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Sunday, 1 September 2013

- Emily and Seb at London 2012

- Emily and her friend Tom with 
The One Show's Alex Jones

Me and my twin sister, Lucy were born 10 weeks prematurely, and later diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, after not being able to walk for quite a while when we were young.  My early memories are of constantly walking up and down the stairs at our local Children's Development Centre to try and strengthen my legs.  We had a lovely childhood, and loved school.  I don't remember our disability ever affecting us, how we made friends, or our outlook on life.

At 9 years old, I had an operation to improve my walking, as it was getting so bad that my knees started to knock together and my posture was worsening.  I had Derotational Osteotomy where my thigh bones were cut and pinned back together.  My hamstrings were also lengthened.  This huge procedure took quite a while to recover from, and I lost all the muscle tone in my legs, leading me to use a wheelchair.  I have no recollection of this change ever really bothering me; I was actually much more mobile with the wheelchair, and I started playing wheelchair basketball locally and at county level.  I remember my wheelchair even being quite cool when I started secondary school!  Again, apart from a few issues with school trips and risk assessments, my time at school was so enjoyable. I did well in my GCSEs, and decided to stay on at 6th form, with the hope of attending University.

In the summer of 2008, at the age of 16, I as given an amazing opportunity which would change my life forever. I was nominated by my school to go to southern Africa (Namibia, Lesotho and South Africa) with the JoLt Charity, an incredible organisation that takes disabled or disadvantaged young people on a literal 'Journey of a Lifetime'.  Here, I met people with similar life experiences and similar ambitions.  Together, we did things that we'd never imagined would have been possible.  We rode elephants, went cage diving with sharks, and climbed some of the highest sand dunes there are! I immediately got the travel bug, along with 30 life-long friends.

After JoLt, I was determined to travel some more. After my A Levels, I went to the Sinai Desert with the Yorkshire Schools Exploring Society, and was the first wheelchair user they'd ever taken on a trip.  I was also the first wheelchair user to ever cross the desert on camel! Whilst in the area, we also completed our PADI Open Water Scuba Diving course - a real challenge for me - but it was so worth it.

After Sinai, I moved to London after being accepted to study English at Queen Mary, University of London.  I totally fell in love with London, and all the opportunities it has to offer, and I adored student life!  It was half-way through this fresher year that I was accepted to move to Melbourne, Australia for a year studying abroad.  Going to the other side of the world was quite a scary thought, but I was ready for the challenge. In Australia, I snorkelled at the Great Barrier Reef, volunteered at a juvenile prison, and met another wheelchair user, Alex, who was to become my travelling partner for the year.  Of course, I managed to fit a little study time in, too...  Urging myself to grab such a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity like moving to Australia is something that I'm so proud of.  It would have been so much easier to sit back and stay in my comfort zone, but taking that risk was the best thing I've ever done.

I returned to London in July 2012, after heading from Australia to America to intern at the United Nations in New York.  It was at this time that I received a call from the London 2012 team, saying that my application to be a Games Maker at the Paralympic Games had been successful.  The day before my first shift, I got another call, asking me if I would talk at a press conference the following morning.  I said yes, thinking nothing else of it.  But, lo and behold, I arrived that morning to be greeted by Lord Sebastian Coe - we'd be doing the conference together in front of loads of journalists!  I told them all how amazing the Games had been for those with disabilities, 'lifting the cloud of limitation' on everything that they thought was previously possible.

I then worked at the Excel arena, working as a Games Maker in the warm-up team for Wheelchair Fencing.  I absolutely loved it.  We got the chance to take athletes out onto the field of play, and then take photos with them and their medals!

Seb then went on to use my 'cloud' quote in his closing ceremony speech of the Paralympics.  My phone was going mad with calls and texts - I couldn't believe it!  My friend Tom and I had previously spoken about how great it would be to write an accessible travel guide for the next set of Games at Rio 2016, and this was suddenly our opportunity.  I quickly got in touch with Seb and the team at the British Paralympic Association, both of whom have supported my ambition to create the guide right from the start.  I am now writing the guide in association with Dorling Kindersley and Rough Guides.  We are currently trying to raise sponsorship so that we can distribute the guide free of charge to those who will benefit the most from it. I'm also about to start a Master’s degree in Disability Studies at the University of Leeds, and I'm hoping that my dream to help others with disabilities to embrace the idea of travelling the world really makes a difference!
I am so fortunate to have been given so many wonderful opportunities, and each one has led to another one.  To anyone reading this, the only advice I can give is to urge you to say 'yes' to any exciting offer that is made to you; you never, ever know where it might lead!

 - Twitter: @EmilyRYates

Next week's blog post will feature a short Q+A with Emily about her experiences at London 2012 and her plans for the future - so stay tuned!

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