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In Digital Discussion With: Jo Tolley

Updated: Apr 3, 2020

Jo Tolley: all-incredible, all-fabulous, all-inspiring... One of the most proficient disability activists within Lincoln - dancing in the ballerina slippers that are uniquely hers.

She joined the TEDxBrayfordPool stage in November 2019, at our Youth event, talking about how equity is needed more than equality (here is an article that summarises this well). Outside of TED she hosts a disability blog (Written Wheel), is the Co-Chairman of Lincolnshire Young Voices, an active member of the Lincoln Cerebral Palsy Society and has spoken about disability at numerous events. She really is a superpower: helping to pave the way for equity across our county and beyond.

So she sits with me in her virtual wheelchair, wearing virtual ballerina slippers...

"Hello Jo, who are you?" I ask, still virtually.

She smiles (I think, probably). “I guess I’m a disability advocate, although, it’s taking some time to put my own stamp on that label. I’m building a livelihood around communicating for disability integration: educating society on how and why disabled people are part of humanity.”

I nod my head instinctively. She continues.

“At the foundation of my talk was my journey of self-acceptance. From resenting my disability, to incorporating it into pretty much everything I do. Within that was my belief that an approach of equity, as opposed to equality, is pivotal to how we perceive disabilities. To treat disabled people as equals, you have to be willing to understand what disability is. Likewise, for disabled people to be treated as equals, we have to be willing to make the first move in bridging the gap.”

“Following on from that, what inspired you to give a TEDx Talk in the first place?”

“Is the answer: ‘Andy [Farenden - the Curator for TEDxBrayfordPool]’s persistent reminders and undying belief’ acceptable?”

I can imagine one of Tolley’s big laughs here: a delightful boisterous little sound which lights up any room she’s in.

“Whilst that was an overarching factor, I knew I had to practice what I preach. I tell people on a daily basis that disabled people are worthy to be allowed to reach their full potential, but I don’t think I’d fully embraced that myself. I had to stand in my truth before I could continue to push people to stand in theirs.”

”I know you're an activist at heart, how has advocating on behalf of disability issues changed your life, for the better or worse?"

“Oh God." I'm assuming she was taken aback, "That's a huge question. My life has gone full circle. What I do was never a choice - I just gravitated towards it and winged it. My writing and advocacy work has changed my life and given me purpose.”

That's awesome, and I can completely relate! Next question: what’s your biggest goal currently?

“To not go insane during self-isolation! Seriously though, I want to write a book: My Wonky Legs and My Ballet Shoes.”

"What are some of the biggest challenges you've faced on your quest to make Lincolnshire accessible to all?"

"Accessibility isn't just about putting a ramp in front of a step. Not all disabilities are visible so in most cases ramps won't work. Making anywhere accessible to people living with disabilities start with them accepting their disability as part of who they are.

The biggest challenge is helping people see that."

”Okay quick fire! Three words to sum up the TEDx experience?

“Changed, powerful, authentic."

“Favourite TEDx Talk?”

“Favourite book?”

“Anything with Brene Brown’s name on it. #lifegoals.”

“Finally, on a more topical note, what’s your favourite things to do whilst social distancing?”

“I love the outdoors so this is really hard. I escape to the local park, away from people, as much as possible.”

"Thank you Jo Tolley!" She doesn't respond as this isn't a physical interview.

You can watch Jo Tolley's talk here and the whole TEDxYouth@BrayfordPool 2019 collection here.


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