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accessibility Achievement Additional Needs and Disabilities ADHD Celebrities Inspirational People SEND Stigma

In at the Deep End: How ADHD Shaped the Success of Michael Phelps

Michael Fred Phelps is famous throughout the world for his legendary abilities whilst swimming. Phelps is, by far, the most successful Olympian of all time with 28 Olympic medals of which 23 are Gold. Phelps also has several world records relating to swimming and is the fastest human being alive in the water. Phelps has achieved this success for many reasons, not least being his own hard work and dedication, as well as having a body especially suited for high water mobility. But another factor that may have allowed Phelps to reach such success, much to the surprise of many, may be his ADHD. Phelps was diagnosed with the condition when he was a child, and some believe that this diagnosis played a role in making him such a world class athlete. In examining how ADHD has affected Phelps, we may learn to see Disability in a rather different light.

“I simply couldn’t sit still, because it was difficult for me to focus on one thing at a time”

– Michael Phelps, from his book Beneath the Surface

ADHD, or Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder, is a condition that causes many behaviours that are unusual in the rest of the population. Commonly observed behaviours include restlessness, short attention span, and difficulty focusing. Many people consider ADHD to be purely negative, but many people with the condition themselves see it quite differently. For instance, ADDA, an self-advocacy group run by people with the condition, argue that ADHD is worthy of being celebrated. Whilst living with ADHD may present challenges, ADDA argues that the condition can in fact have its advantages and should be better thought of as simply a different way of having a mind. This might sound strange at first, but in Michael Phelps there may be an incredible example of this idea in action.

Historically, ADHD was understood as an inability to focus but more modern research suggests that it may in fact be a lack of control on what the brain focuses on. This is why ADHD people often exhibit a trait called ‘Hyperfocus’, where they focus intensely and singly on one thing, often for hours at a time. The theory goes that ADHD people often have a far stronger ability to focus than so called ‘Neurotypicals’ (those without ADHD) do. The problems come when an ADHD person has to focus on one thing when around them are ten or twenty distractions to drag their attention from. Most people have the ability to forcefully draw themselves back to the object of their focus and resist distractions, but without this many ADHD people struggle to stick to one thing long enough to make meaningful progress. With that said, picture child Michael Phelps in a swimming pool. Whilst in a classroom he might struggle to sit and do his work because of all the distractions, in the pool, with nothing to focus on but the water, his mind can intensely focus for hours on end. This allows Phelps to practice far longer and maintain focus far longer than his neurotypical coevals. Becoming a world star athlete requires spending many hours of each day practicing, but it also requires being able to remain attentive to technique even after hours of practice. Its possible that it is because and not in spite of, Phelps’ Disability that he has been able to take on the entire world in his chosen sport, and definitively triumph.

Michael Phelps Video: ADHD and What I would tell my Younger Self

Video Description: Michael Phelps talks to the camera about what he would tell his younger self and what it was like growing up with ADHD. Video has closed captions.

About Theo!

“Hi! My name’s Theo Greiner and I work in the Web and Digital Services Team at Surrey County Council. I’m also on the Autism spectrum and use that experience to write articles on accessibility on behalf of the Council to get people thinking about Accessibility and Disability. I write in hopes of shifting people’s ideas about Disability towards ones that treat Disabled people with the respect and agency they deserve. I hope you enjoy them.”

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accessibility Achievement Additional Needs and Disabilities Celebrities Inspirational People mobility aids News Spina Bifida

“There’s wheels stuck to my butt, how can that not be fun?”

Spina Bifida is a birth defect of the spinal cord; this is what Aaron has and is why he is on a wheelchair and has very limited use of his legs.

Aaron ‘Wheelz’ Fotheringham has never let being on a wheelchair limit what he wants to do. When he was a small boy, he did anything anyone else his age could do, he just had to figure out how to make it work for him.

“When you say you are ‘in’ a wheelchair it’s like saying that you are confined to it. I’m ‘on’ my wheelchair, I ride it like a skater ‘on’ his skateboard.”

A young Aaron Fotheringham sitting in his wheelchair smiling with his arms crossed. He is wearing a navy blue, red and white stripped polo shirt with blue denim jeans.
In the background behind him is a large rock and some trees.

When he first ever received his first walker, he was off and running. Following on from the walker came crutches, which he got the hang of quickly. He would put on a Superman cape and blast down the hall on crutches believing, as any other 4-year-old, that he could fly. At age 8 Aaron go his first wheelchair which change his life for the better and opened new adventures for Aaron.

The age of 8 was when Aaron started riding at skateparks. One of his older brothers Brian is a BMXer. Before Aaron started having a go, he had been going to the park with Brian and their dad for weeks, but Aaron would just watch. Like any other child Aaron found the first time scary and he fell hard, but he was never one to give up just because it wasn’t easy. So, he tried again and from then on, he was hooked.

Aaron wants to change the world’s view of people on wheelchairs and to help everyone see their own challenges in a new way. You do not have to be on a wheelchair or handicapped to be inspired by what he is able to do and has achieved.

“I was able to go further than I could’ve ever dreamed of – all because of my wheelchair”

Over the years, Aaron has challenged himself to discover even more difficult stunts. In 2005, he achieved a mid-air 180-degree turn. On July 13th, 2006, he landed the first wheelchair backflip. Four years later August 26, 2010 he landed the first ever double backflip. As if this isn’t enough, on February 9th, 2011, he landed his very first front flip in New Zealand, and on August 25, 2012, he stunned Brazilians by jumping and successfully landing a 50-ft gap off the Mega Ramp in his chair. He is a 4-time winner of the Wheelchair Motocross (WCMX) World Championships and has also performed the first Wheelchair Flair/backflip 180, which he posted online.

Aaron Fotheringham in his wheelchair on one back wheel doing a wheelie, smiling and his arm to the side and his hand with his pointing finger pointing up. He is wearing black denim jeans, a black vest top with decorative imaging on it, dirty white trainers and a black cap on his head.
The background is red.

After posting that first ever backflip on the Internet, life has changed for Aaron; he has travelled globally, both performing and speaking. He has attended summer camps for disabled children as a coach/mentor, and he has been featured in magazines, newspapers, and sports television. Aaron enjoys showing young kids with disabilities that a wheelchair can be a tool, not a restriction. He loves helping younger children learn how to handle their chairs in new and different ways and teaching them a trick or two. Someday he hopes to design and build the most wicked chair in the world.

Aaron “Wheelz” Fotheringham – The Story

Video description:

A youtube video documentary about Aaron’s life and rise to fame. There are a sequence of clips of Aaron talking to the camera, learning and landing a number of different wheel chair stunts, attending movie premiere’s and enjoying his life.

Video Transcript:

“I wanna be be cool! I wanna be cool!” A few people can be heard cheering and then the sound of the wheelchair crashing into the ramp. “Dude I’m alive”, people cheer. More crashing sounds.

“I’m Aaron Fotheringham, most people call me Wheelz. I was born with Spina Bifida. The doctors didn’t think I’d really be independent at all or be able to sit up or do anything on my own: need to be assisted my whole life.

“But I didn’t let that stop me from keeping up. When all my friends would be riding their bikes around, I would hop on my wheelchair and chase them all around the streets.”

“Since those days my life has changed so much. Somehow I have been able to travel the world from country to country. I’ve been able to meet my idols and people who inspire me, perform in live shows in front of thousands of people and basically go further than I ever could have dreamed, all because of my wheelchair”. People cheering.

“Um, ok, well I was adopted when I was born to an awesome family in Los Vegas. They’re not my biological parents, but pretty much they’re everything, you know, they took care of me since birth and given me everything I have. Had to be a big trial on them and a big risk ’cause adopting a kid with Spina Bifida is, you know, like buying a car that’s got a lot of problems, a lot of work. Just also having to go in, either having a kidney problem or problem with my spine.”

“Well when I first started going to school, and like, they would always ask if I wanted to be put into adaptive PE with other kids on wheelchairs and I was always against that, because I though well I’m just like every other kid, I’m just on a wheelchair. So I would always fight and make them put me in regular PE. The coaches were always pumped because I would always be there and just want to do whatever the other kids were doing. So I think that was an important part was just having, you know, no one treat me any different. And my parents would always, if I would ask for help or something, they would say: your legs aren’t in pain at all, you can do it yourself. So they would just treat me like they would treat any of my other brothers.”

“You know, I think your disability is mostly in your head. You’re only as disabled as you feel. Just always having fun with it and never seeing it as a true disability. Like I don’t wake up in the morning and think: oh crap I’ve got to ride a wheelchair today. It’s just, like you get up and put your shoes on, I’m hopping onto an awesome wheelchair.”

“It’s pretty sweet to be able to help people look at their wheelchair as something just besides a medical device and it can actually be something really fun. Like, honestly there’s just wheels stuck to my butt, how can that not be fun?”

“We’re just here at one of the nitro circuit premiere’s getting ready to see the movie for the first time. Never been on the red carpet before, I feel like I should wipe my wheels before I got on the red carpet.”

Singing.

“Wheelz is fun, he’s really cool. He’s got the most dry sense of humour you could ever imagine. First time I saw him, he hit the ground and he’s laying there like: I’ll never walk again! and I was like so, I didn’t know whether to laugh, I didn’t know. He’s just always being awesome, I can’t be awesome all the time, I can’t even walk but that’s kinda what we got in common so we’re good.”

Background music and cheering.

“Not too long ago I went to my first x games and I’d watch Travis and I saw him up close for the first time and I was star struck. And I waved at him and he waved back at me. Saw Travis’s double back flip and I was like I wanna do a double back. And then a couple of years later they call me up and I’m doing shows with them and then I’m landing a double back flip. It’s just, you know, it’s crazy, I’m scarred to dream too insane because everything seems to be coming true.”

Background music.

“Those are always the best moments of my life.”

Cheering.

Dude, my teeth are missing again! You lost your teeth? Again! I had so much fun knocking my teeth out the first time that I can’t help it!.

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Achievement Additional Needs and Disabilities Autism Personal Story SEND

The power of participation: getting your voice heard

“Before I came to participation groups, I didn’t talk.”

“Like this [conversation] was a no go … and then I went to my first session and then like, you couldn’t stop me talking, because I realised I was allowed to speak and I was allowed to know things.”

“Professionals don’t know that we don’t know we’re allowed [to speak and know things]. They make us feel like we can’t have knowledge of ourselves, which is what we’re meant to have anyway!”

“That’s been my biggest part in this [participation], is knowing myself, instead of knowing what they want me to know. Without this, I wouldn’t have been able to spread my voice. I would not have a say in terms of what I struggle with.”

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Achievement Celebration

YES! Awards 2020

What a wonderful evening we had, celebrating children and young people with Special Educational Needs and Disabilities amazing achievements at the YES! Awards 2020! Take a look at an overview of the evening!