The Power of Muscle Memory and how disabled people ignore the 90s’ narrative to become today’s leaders.

Written by Krystal Matthews – PDA’s SA Associate Director

On International Day of People with Disabilities (#IDPwD), I was pumped to watch the Disability Leadership Oration on ABC by Natalie Wade. The conversation was not what I expected, but it was just what I needed to hear. After seeing the Oration, I started thinking about what it was really like growing up with a disability. 

Natalie Wade is a human rights lawyer and a total boss in everything she does. Natalie happens to be from the same place as me – South Australia. I first saw her at my previous workplace. Of course, it was in the elevator of a tall government building and I wondered, as a fellow wheelchair user, if she ever felt like she was “faking it until she made it”? 

During the ABC address, Natalie talked about her experiences growing up in the 90s and advocating for her rights. Listening to her speech felt like holding up a mirror to some of my childhood memories. Growing up as a disabled child in the 90s meant being used as a test model for society to determine if disabled people could genuinely belong in the mainstream world, rather than being institutionalised and segregated from society.

Although I am currently in my peak leadership prime, I must convince myself that’ll I am good enough before wheeling into a board meeting. 

I have noticed that the younger disabled community nowadays proudly refers to themselves as ‘disabled people’. This made me wonder about the shift from ‘person with a disability’ to ‘disabled person’. I started questioning if my perspective on disability is still stuck in the 90s (like my music taste). Although growing up in the 90s had its cool moments like girl power, Tamagotchis, and snap pants, it was a difficult time for disabled kids.

 I’ve grown up and worked in the housing sector for over 15 years in government and the NDIS landscape. However, it can still be challenging to be the only disabled person at the table of executives. Sometimes it feels like society talks about the disabled community as if we are some unknown alien species.

When Natalie addressed the Nation, I agreed with her sentiments and teared up while listening. Natalie’s reflections on her life shed light on my own experiences of growing up as a disabled child in the early 90s.

In 1992, I left the South Australian Crippled Children’s Association and started attending a mainstream school. My parents had to fight hard to get me into the same school as my siblings. Teachers would openly talk to my parents about how I should go to another school, that I wouldn’t fit in, that I wouldn’t keep up. Everything was said in front of six-year-old me sitting in my pink wheelchair. My parents didn’t listen to them. So I was the first and only disabled child using a wheelchair at the local school. I often felt excluded and unsupported. It’s not a solid foundation to prepare the leaders of the future.

Whenever I asked for help with schoolwork, my teachers would advise me to focus on my life skills. The school believed that I could not have a career or live independently. No one asked me what my future aspirations were.

Natalie’s speech resonated with me, highlighting the immense challenges disabled people face. Her words exposed the historical trauma that many of us experience, constantly feeling inadequate and unworthy due to society’s perception. This unique form of imposter syndrome is all too familiar to my community. Growing up, I was implanted with the belief that my disability was a flaw that needed to be hidden to assimilate into the norm. For decades, I carried this perspective with me unquestioned and ingrained by people around me.

So, I overcame barriers and made my aspirations like it was my duty to exist in a world not created for me. This is one reason why society views disabled people as resilient. It is not by our own making; we have no choice. Sometimes it feels like the idea of being successful and disabled at the same time cannot occur simultaneously.

When I became a mother to my daughter in 2019, I made a personal commitment to ensure that her life would surpass mine in terms of opportunities and experiences. However, at that time, I viewed my disability as a deficit. But my disability is not my weakness. My own ableist beliefs were unchecked. 

The disabled community has evolved, and we are no longer content with simply asking for inclusion. We demand more than just the bare minimum of support and services. We deserve equal access to education, employment, housing, and all aspects of life, just like anyone else. This might seem like common sense in 2023, but Natalie presented a radical concept to the nation a few weeks ago.

So, after hearing Natalie’s address, I will take on leadership roles. It is time for me to move past the outdated narrative of the 90s that shaped my childhood identity and tackle the outdated thinking disabled people are still faced with today.

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