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Sixty Seconds with Ade Adepitan

The TV presenter and Paralympian, 45, talks about his debut children’s book and losing a wheelchair at 35,000 ft

Lots of celebrities are writing children’s books now. What’s yours about?

The basic story is about my journey as a young child leaving Nigeria and coming to the UK — it was about being an outsider. I couldn’t speak English that well, I was one of the few black kids in my school and I was the only disabled kid in my school. But my friendship with my mates on my street and at school helped me overcome those challenges and helped me realise you can be different and still be successful.

Did you actually have any ambitions to write for children?

No. My friends were saying I had an amazing life and had done amazing things so I should write an autobiography. I wrote a chapter, sent it out to publishers, and this publishing company said they liked it but that it would translate well as a children’s book as there isn’t much diversity in children’s books — not many children’s books feature disabled characters or characters from diverse backgrounds. I was a bit wary, I didn’t know if I had the skills to do it, but I wrote a chapter and they loved it. I thought it would be a cool story but also inspire a younger generation to believe they can do the things I’ve achieved.

Hero: Travel king Michael Palin

What are you doing in your show about Africa?

It’s a series for BBC2. I’m travelling around Africa, telling the story of Africa today — the people and culture, the beauty of the place, where it’s going in the future. Michael Palin was one of my heroes and I loved his travel shows — it’s a bit like that. I start in Cape Verde, then go to Senegal, then into Nigeria.

Airports have been in the news lately for failing disabled passengers. Have you ever had any problems?

Yes. Ten years ago I was making a film for Comic Relief in Ghana and British Airways lost my wheelchair. It was back in the UK and I was in Ghana. It was a nightmare. It’s not the same as leaving luggage behind — you can manage without that for a little while but without your wheelchair you have serious problems. It was awful. I couldn’t make the film for Comic Relief. It hasn’t happened to me since but these things still happen. When I go to the airport I make sure the staff know what I need and I make them fully aware that if things don’t go right, there’s going to be a heap of problems for them.

Have things improved?

In a way. It depends on the management at the time and if they’re thinking about accessibility or making money. People with disabilities make up a massive proportion of the money they earn. If an airline treats me badly, I won’t use them again. The airlines have still got a lot of work to do. With issues around accessibility and disability awareness, major companies get it wrong as they don’t ask the users — they don’t ask people like myself to look at the design or the system. I don’t know why airports and airlines don’t ask users to help them — until that happens they’ll keep on making mistakes.

Apparently there’s a primary school class named after you…

Yes, I was filming in London recently, a class of children were out on a trip and one of the teachers went completely bonkers and said: ‘The teacher of the class behind us has named his class after you.’ The kids came up to me and said they’d studied me and the things I’ve done. I knew there was a class named after me but I’d never met them before then — it was crazy. It was a real honour. All the kids knew so much about me. It was really flattering and exciting. Who, when they’re growing up, would think a school class would be named after them? I’m definitely going to visit them in the future.

Pioneering: Ellie Simmonds

What’s your proudest achievement?

Being part of the Paralympic story. Before 2008 people didn’t really look at Paralympic athletes the way they do today. People know who Jonnie Peacock, Ellie Simmonds and David Weir are — I was part of the journey. When I was growing up I had no clue it was possible to do disability sport — it was non-existent back then. Where it is now to back then is like night and day, and I’m proud to be one of the many people who helped that happen.

Do you have any unfulfilled career ambitions?

I’d love to do a game show or a big, shiny-floor entertainment show. I’ve been one of the main hosts on Children In Need for the last couple of years and I’ve really enjoyed that. I’d love to do a show like Play Your Cards Right — I really liked that when I was kid, so I’d like to do something like that with a modern twist.

Ade’s Amazing Ade-ventures: Battle Of The Cyborg Cat (Bonnier) is out now