“Being an advocate is all about taking action. Some people take action out of passion and I’m very passionate about standing up for people’s rights,” Emma Vardy said as she clasped her hands together and rested back in her chair at the local coffee shop.
We sat together on a Friday afternoon in the cool breeze and gentle sunlight which intermittently touched our skin so delicately, and we united through our passions and our desires to raise our voices and speak out for those who needed that activist – disability or not.
Emma said it was just a little more than one year earlier that she started to use her time at home during lockdowns to think about who she was and the direction her life would take. Being blind since birth, Emma was no stranger to ostracism and discrimination, and she said this time gave her the opportunity to slow down and think.
“Not being able to work, not being able to study and not having anything to preoccupy my brain – I could just focus on finding myself.”
“I couldn’t work for two months, and I decided following some very significant experiences in my life like turning 25, and now feeling more confident, that I could face this next challenge which was entering a submission to the Disability Royal Commission.”
“I discovered that I had more confidence; I had become my own person, and I vowed to be true to myself and to never engage in public speaking again if it only involved the rosey, ‘feel-good’ stories. It painted the wrong picture. Afterall, it’s not a bad thing to real and honest and talk about the other stuff.”
“I’m never going to be people-pleasing again – I’m just going to be me,” she said.
Emma took a deep breath and began to tell her story.
“I had times in my life where I was ostracised, so I decided it was time to open up and give my submission,” she said.
“Always being happy was not real life and I wanted to be honest and not just upbeat all the time, which is what I feel people wanted from me as a motivational speaker. It was encouraged to always have a positive environment and give those upbeat, fuzzy talks, and it’s not like that at all. I’ve had very big challenges and that is the real version of life.”
“It was important to talk about the challenges of being blind, and it was a huge deal for me – a massive deal!” she said, emphatically.
Feeling the warmth of the coffee mug around our hands, the afternoon grew darker and the hustle and bustle of customers became more apparent as feet tapped rhythmically on the pavement as we talked further about Emma’s submission.
“I got involved with the submission last Easter doing a Zoom meeting with Blind Citizens WA. Following lengthy talks about important discriminative factors, I contacted the person to ask about what it would involve and how I could help,” she said as she took a sip of her hot chocolate.
“The submission was my idea and when I found out the topics which could be included were embarrassment, subtle discrimination, ostracism and neglect, I was keen to speak up.”
Emma said she was pleased with the outcome and responses to her submission, and she was grateful for the opportunity to be brave and speak up.
“It was over the phone instead of written, as I thought it would have been easier for me that way.”
“I got invited to have another interview with the Blind Citizens Connect Forum on Zoom, where I was asked questions about the submission from the community – what it was like, what I covered, and how it made me feel, and what topics I wish I could have addressed more,” she said.
I poured my chai into my cup through the strainer, took a sip and picked up my pen. As the afternoon sun started to sink lower in the sky and the breeze became cooler on our skin, I wrapped my jacket tighter around my shoulders as we talked further about Emma’s submission, which brought to light the issues she highlighted regarding discrimination.
Emma told me that she was hoping for people to become more aware of the difficult challenges people put in the way of other people, not the disability.
She explained that the issue of touching was a huge deal for her as a young, blind person.
“I would touch everything to experience that tactile connection with the world. When I was young, I was told so abruptly that I wasn’t allowed to touch, and that was so hard. What if there were signs that said: ‘do not look’, in the same way there are signs saying ‘do not touch’ – how do we explore the world?”
“If I met a young blind child, and I heard they were touching someone, I would go up to them and say, ‘I know you want to touch, but if you want to, remember to ask that person’ – because it is really hard to explore the world when you don’t have sight,” she explained.
Emma recalled the neglect she had felt she had experienced when transitioning to adulthood.
“Before I turned 18, I was warned that when I became an adult that was it, the support stopped. I really felt that you were being judged on the number of your age, rather than as an individual,” she divulged.
“I did not have the confidence to phone up people by myself and make my own appointments, as I have had it done for me for years. I was told, you’re 18 now, you can make it on your own.”
“My self-esteem and confidence were tremendously low. I did not have the confidence to ask for anything, explain myself, make a phone call – I just couldn’t do it, and I didn’t have the confidence to push that barrier past myself.”
“If people want that outcome to become independent, maybe they should be gently taught from a young age to encourage that open dialogue around needing anything, and not hesitating to ask. Instead, we could have a slow, gentle prodding to allow people to assert themselves in an independent direction as a young adult.”
Emma said after discovering a transition program for those young people with disability who had recently turned 18, she took it very seriously and embraced it wholeheartedly. She said she did start making phone calls eventually but she struggled immensely and was terrified of the thought for a long time.
“I needed a lot of help in the beginning,” she said.
We spoke about the liberation Emma had experienced just a couple of years earlier in late 2019, and how this moment changed the direction of her life as she embraced her maturity, confidence and who she was as a woman in control of her life and body.
“On my 25th birthday party, my friends had secretly arranged adult entertainment for me,” she said with an excited passion which ignited in her voice.”
“Following this fun and liberating experience, something in me fell into place. My confidence had increased; it was such a life-changing moment, but also terrifying at the same time. Whenever I’m in doubt about anything in my life, I watch the video,” she said, with her eyes glistening with joy and assertion.”
As we sat across from each other at the table at the café on a Friday afternoon, Emma shared with me the insights into that day and how she refused to let anyone dictate the terms of her body as an adult and as a woman.
This moment for her, she said, changed the direction of her future as she was self-aware, confident, free from inhibitions, and liberated, but more importantly, the fear Emma felt and left behind, would permeate through every aspect of her life. Unashamedly, Emma was in control and moving forward.
Advocating for ourselves
People with Disabilities WA (PWdWA) have the capacity to assign an individual advocate to work with Western Australians with disability when they think they have been treated unfairly or if they are looking for a solution to a specific problem or issue.
According to PWdWA, the organisation does not discriminate between clients, based on factors including disability, culture, ethnicity, gender, age, religious belief, or political affiliations.
Idil Sudi, PWdWA’s Individual Advocate said this was because it’s one of the organisation’s core values where they always encouraged their clients to stand up and speak up.
“PWdWA Advocates treat all people fairly and make sure other people do too,” she said.
“People can be their own advocate by us giving them the opportunity to self-advocate; eg, inform them of their rights, let them work at their own pace, and explain everything in a way that makes sense so they can put their feelings into words. We all communicate in different ways; it’s just a case of finding the right way.”
“At PWdWA, we encourage people to question a decision, to ask for a copy of the policy or the legislation relied upon. We also advise the person seeking help to speak with their local advocacy agency, find a disability discrimination lawyer, or discuss with their local MP if they are still unsure.”
Equal rights for everyone regardless of their ability is a paramount core value of PWdWA, and Idil explained that a failure to adhere to human rights and protect those rights weakens the moral fabric of our society and created lawlessness.
“Human rights norms address grievances, reduced inequality, and builds resilience. We need to see that accountability is met consistently, in order to safeguard the rights of people with disability.”
Idil Sudi PWdWA
“By deciding to influence public attitudes and behaviours, we can effectively change the narrative, and through education, it unlocks the key to changing behaviours.”
Emma spoke more about how putting in her submission changed things for her as a young adult.
“What I was hoping for, was for people to become more aware of the difficult challenges that not our disabilities put in the way, but what other people put in the way. I feel that 90 per cent of the time, it’s the presumption and the poor attitudes that people have, create the obstacles.”
“I cannot abide presumption – I cannot stand it. When people presume I can’t do something, or its too difficult for me, I’m not very happy about that. When you develop things through experience and not what people say to you, it changes everything.”
“I’ve been creating the building blocks of my life and I have started building myself up since 2018, and I will keep climbing,” she said affirmatively.
Equal opportunities for all
The WA Equal Opportunity Commission states through community outreach and complaint handling, the Commissioner aims to achieve equal opportunity and prevent discrimination.
The Commissioner can investigate and endeavour to reconcile allegations of discrimination based on one or more grounds of the Equal Opportunity Act 1984.
The Commission acknowledges laws alone do not end intolerance, prejudice and discrimination in the community – so education is a vital part of the Commission’s function.
WA Equal Opportunity Commissioner Dr John Byrne said we as a society needed to take action when our human rights have been violated, because when our human rights are limited, we have inequality.
“When we have this inequality, we have huge swathes of the population unable to contribute in a meaningful way to society, which is senseless and puts a strain on society as a whole,” he explained.
“There are government agencies where people with disabilities are able to lodge a complaint if they feel discriminated against, if they have not received satisfactory service from a health or disability service, or from other government agencies.”
“By lodging a complaint with these agencies, a person with a disability is able to seek remedy for unfavourable treatment or lack of treatment they have received. Complaints can result in changes that improve access for many people and can educate service providers.”
Dr John Byrne, WA Equal Opportunity Commission
Although disability and impairment discrimination is unlawful throughout the state, it is evident the problem still exists among the PwD community, and this made the Commission’s involvement all the more imperative. Knowing your rights has never been more important for those who are vulnerable or prone to discriminative circumstances.
Dr John Byrne went on to say that if a person felt they had been discriminated against because of a physical, sensory or mental disability, they should lodge a written complaint with the Equal Opportunity Commission if they wanted to use WA’s Equal Opportunity Act 1984, or the Australian Human Rights Commission if they wanted to use the federal Disability Discrimination Act.
“People with a disability have low employment rates and this is mostly because of direct and indirect impairment discrimination,” he said.
“I would like recruitment processes to change so people with a disability are better represented on recruitment panels, and I would also like our Equal Opportunity Act to be amended so that there is some onus on employers to show they did not discriminate against a prospective employee because of their disability.”
“We are a changing community when it comes to all ability acceptance, but for true equality, especially in the workforce, we need to stop seeing obstacles that don’t exist,” Dr Byrne explained.
“Organisations and heads of organisations should put disability targets in place in the same way that some have put gender targets in place to alleviate gender inequality,” he said.
“Just as gender targets have done, employers will soon find out impairments do not limit a person from meaningful contribution to an organisation and in turn society.”
Emma echoed that sentiment and emphasised the conversations needed to start from earlier in life. She said it was vital to be taught from a young age to say what you think, how you feel and how to express yourselves adequately to learn how to advocate for yourself.
“I think workshops should be offered more in schools and workplaces where people have the opportunity to listen more and start to change attitudes towards fairness and inclusion,” she said.
“Ask the person: do they want a friend with them, or do they want to do things for themselves – let’s start to be very open about talking about disabilities and don’t be afraid to ask if you have a question.”
“We don’t want children having to have meetings about them and not with them – that’s not right. We want to be included in the process and not let support agencies micro-manage them. Let’s teach them to make their own decisions and not let them be dissuaded by others.”
“Things don’t need to be even and equal to be fair, but we do need to be able to talk about things in a truthful way.”
Findings of the Disability Royal Commission
At the time of publication:
- 2,993 submissions had been received,
- 10,689 phone enquiries were recorded,
- 13 issues papers were published,
- 720 responses to issues papers were noted, and
- 596 private sessions were held.
The Disability Royal Commission (DRC) privacy protections recently passed the House of Representatives, which meant it has officially become law. The changes mean that it is now safe for everyone to share their experience with DRC without fear of persecution, which is a huge win for the disabled community. If you have a story you would like to share with the commission, contact them here.
Emma’s story is like many others, and like many others, speaking it is more important than ever. Raising your voice and being honest with yourself wherever you are in your journey can be healing, life-changing and essential to move forwards. Your voice has weight, power and the ability to affect change for the better for yourself and for others. Use it, whenever you can and don’t be afraid to tell your story to whoever will listen.
Words by Jacqui O’Leary
If you or anyone you know needs help, contact:
- Lifeline on 13 11 14
- Crisis Care on 9223 1111
- 1800 Respect on 1800 737 732
- Kids Helpline on 1800 551 800
- MensLine Australia on 1300 789 978
- Suicide Call Back Service on 1300 659 467
- Beyond Blue on 1300 22 46 36
- Headspace on 1800 650 890