Tuesday, 18 November 2014 13:30

Liz Wright, Co-Chair of the Commission's Disability Reference Group

For this profile, the Commission spoke to disability advocate and Co-Chair of the Disability Reference Group Liz Wright.

It took years for Liz Wright to grow into her own skin. Years in which, as she puts it, she ''dabbled in denial''.

What she was denying was the disability that came with vision impairment, the result of Stargardt disease that started to reduce her eyesight from when she was about 12.

The seeds of her denial came during her childhood in Bendigo where she was one of six children in a family imbued with strong social values.

She grew up in a household where she and one of her sisters, also vision impaired, ''had to do everything that our siblings did and we weren't to be treated any differently than anybody else, which is fantastic''.

But Liz says this was a ''double-edged sword''.

''Our parents were quite fierce about us not being marginalised. So we weren't sent to a disability-specific school or anything like that. It became undesirable to even think about it, as if it were a weakness.''

These days she sees things differently and she works to raise awareness about the strengths, not weaknesses, that people with disability bring to society. But the change came slowly.

After secondary school she moved to Melbourne and enrolled at Melbourne University, where she aimed to major in women studies and criminology. While she passed some third year subjects, she says she ''flunked out''.

''I dabbled with denial about my eyesight. I struggled through things rather than using the resources and assistance that were available at the time. I was quite resistant to being labeled as somebody who had a disability.''

After leaving university she stumbled into a job as a supervisor at an adventure playground.

"I found that I had a real gift for it and some wise words of my mother came in to play very much, which was 'no one is better than you and you are no better than anyone else'.''

But she remained in denial about her eyesight until about 15 years ago when she and her then husband moved to New York where she discovered Lighthouse, an organisation that fights against vision loss through prevention, treatment and empowerment.

With Lighthouse, she ''found a space'' where she started using adaptive technology, using computers and closed circuit TV to read at her own pace.

''Something just clicked there and I started becoming better at being myself,'' Liz says.

She also worked with Publicolor, an organisation that enrols at-risk youth in art classes and runs programs to help keep them on track to graduate from high school. She worked with disadvantaged kids in Harlem, the Bronx, Queens and Brooklyn.

While her US experience left her with a greater awareness of disability, acknowledging her own was a gradual process.

''There was no one thing that made me change. It was gradual. It wasn't just one moment. There was no epiphany. I just grew into my own skin, that's all.

''For a lot of people with disability, there's shame about being 'flawed' and I think I had that for a long time.''

After two years in New York, she returned to Melbourne more confident, more capable and more independent - and, she discovered, more employable. When she went back to her job as a playground manager some of her colleagues seemed threatened by her new confidence.

She resigned while on maternity leave and later enrolled in the inaugural leadership program conducted by Leadership Plus, a consultancy that helps build the leadership and capacity of people from marginalized groups.

''That's when I got my foot in the door with disability,'' Liz says. The course led to a job as the Leaders Network manager with Leadership Plus.

She then landed her current job as a MetroAccess officer with Maribyrnong City Council. Along the way she started her one-hour weekly program on radio 3CR which is in drive time on Thursdays from 4-5 pm called ''Are You Looking At Me?''

This year she became co-chair of the Commission's Disability Reference Group, set up so the Commission can hear directly from people with disability about systemic discrimination and human rights issues affecting people with disability.

Liz sees an overarching issue for the group is ''full participation'' for people with disability.

This includes a focus on employment, access to services like transport, and greater community awareness of people with disability.

''I want us to get out and speak up, to let people see we're here,'' she says.

"'That's why I do radio. I used to think, when I was little, when I was a teenager, 'don't let people know you've got bad eyesight because they'll judge you and think you're lesser than them'.

''But now I make a point of letting people know immediately. Then we can all relax and there is little confusion.

''If you talk to people in a way that you'd want to be spoken to, with generosity and good nature, people really respond.''

Asked what she hopes the DRG will achieve in its two-year term, she says: ''I've got to remain objective, but I would like to ensure our meetings are productive and energetic, that we can get our teeth into some systemic stuff.

"I'd really like, at the end of our term, for us as a group to be able to say: 'We've changed that, we influenced that, this is better because we sat on this group'.''

Next year Liz will travel to Britain, the US and Switzerland on an Ethel Temby Research Grant, awarded by the Department of Human Services for research on new approaches which work towards the goals of the State Disability Plan.

Liz juggles her work as an access officer, broadcaster and on the DRG with her other job, as a mother of a 12-year-old daughter, Lola.

Talking to Liz, it's clear that her mother was a profound influence on her. It's a trait that Liz seems to be carrying on with her own daughter.

''As a parent, my daughter is really complimentary.

''I don't think she sees me as flawed or an embarrassment. And she's only 12, mind you.

''It's important for me that she sees we're all people.

''We go to a lot of functions and parties with people with disability and it's important to me that she doesn't think it's weird, or that she's fallen into a world that's parallel to the 'mainstream' world.

''She just sees it all, that we're all just people.''

Read more about the Disability Reference Group.

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