me and see my talent,” he concluded.