152 : Disabled While Other Pt. 2 (w/ James Roberts)

Zach sits down with two-time Paralympian James Roberts to continue and expand upon our discussion centered around being disabled while other. He talks about the role that sports and physical activity played in helping him become more of himself and transition to navigating the professional world. He also emphasizes the importance of being authentic to yourself and so much more. 

Connect with James on LinkedInTwitterInstagram and Facebook, and visit his website!

James has a podcast – click here to check it out! You can also subscribe to his YouTube!


Zach: What’s up, y’all? It’s Zach with Living Corporate, and oh my goodness. So first of all let me shout out our listeners, okay? So shout out to my listeners in the States and my listeners–our listeners, right? ‘Cause we actually have some international reach. You know, we got folks in Nigeria, stand up. We got some folks in the UK. Stand up. We have folks just all over that actually listen to Living Corporate, so I’m really excited about that, and I bring this up now, I bring up our reach, I bring up our international listeners, because of our guest today. Today we have with us James Roberts. So James Roberts is a public speaker, a motivator, a consultant, but many of the folks who know him know him by his athletic feats as he is a Paralympian who participated as recently in the 2012 Olympics. So we have him with us today, and we’re really excited that he’s on the show. What’s up, James? How are you doing?

James: I’m very well, Zach. How are you?

Zach: Man, I’m doing really well. So first of all, again, excited we’re able to finally link up. We’ve been trying to do this for, like, a year, you know what I’m saying? We finally got it done. Objective completed.

James: Well, I think some things are worth waiting for.

Zach: Come on, now. [both laugh] No, I 100% agree with you, and, you know, I’m really excited to have on the show. You know, we don’t–we talk about non-white experiences on Living Corporate, right? And we talk about that from whatever it may be. So if you’re non-white and first-generation, if you’re non-white and LGBTQ, if you’re non-white and non-binary. Like, we talk about all types of non-majority experiences, and we’ve only really to date had one really talk about being non-white and disabled, and so I’m really just thankful that we were able to make the time for you to be on the show today. So for those of us who don’t know you, right, can you tell us a little bit about yourself?

James: Well, I’ll start right at the beginning, Zach. My upbringing is even probably slightly different to even where I live now, being in the UK, because both of my parents were in the Armed Forces. My father was in the U.S. Air Force and my mother worked for NATO, which is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization. So I have a slightly different upbringing to probably, well, people the same age as me growing up in the UK. I probably have a better understanding–obviously I had diversity impact my young childhood. I probably have a better, I would put it, understanding, a better tolerance of other people, because having grown up with a multitude of nationalities–I wouldn’t even want to try and count how many that was–and I think that had a bearing on be it my young childhood from obviously–well, with the disability, but I think when you’re as close to the fire–and I’ll use that analogy as it being your life, you’re living it day in day out–you never see things as black and white. You probably see it like a multitude of grays. Well, it’s not adverse for me, and this probably comes back to be it how my parents and probably to a certain extent my family orientation, it’s very much old school. It’s “You’re gonna sink or swim,” and it’s going back to probably the business sense of it. That’s probably a good one because it puts you in a good place and doesn’t–you don’t really see things as a predicament because it’s like, “Well, I’ve got two options. I can either learn or adapt, or I sink and I quote-unquote drown.” So I think it’s a good analogy to use moving forward.

Zach: No, absolutely. So let’s talk a little bit about your disability if you don’t mind. Can you talk about your disability and what it is specifically?

James: Absolutely. I come at it from two perspectives now because I like to keep it simple for people to be able to visualize, and obviously people can relate to what is an impairment of an imputation because it’s become more and more commonplace in the media, in newspapers, social media, et cetera, where as mine’s a little bit more complex than that. And honestly I’ve got to think off the top of my head in terms of what bones I’m missing. Mine is obviously more complicated than that, but off the top of my head–let’s see if I can get it right now. I’m missing my femur, [which is] the top portion of the leg, and I have a small tibia and fibula, which would be–well, normally in your ankle, and that is attached to my hip. So mine’s is kind of like–how would I describe it? Probably, like, a leg in reverse. I’ve got half of it, but it would be the half that you wouldn’t expect.

Zach: And that’s what prompted the amputation, correct?

James: No, no. It’s more of a–you could say it’s a birth defect, but we don’t actually know what’s the root cause of it, but I coin it as an amputation because it’s, be it from the periphery when I have an artificial leg on or a fake leg, however you want to put it, people can relate to that because it’s similar to what an amputee would have. So without having to–well, I would say it’s a lazy way of describing it, but most people can relate to it. “Well, I know what an amputation visually looks like. I know what looks like in the flesh,” and you don’t really have to think, where as if I go into explaining my disability, okay, for the people outside of the medical field or should I say within the medical field, they would understand every technical term that’s coming out of my mouth, so I probably play it to the layman’s terms to be a little bit easier for the general populace.

Zach: So can we talk a little bit about–so it’s interesting. I’ve had discussions with people who sometimes they’ll frame physical disabilities or just disabilities of any kind as something to conquer and get over as opposed to a part of who you are, right? Can you talk a little bit on how you think about your disability as it comes to you working, as it comes to you just navigating life? Like, do you see it as something to conquer, or do you see it as just part of who you are, as James?

James: I think that’s a very good question, Zach, because I could come at it from two perspectives now. And you’re probably surprised there. I can come from either side of the argument. I think when I have put out content, it’s been misconstrued at times how I’ve put it, be it–what did I put more recently? You could say the disability was adverse. I had a chip on my shoulder and an ax to grind, and I play around with that at times, and I see the funny side of it. But when I use that, and I’ll probably go back to a story more specifically. It would probably be when I was a teenager. That I was very–probably trying to, to a certain extent, find myself. I wasn’t probably on reflection of–and I think about it at this point in my life, I wasn’t content with me as being James. I saw the disability as a hindrance, problemsome… just a pain in the ass, really, because I wanted to be nothing but an able-bodied individual. I wanted nothing but not having this disability, but I think where I kind of had a light-bulb moment, and this kind of continues on from the story, is I was very–how would I put this?–not comfortable with probably my identity. I would want to hide it away. I would wear jeans, trousers, at any moment I could, even when it was hot and I was sweating, and I wouldn’t be comfortable outside of a sporting arena, where as on the flip side of that–and it still perplexes me to this day–I would be content to be shown ever-present in a sporting field, but I think that comes down to–it probably helps being a coach because I can identify–it’s probably I was content and confident in that arena, but I was still trying to find myself on every aspect of society, be it school, and the outside perspective of what–sport in a sense is a bubble, but I think as I’ve got older and started probably not to care what people thought of me because at the end of the day you’re gonna get people that loathe you and like you just as much, but the people that’s gonna like you is for you to be as authentic and genuine that you can be. So once I kind of probably put myself in that position to be vulnerable and only to a certain extent story-tell, I’ve started to kind of give people the true identity of who I am. I’m not trying to mask the facts of who I am. I’m not trying to be a different person for a different environment, be it I’m a certain way for my friends and family, I’m a different person for obviously teammates, and I’m a different person in my business. I try to encapsulate being, well, one person for all three. It’s difficult, but I think I’m getting there. So that question that you asked, Zach, am I comfortable with being James? I think it’s taken time to be able to be at one and be at peace with who I am, and this probably comes back to a good question that was asked–not just me, but a different array of people within an amputee group–it kind of asked, “Well, what are you most proudest [of], or what are you most positive about what’s happened to you having acquired the amputation or being born with one?” And I put, “Well, mine is slightly different, but if it hadn’t been for the disability,” well, obviously as we’re talking now, this would probably not have happened. My sporting career, for all sakes and purposes, probably wouldn’t have happened if I’m honest. Okay, it was an aspiration when I was a young kid to want to be an athlete, but once I got to be a teenager it’s like you wanting to either do soccer or play basketball is very unrealistic with having a disability. What path can you take to do–to kind of go down another route and probably progress that way? So from a sense of a Paralympic sport, disability sport, it kind of fell in my lap from that perspective. So to be able to live to no uncertain terms a lifelong dream that I had when I was younger was probably a godsend, I would put it as.

Zach: No, I hear you. So can we talk a little bit more about that and talk about the role that, like, sports and physical activity played to help you become more of yourself and how that then transitioned to help you navigate the professional world?

James: Absolutely. Coming down to it, I think there is a–very much from what I’ve learned from sport, and I could probably take away from it [as] my younger self as well is that–and what’s transpired into business is–obviously that’s what I alluded to with the adversity–is looking at things from a different perspective. Using one–well, a quote that’s not really a quote, but somebody was saying to me not too long ago from the RNLI in the UK, [which] I’ll say is the Coast Guard, they kind of asked me, “What do you do to survive in terms of if you’ve got yourself in a spot of bother or in deep, deep water? Cold water?” And I’d seen the advertisement for it, so I knew exactly what they were talking about. So you look to obviously stop and try and relax, where as I think you probably could take a precedent from that–and going back to what I was talking about of me being a young child and my family throwing me into the deep end, obviously that’s me, metaphorically speaking, doing exactly that. It’s relaxing. It’s taking everything on board and not succumbing to problems, difficulties, and to a certain extent becoming overwhelmed and kind of floundering. You start to panic kind of mentally because “I’ve never been put in this situation. What do I do? Do I kind of push against the current?” And obviously if you start doing that you’re gonna be in–you’re gonna be in a spot of bother. You’re gonna start panicking even more. You need to just relax and wait for things to come. Okay, from a business perspective, patience isn’t always a virtue. It’s very difficult, because I think we’ve got into a mentality in the present world now where “I’m not willing to wait for the result. I want it right now,” because we’re in a society that is fast-moving. “If I don’t get it now, I’m gonna be behind my friend down the street, my good friends,” and you feel that you’re on the back foot from the off, where as I think if you have that mentality of be consistent and look at it from that perspective, as you’re in it for the long run as opposed to the sprint and you start to leverage things that way, slowly but surely I think you’re gonna be in a better position to be I would call it–not success, because I was talking to Shawn Harper the other day, and he was kind of telling me, “Well, do you want to be successful or do you want to win?” And I think this is where sporting people can find a commonality with winning, because obviously it’s black and white. You’re either on one side of the coin or you’re not. You either win or you lose, where as I think success is to a certain extent manipulated. It’s very much what society is dictating is success. Well, what is reality television telling you what it looks like? Be it it’s very gimmicky, it’s very misrepresented, where as I think if you look at it from the previous, with winning, it’s all about you have a common goal. And if I use, like, a business analogy to make the point more clear-cut. Business is talked about as teamwork. Well, that’s complete garbage, because why would you want to help somebody succeed in a company where your objective isn’t the same? Where as I think you look at it as a more sports-oriented goal [and] everybody’s pushing in the same direction. There you go. Now you have actual teamwork because everybody is striving to go in the same direction, be it if we use American football, everybody’s on the same page. They’re all in it for be it the Super Bowl, the National Championship, where as if you kind of single out individuals in an actual organization, “and I want you to do this, this, this,” it’s gonna become very cutthroat. It’s like, “Well, I don’t have the organization’s best intentions at heart. I want to do it for me.” You get very fixated on yourself as opposed to the success of the organization.

Zach: So can we talk a little bit about challenges in being disabled while also being black? Like, you know, have you seen any challenges that you’ve had to face that are unique to your identity compared to your white counterparts?

James: I have to really, really think hard about this one. Not really, but then that’s probably glossing over the fact that there is gonna be discrimination, prejudice anyway. I don’t have the problem of be it other black individuals within even the UK, be it if they’re from African descent, they’re gonna be stigmatized from the very get-go by just submitting a CV to an organization because their name per se doesn’t fit. I have very much–if you don’t see my color of my skin, just seeing some ink on a paper, you would assume that I’m possibly white. So that notion of stigmatization, prejudice, discrimination due to race, I don’t think it’s possibly being put at my feet. The disability on the other hand? Possibly, but then that’s me being speculative and reading between the lines with be it not getting–well, being passed over for job interviews and whatnot, and that’s the reason why I went into self-employment. It’s like, “Well, if I”m not gonna be able to join the rat race and have a 9-5 job, why don’t I go and work for myself?” And it is a brutal reality as that’s probably down to the fact that I’m disabled, but a lot of the jobs have been very much sport-related. I’m very much around development of sport. Well, who better than somebody who’s been there and done it to be put in that role? So I think it’s–without speaking to those individuals it’s quite difficult. You can learn how to operate a spreadsheet, you know, making numbers tick over to conform to whatever you want to show to hierarchy that obviously a program is working. We can learn that. I’m young enough to be able to put those steps into practice. But the other thing you can’t learn. It’s very much, well, God-given. It’s something I had to work at and put countless hours in to be successful. So to be passed over for that basis, it’s very frustrating because you’re thinking, “Well, that’s knowledge that I think–” This is probably to a certain extent where I make my point very poignant–I think, coming back to Shawn Harper again, it’s where I think the Western world views–well, I’ll use the analogy of old people or the elderly and the older population as once they hit retirement age they’re kind of worthless, where as from an argument’s sake you could probably put that to minorities, people with disabilities, because they fall on the outliers of what is the majority. “Well, you’re not productive enough. You’re not worthy.” It’s kind of to a certain extent worthless to the general populace, where as what he said with the people in being the Far East and the Eastern philosophy, they look at it as reproduction. It’s their way of giving knowledge back and kind of being, you know, those people who have got wisdom, where as I’m thinking, coming back to my point with me talking about being passed over for jobs because of disability, that’s missing a trick I think from that basis of that’s me being able to give the athletes that are willing to be able to put in the work and want to get to the next level, be it from a sporting perspective, where they can learn from be it mistakes I’ve done. “Well, this is what I did. This is what you shouldn’t do. You don’t need to have those pitfalls and actually have that adversity. You can learn from my mistakes and get that wisdom and kind of piggyback on my attributes and my accomplishments and be able to be a better athlete, where as I think–where I’m gonna come from with that [is] I think maybe organizations gloss over the fact of that.

Zach: No, absolutely. So look, this has been a great conversation, and I appreciate you taking the time to, like, hang out with us today. If you had any advice for those who are disabled, what advice would that be?

James: I would say be authentic to yourself, because I think be it–in the United States it’d probably be even more problematic–you don’t conform to any I’m gonna say quote-unquote box. You’re kind of–you’re being told you must conform and be to one box, but I think you need to be authentic to yourself, and once you’re comfortable with that, I think you’re obviously in a better place to be able to respect yourself. And it comes back to–and I think anybody can take heedings from this as well… you can’t please everybody. The only person really you need to be pleasing is yourself.

Zach: Man, I 100% agree with you. Thank y’all so much. This has been Zach on the Living Corporate podcast. You’ve been listening to James Roberts, Paralympian, public speaker, coach, and listen, appreciate y’all. Please continue to listen to Living Corporate. We’re on every streaming platform. Follow us at Living Corporate @LivingCorp_Pod, Instagram @LivingCorporate. You can just email us at livingcorporatepodcast@gmail.com. If you have any questions you’d like to reach out to the show, hit us up right there or check out the website at living-corporate.com, please say the dash. Again, this has been Zach. Peace.

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