One of the biggest challenges people with disabilities face is overcoming the stigmas of society, and the false belief that their bodies are not fit for activities like sports.
However, Tobi Green-Adenowo, 25, a third-year dance and television student, wants to prove everyone wrong and show that she as a dancer in a wheelchair has much more to offer than people think.
Tobi suffers from a condition called osteogenesis imperfecta, most commonly known as brittle bones, which means that the bones in her body break very easily. She has broken about 70 bones in her lifetime.
“I have lost track” she says. “I can break bones by literally just sneezing. My last really big break was when I rolled over in bed and my whole leg snapped in half.”
Her condition means that she cannot stand, so when she dances it is either on the floor or in her wheelchair.
However, being active in sports helps her develop muscles which make her stronger and less prone to injuries, which is why she started practising dance and wheelchair racing.
She was inspired to dance when one day at her sports school in Brighton, a company held a performance. One of the dancers did not have any legs but Tobi described his dancing as “beautiful and emotional”.
“When I saw that he could dance I thought ‘hold on a minute, if he can do it then I can’, and that’s how it started for me,” she says.
Tobi has been told many times that she could not be a dancer because of her disability. “It made me feel like people are not educated, it made me frustrated that people are not more open,” she says.
“Every day it is a struggle and a fight for me because of remarks like that. People always think that we are all forward-thinking, however, that is not the case.”
No matter what other people said and the difficulties her condition involves, she has never considered giving up on her dream and has made being a role model for disabled people interested in dancing her mission in life.
“If you don’t step out of the box, then people won’t think differently,” she says. “My motivation comes from knowing that what I am doing can inspire disabled and abled people to think differently.”
Even at university many people do not understand how she can be a dancer. When she started three years ago, she was the first undergraduate dance student in a wheelchair enrolling at Kingston University. The dance building was not handicap accessible and she had to fight to get the university to meet her needs.
Tutors and staff have been very supportive towards her, attending training to learn how to deal with disability and encourage more students like her to apply for the course.
Dance lecturer at Kingston University Jason Piper said: “I’ve worked with Tobi on and off since she joined the course and we’ve shared an ambition to ensure she is defined by her actions, not her disability.
“It’s far from perfect but the dialogue with Tobi is ongoing. She is a pioneer and knows that she is carving a path for those who may follow.
“We still have work to do … and ‘integration’ is more easily written than achieved but no one will be shouting louder than the dance staff, when Tobi wheels across the graduation stage next July.”
Dance students often fail to understand that she can participate in pieces and during group work they underestimate Tobi’s capacity.
But she is not hindered by what others think and she is willing to demonstrate that it is possible to be a dancer in a wheelchair.
“I prove people wrong just by simply living my everyday life, doing dance as normal and then they get to see the product of my hard work,” she says. “The reason I got into dance is to prove to people it is possible.”
To do so, Tobi is very active on Instagram and YouTube and she posts videos of her dance pieces for people to see that disabled dancers have a place in the world of dance and that there are ways to merge disability and physical arts.
Trainers outside of university have sometimes ignored her since they do not know how to deal with her condition. “I don’t think they [the trainers] have not been supportive, I think they have been uneducated about it,” she says.
“Sometimes I go to a dance class and until I make the dance teachers feel comfortable, they kind of ignore me. It comes across as obnoxious and rude but actually is because they don’t know what to do.”
Living the normal life of a university student is also very different for Tobi.
Her condition requires her to organise the three main support workers who help her at home and with her notes in lectures and the other people involved in her care, such as the extra drivers, to make sure that everything runs together smoothly.
“It is quite stressful. I live on my own, I have to look after my own care,” she says. “It affects me quite a bit. If people are late or someone cancels it is quite hard.
“If I fall sick I have to make sure a support worker is in my classrooms so even if I can barely talk I need to make sure that I have got something in place so I don’t miss out on work.”
She also struggles through 90 minutes of commute to university from Southwark every day because the University disability accommodation does not suit her needs.
Tobi hopes to inspire more people like her to stop letting others putting limitations to what their bodies can or cannot do. “I dance because it makes me feel good,” she explains. “It helps me grow and learn my limitations but also it boosts my confidence because I beat other people’s expectations of what I am able to do.”
You can get free tickets for Tobi’s dance show in December by emailing lecturer Jason Piper.