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Keeping dreams of Paralympic glory alive and disability on work’s agenda


01 Jun 2020 | Emma Benham

Paralympian Kingsley Ijomah discusses mixing training with work at Gravity 9 and how disability has not hindered his ambitions. Partner Andy Ross reveals why the company is fully behind Kingsley Ijomah’s quest for Paralympic glory and that having him on board has brought a diversity of perspective.

Coronavirus may have put the Tokyo Olympic and Paralympic Games back a year, but they haven’t checked Kingsley Ijomah’s dreams of sporting glory.

He is committed to maintaining his rowing prowess and has the full support of his employer, Gravity 9, a digital transformation agency, where he works as a senior software engineer. Ijomah, now a British citizen and who competed for Team GB in the 2018 World Rowing Championships, will be the first Nigerian-born rower to take part in the Paralympics.

Before the postponement was announced, he was about to embark on six-months of full-time training. Now that has been curtailed and replaced with less intensive sessions – and only indoors.

“I have one session a day at home on a rowing machine, Ijomah explains. “We use Zoom, believe it or not, so other rowers from the rowing club will connect, and we use Strava to keep the motivation going. Funnily enough, we are actually more competitive now because every time you log on to Strava and you see someone else has done more work in the day, you feel like you have to do even more. So that’s quite exciting stuff. The training carries on, and the plan is to stay fit for when we have the time to go out on the water again.”

Before the lockdown, it was a tough six-days-a-week regimen, twice a day, involving sessions in the gym with a rowing machine, a hand-cycling machine, ski ergs and weights as well as on the water.

“Rowing on the water is completely different to a rowing machine, so it’s a different sport altogether,” says Ijomah. “It has more variables, wind, and everything else plays in, which is key to the whole training. We are all missing that section of our training.”

In between the Paralympic training sessions, he was able to work from home. As he points out, “IT is very flexible”.

Disability no hindrance to success

Gravity 9 Partner Andy Ross says the company was more than happy to back Ijomah, even though it would have spent him taking six months off, had the games gone ahead this year. “I think we put ourselves in his very large shoes,” he adds “If I had a chance to do something as unique as going to the Paralympics or significant sporting achievement, why wouldn’t you want to spend six months training? I believe you would want to encourage someone to do that. It’s a phenomenal and fantastic thing.

“It doesn’t particularly benefit us directly: we would far rather Kingsley was working full-time for us, but we’re just hugely supportive of Kingsley or anyone else in the organisation who wanted to do something like this.”

Ijomah’s disability – he was diagnosed with polio at nine months which left him paralysed in both legs – has not prevented him from aiming high.

“I have dreams, I have aspirations, I have things that I want to achieve for myself, so the concept of not going for them because of disability just never computes for me,” he confirms. “We are a very motivated family, and everybody wants to achieve stuff, so my dream has always just been to be the best version of myself in every aspect, whether it’s coding or training or just being there as a person.

“I’ve never seen my disability as in any way hindering anything that I do. If anything, it actually improves my quality of life. If I wasn’t disabled, I’d be competing with a bigger pool of people to make it to the Games, so I think that’s actually helped me in a way. “There’s a sky, there’s a limit for everyone. So just go as high as you can go with whatever so-called limitations that you find yourself in.”

Raising awareness

With employers, Ijomah has found that him being in a wheelchair has made them more aware of issues facing people with disabilities. He cites the example of the Christmas party, held in Krakow. The organiser had to make sure that the restaurant and hotel was wheelchair accessible and arrange priority boarding on the plane.

“That wouldn’t have been in the mind of the person booking if someone like me wasn’t part of the team,” he stresses.

What does he think of organisations that say that employing disabled people is too much of a challenge?

“There is so much we can all contribute. It’s hard to say that a person with some form of disability, physical, whatever, hasn’t got the brain capacity to contribute to your business ideas. That will be limiting the reach of what you need to solve the problems of the business. I think it’s best to include as much as possible rather than exclude.”

“When we hired Kingsley, I don’t think we even knew about his situation, and it wasn’t even an issue,” says Ross. “The fact that he could work remotely – we’re quite a distributed organisation anyway, working in lots of different locations. I think it’s only been a good thing. As Kingsley said, it heightens everybody in the organisation’s awareness of other people and how you can look out for other people in all sorts of different ways, just generally. That’s been a good thing for us, one of the benefits.

“Secondly, we want a whole range of talents and capabilities and experiences in the organisation and having someone with their unique perspective on life because of the experience they’ve had is helpful. It means that we’re not all identical in sharing the same groupthink type ways of doing things, we have someone who has had different experiences.”

He adds: “We’re a consultancy, we do professional services for our clients, software development, and having people who can see problems from a different perspective is always helpful because a lot of the work is around problem-solving when you’re building software.”

Technology support for D&I

Post Paralympics, Ijomah would love to promote rowing in developing countries. He also sees a space for technology in helping the sport.

“With isolation at the moment, athletes do need to train,” he offers. “And seeing how we’re struggling and how we’re relying on technology is making things a bit e clearer that there is a need for ways for athletes to train remotely. For a coach, for example, to be able to train and keep an eye on your progress without being there physically. I think after the lockdown, a coach from one club could coach athletes from any club remotely, and that’s something that has been missing for a while.”

Ross agrees: “I think there’s going to be a whole lot of technology that gets developed off the back of the lockdown, as people in all sorts of different industries realise that a) it’s possible and b) it’s needed. Online education is an exciting area. I imagine there’ll be lots more homeschooling.

“We’d be up for doing something in the athlete, Paralympic athlete type space as well.”

Gravity 9 is supportive of D&I generally. It builds accessibility into its solutions and is aware of the diversity of its customers.

As Ross states: “A lot of work goes into working out who are the profile customers that would be using the solutions we develop, but even within that there’s a greater awareness from clients that there’s a whole range of people in that category. It’s not so hard for us because I think increasingly customers are pushing and driving for solutions that are very D&I focused.”

This article first appeared in DiversityQ.