Sophie Morgan speaks to Female First / Picture Credit: @sophlmorg Instagram
Sophie Morgan speaks to Female First / Picture Credit: @sophlmorg Instagram

Sophie Morgan is one of the first and only disabled female presenters on television and her achievements don’t just stop there – she’s recently hosted a podcast throughout the Tokyo Paralympic Games called Equal Too: Achieving Disability Equality.

Morgan is joined by a variety of guests who share their stories and delve into topics surrounding disability, discussing what can be done to improve the life and opportunities for disabled people.

The 36-year-old has now covered three Paralympic Games and thinks that the legacy and quality of the sport, even though it’s reaching new heights with World Records continuously being met every time, is only going to grow.

The broadcaster spoke about what Tokyo 2020 was like to cover, discussed what to expect from the podcast and revealed why she can’t wait for her book, Driving Forward, to be released.

How did Tokyo 2020 compare to previous Paralympic Games in your opinion?

Every Games that I have been privileged enough to be involved in, so that’s the last three Games: London, Rio and Tokyo, on a personal level I’ve seen them evolve in various ways, I think with London I don’t think there’s anybody who was aware of the Paralympic Games that couldn’t say it was one of the best Games ever put on for a variety of reasons. And I had a very small part in that but really watched it more as a spectator more than anything and just couldn’t get over the transformation over the reception of disability at the time.

It was almost tangible for me living in London, people were treating me like a different person for the first time since I’d been injured 10 years before that point. I found that transformative personally and fascinating to watch how the sport had grown.

But I have to say I wasn’t really aware of the Paralympics in so much that yes, I was disabled but I hadn’t really watched them previous to that so I couldn’t comment on how the Games and the quality of the sport had changed. But when I got to Rio and then I got more involved as a broadcaster, I was selected to be one of the lead presenters there, that was a real baptism of fire in a way because I just got given this extraordinary position to be able to broadcast live every day with a co-presenter throughout the entirety of the Games. That’s when I personally found the experience just mind-blowing.

I couldn’t get over the way in which the Games was used to transform the host country and cities and just the way in which people responded to it – it was phenomenal. And the sport got better and better and better, there was World Records being broken in very event, it was just like wow this is getting better and better. But obviously there were problems behind the scenes with finances and all sorts of stuff that was going on. So, I know it wasn’t straight forward.

Then in Tokyo the least straight forward of them all with Covid and everything. It was an amazing Games, more than anything I felt the urgency, the need for the Games, I think perhaps from a different level because I’m not an athlete - as a broadcaster and as a disabled advocate I thought this Games was really important because we need disability to be back on the mainstream agenda, we need people to be thinking and be aware of it because we’ve had so many problems going on in the last few years.

It’s not like we don’t have problems all the time but in particular with Covid and the pandemic, all the existing barriers – societal, attitudinal, physical – any kind of barriers that have already existed for disabled people have been up even higher and so I think these Games were important to put disability back on people’s minds. It’s a hard question for me to answer because I don’t just look at it from the sport, I look at it from all angles.

And throughout the Paralympics not only were you part of Channel 4’s coverage but you also hosted the new podcast series Equal Too: Achieving Disability Equality, so how did the idea for doing the podcast come about and what was it like to host it?

It was one of the most important conversations I’ve probably ever had. The way we looked at this podcast, it was created by a man called Greg Nugent who was the co-founder of 'Harder Than You Think' who were the team behind the Emmy-award winning Netflix documentary called Rising Phoenix and that went out a couple of years ago and when it did it really triggered a conversation globally about disability.

I think the question really was at the time after Rising Phoenix was where does the story go next? What is next? What do we want to look at when it comes to disability? Where do we want to take the story? Where do we want to look? What do we want to think about? I think that triggered the conversation. So, I call the podcast a conversation because all the way through whilst it is solution seeking and we’re looking to find answers from those that know in various industries.

Really a lot of it was an open-ended question as to where we and what matters are and what do we need to think about moving forward. And how do we turn the Paralympics from a moment into a movement. Or the movement that’s been built already, how do we keep it growing and is it going in the right direction? It was almost like a let’s take stock, let’s reflect, let’s learn and then let’s look forward.

Each episode asked or looked at a particular theme and we went and approached leaders, policy makers, activists, disabled athletes – most people that we spoke to actually were disabled which in itself is pretty ground-breaking, the production team was mainly disabled people.

Most of the people that we spoke to, around the world as well as we really wanted to make this a global conversation, engaged with us in such an extraordinary way and it was such a privilege to be able to pick the brains of the most important people in our world, in the world of disability and just find out where we’re at.

I think also we wanted to make it very interactive so that listeners, whether they’re disabled or not could feel really engaged and feel really empowered and hopefully inspired to find out more or how can they get involved in this.

The podcast was very much question asking, like what do you think? What do you know? And what are you interested in? And also, if you’re an expert in this area, get involved. And so that’s why the #EqualToo I’m hoping will gain traction in our community and in the wider community as well in the same way that MeToo found its movement. I hope disability will also find its movement with the #EqualToo.

Was there a particular conversation that you had on the podcast which has stayed with you or was everything you spoke about just as prominent?

To be honest with you they all stick with me and some of the interviews that were held with my co-producer Sinead Burke - so I was the host of the podcast but there was a number of co-producers, executive producers, on the podcast and one of them is Sinead Burke – she held some conversations with some of our interviewees as well and they’re really powerful so whether I was listening or whether I was engaging in the interviews there was so many things, so many people that left me spinning and really thinking and really evaluating what I thought I knew.

We had powerful conversations with high profile actresses like Jameela Jamil, then we had more galvanising conversations with disability advocates like Eddie Ndopu, so for me I think it was a really wonderful cross section. There’s a woman we brought on called Haben Girma who’s a deaf blind lawyer – absolutely phenomenal woman and an incredible speaker.

Also, one of the things I think we unpack a little in Equal Too is as disabled people ourselves making this podcast and I think our questions lead us down a different route perhaps. We weren’t there to position our interviewees as necessarily disabled people first, it was actually more about what they do and where they stand and what they believe in and their stories around disability might have fed in, their own personal experiences might have fed in, but really, we wanted to speak about the wider issues.

We hope also that in itself is slightly aspirational or perhaps unique in that most of the time when you see disabled voices in the public space whether it’s on a podcast, on the television, on the radio – we lead with their tragedy or the assumed struggles and that almost becomes pivotal to who they are. Whilst that is fundamental to who we are as people it’s not what we’re always all about, so I think that’s why our podcast I hope will be refreshing and when people listen – or read – because we’ve made the podcast available in all formats, that people really find that a little bit different that we’re hearing from people that we don’t necessarily need to know about their disability but we know all about what they believe in and all about their work and what they hope to do with disability moving forward.

Do you think rights for disabled people are going in the right direction and what would you like to see happen over the next 20 years to improve the life and opportunities for disabled people?

Of course, the short answer is yes, everything needs to be improved, we’re not where we should be, but this is something I have to be conscious of because I am speaking from a very privileged position in a developed country with a number of resources that I have available to me. I have the NHS, I have support, I have access to work, I have government grants, I have charitable support – there’s a lot of ways in which I feel where the UK is comparative to some other countries is good. But I am also very aware of the way in which our government has failed us here in the UK.

This is a very complicated question because you have to really break it down but what I will say is I think we’re seeing two things happening. The first is I think disabled advocates wherever we live so whether that be in a developed country or in a country with very little protective laws or even access to assistive technology, wherever we are in the world I notice that disabled people are finding ways to speak out and whether that be using social media – whatever tools they can get for themselves there’s some powerful advocates out there raising awareness of their situation. That in itself is perhaps something we haven’t seen, well we have seen before but not so prolifically and that gives me hope that where the laws don’t meet their needs, we will start to see traction.

Basically I think it’s hard to ignore disabled people as much as it used to be, I think there’s community there, there’s strength in numbers and we’ve recently seen campaigns like the We The 15 launch which is a fantastic new campaign backed by a number of different organisations including the National Paralympic Committee and what that’s really doing is raising awareness that of the global population 15% are disabled, and that’s a huge figure. And the We The 15 is to remind people that we exist and we’re out there and that we are a small but a large minority.

I feel those sorts of campaigns and bringing in various voices from around the world will mean that where laws aren’t quite protecting us, we will start to see push back and change. I think disabled people are galvanised or disabled people’s organisations are coming together to support one another and gain more global traction.

And what I would like to see in the next 20 years – what we’ve seen in the past is large scale movements like the Paralympics where you see disabled people come together on a global stage happens every four years and one of the conversations I had during the podcast was a really pivotal conversation around the fact that there had never really been a framework put into place that would measure how those Games had an impact on society. But for the first time the Tokyo Games was different, it did have that framework or where that framework wasn’t quite robust there’d be progression, that framework would make sure that what happens in the next Games in 2024 in Paris and in 2028 in Los Angeles and subsequently they would leave a larger legacy.

I guess we’re leveraging and using what we’ve got in our armoury as disabled people whether that be the Paralympics to progress our rights and progress what we need. I guess what I’m trying to say is that disabled people have found their voice and I think are all being given ways to use their voice and I think also disabled people have found ways to adapt the tools that are out there for their benefit.

You are one of the first and only female disabled television hosts, so how significant is that to you knowing that you could be an inspiration to others?

Thank you, but I have a hesitation to take on that word inspiration, it’s a word that disabled people get labelled with a lot and it’s something that we need to unpack a little because I think if it’s coming from fellow disabled people, and when I say fellow I mean other spinally injured wheelchair users, other women with paraplegia, I feel perhaps then yes, if that inspires you, because I didn’t have anybody when I was first injured in 2003 and I think if I’d seen other women in my position with a spinal injury, wheelchair user, white woman, then I would have gone wow that’s amazing, that might have really helped me.

But I’m hesitant to say that I feel representative of my community, I don’t like it when people say other disabled people might look to you because I don’t agree that disabled people should find inspiration, I mean we can find inspiration whereever we want that’s not for me to say but our group is so huge and so filled with intersection and so much going on that I don’t ever really want to say that I would be an inspiration to other disabled people because I don’t believe that to be true.

What I do hope is that the work that I’m doing or that I’ve done helps other people, I really hope it does because I hope that in a way by using my privilege or using my position or getting to where I’ve got to which has not been easy, it has been a real struggle, I’ve fought against all sorts of discrimination all the way through but that pales in comparison with what other people in my situation might face in some other places.

I am aware of the relative privileges and the doors that have opened for me and I think that actually by getting in the room and doing what I’ve done I really hope it opens the door for other people as well as women with disabilities, for people who have been marginalised or recognising themselves – a common thread that I have a physical disability makes me very different to other people on television and if that inspires you or helps you in any way then I’m so proud, but I don’t expect that to. I just hope that what I do is just shifting the narrative a little around the perceptions of disability.

I get very upset and motivated to change people’s misconceptions around what people like me can and can’t do and I’ve tried never to look into it although I can’t lie it has definitely seeped into me, I’ve internalised some of that ableism. I think everybody who acquires a disability about how much internalised ableism they’ve got because it’s rife and I definitely have done that in the past and I continue to try and unpack where I do have that. But at the same time, it’s a motivator for me to constantly be disproving to myself and to others what people like me can do or can’t do. And I don’t think we have enough representation.

It’s 2021 – we should have far more representation on television.

What are you most proud of achieving in your life so far?

I’ve just written a book and I can’t believe I get to say that. I’ve just written my memoir which is called Driving Forwards and it’s available to pre-order now and it will be published in March next year and it’s the story of what happened to me and what it’s like to be a young woman acquiring a disability and finding her identity and search for meaning.

It’s literally the biggest achievement I think I’ve ever made. I don’t know how I did it, I wrote it in lockdown, it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever done so I’m really, really, really, really proud of it. I’m so excited, yet terrified about people reading it. But I’ve done it.

Words by Lucy Roberts for Female First, who you can follow on Twitter, @Lucy_Roberts_72.

MORE: Joanne Wilkinson discusses the My Possible Self app's soaring popularity