Jo Tolley specialises in all aspects of diversity and inclusion. Jo is a passionate writer, public speaker and advocate of integration, authenticity and creativity, but most importantly a wonderful and warm-hearted person. Her words have touched the lives of many people. We are thrilled to have appointed Jo as a Sensory Traveller consultant to raise awareness of accessible environments that enable inclusion worldwide. Jo will be delivering keynotes, presentations and empowerment workshops.
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"I love having a story to tell"
Jo Tolley | Accessible Environments Consultant / Writer & Public Speaker
When I was asked to write for Sensory Traveller, my back-catalogue of disastrous get-aways went through my head. As someone with Quadriplegic Cerebral Palsy, it’s safe to say that most of my holidays comprise of near-death experiences; hanging out of my wheelchair whilst one of my four wheels precariously balances at the top of a flight of stone steps, a multitude of cobbled streets and less than accessible loos. Then there’s my recent trip to Istanbul which culminated in me losing my dad at the airport and having to file him as a missing person.
On face value, am I the perfect person for the job? Not really. Even in my hometown of Lincoln, it’s guaranteed that any given journey will include curbs the height of Everest, impassable bridges and buses that require the use of a hiking stick to board. At this point, I know what you’re all thinking…Why do you bother? My answer to this excellent question is always the same. I love to live my best disabled life on a daily basis. I love having a story to tell. I love to embrace my wheels, my ‘all or nothing’ personality and diversity in any way I can.
"I was determined to inspire change"
It hasn’t always been this way. For the first twenty-five years of my life, I maintained the notion that nobody chooses to be disabled just as nobody chooses to be able-bodied. I didn’t complain about having wonky legs, but I didn’t welcome them either. I was going to be who I was going to be despite Cerebral Palsy. The problem is, it’s impossible to skirt around a fire without inhaling the smoke. So, in the depths of what I refer to as my ten-year quarter-life crisis, I had an epiphany. Instead of fighting against the flames, I’d use them to ignite the spark of transformation. I began with an innate knowledge of two things; I had an ability to string a sentence together and I was determined to inspire change.
Thus, the foundations for Written Wheel were laid. What started out as a blog in which I honestly and openly wrote about the trials, tribulations and triumphs of life on wheels, soon transpired to be so much more. Doors flung open quicker than I could ever imagine. Throughout my year of self-discovery, it dawned on me that it’s not about trying to switch the cards we’re dealt, but it’s about how we play them. The mistake I’d consistently made was to try and fit in; to attain equality. Therein, lies the fatal flaw, to have equality is to neglect authenticity. Equality says; “Here’s your passport – now, go and travel the world because that’s what everyone else can do”. Equity, on the other hand, offers endless possibilities of where you could go. It recognises everyone’s differences and promotes effective inclusion: “Here’s your passport. Travel the world if you want to, but by judging you as an individual and by the amount of chocolate in your cupboards, Belgium is recommended”.
Having grasped the beauty of equity, I am able to sit comfortably in my own skin and explore the creativity which leads to true diversity. Eighteen months ago, I was, not so blissfully, ignoring my disability and now I’m building a life and a living because of it. The opportunities I’ve had since accepting my Cerebral Palsy, warts and all, have been phenomenal. From sitting on the TEDxBrayfordPool Stage, to delivering masterclasses, to working for disability-integrative organisations, to having written material published in the Lincolnite, to my latest venture with Sensory Traveller – the good times keep on rollin’. What underpins everything? The road from disability to diversity is magnificently chaotic, yet utterly awe-inspiring. It’s raw, unique and brilliant.