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Sarah Stewart in her office
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Coffee with Paralympian turned philosopher Sarah Stewart

12 September 2016
Ever wondered what it’s like navigating campus in a wheelchair?

Disability doesn’t discriminate, it just turns up, says Sydney postgraduate student and three-time Paralympic medallist Sarah Stewart.

When the Paralympics came to Sydney in 2000, Sydney postgraduate student Sarah Stewart joined the city in eagerly watching the Games. Like the rest of us, she watched as an outsider, never imagining that she would represent Australia in wheelchair basketball, let alone bring home three medals.

Sixteen years later, Stewart has played in three Paralympics and more than 150 international wheelchair basketball games, all while pursuing a PhD in philosophy here at Sydney.

Stewart sat down with us at last week’s Disability Inclusion Week to talk through her unfathomable flair for time-management, and what it’s like navigating campus in a wheelchair.

You’ve had a busy life of sport and study – what’s the secret to balancing the two?

"I think you have to be passionate about anything you’re interested in doing, and then you have to be pretty organised and good at timetabling. For example, I’d do some personal training at the courts at Sydney and then leave early to go to my team training out in Bankstown or Homebush so that I could avoid traffic. I’d use the driving time to contemplate things, and then sit in my car and try and actually do some of my work and study." 

Why did you decide to pursue a PhD?

"I love learning, and what I love about philosophy is you can do philosophy of anything - it’s basically thinking about whatever you’re interested in. I had some really interesting stuff I’d done in my honours which led me into my PhD. A PhD really lets you get into a particular idea or a couple of concepts."

You mentioned you’ve never had a set career path – what advice would you give to students who are in the same position?

"I think it’s a very rare thing for life to run smoothly – I sometimes get a little bit frustrated when people say ‘follow your dreams, and you can do anything in life’, because often you can’t. It’s definitely a good thing to have dreams and goals, but I also think it’s important to not be too hung up on them.

"When a big roadblock happens, you can become so obsessed with a previous goal that you can’t get past it, or you can say ‘well, if I turn at this roadblock then I’m off on another path and different things can happen’."

The more you get to know different people, regardless of their disability, I think the richer your life is."
Sarah Stewart

Have you seen any improvements in support for students with disabilities since you were an undergraduate student?

"While part of the joy of Sydney Uni is the age and aesthetic and all the things we love, unfortunately that makes it not very easy to get around – so I definitely struggled with that when I started, although there’s been a lot of works since with ramps and lifts and all the stuff.

"A big plus for me was finding the Dragon program through the University’s Disability Services, which lets me dictate my work. I have a lot of pain in my arms, so it lessened the pain and time I had to spend typing which helped me to spend more time actually studying."

What else needs to be done?

"I think some of it is just a general shift in attitudes of inclusiveness – so when we’re thinking about the Olympics and the Paralympics, thinking about that together as ‘the Games’ and thinking about those achievements together.

"It’s also just practically thinking about how everything fits together, which I think the world generally doesn’t do too well – so it’s not just how you navigate around a building, but also the paths you’d need to take to get there."

What do you wish students knew about living with a disability?

"The most important thing I’ve figured out is that everybody in the world is really interesting and different, you get the same plethora of people in the world of disability as you do out of it. Disability doesn’t discriminate, it just turns up. The more you get to know different people, regardless of their disability, I think the richer your life is."