Celebrating International Women’s Day 2018

On Thursday 8 March our CEO Emma Bennison spoke at an International Women’s Day event hosted by Amnesty International. The theme was “Inspiring Women”, and you can read her words below.

 

“I need to begin by making an admission which will probably disappoint you and may well cause you to question why you bothered showing up this evening. I am not “inspiring”. I am just a normal person living an ordinary life. So feel free to leave now. Remember, I’m blind, so if you all leave I’ll be blissfully unaware until nobody claps.

Seriously though, let me tell you a bit about myself and then explain why, to borrow a quote from disability activist, the late Stella Young, “I am not your inspiration”.

Moving from Brisbane to Hobart in 2012 was a turning point for me and one of the most difficult experiences of my life. We moved here for my husband’s job, (he is also blind.)  Leaving family and friends in Brisbane was very hard on me. Finding a rental property and a school and day care with limited sighted assistance was also a challenge, but we did it. It was the small offers of assistance from so many unexpected quarters that made it possible, everyone from my husband’s work colleagues and old friends of ours, through to the school principal. They probably didn’t realise what a difference they made by helping with the simplest of tasks, from naming books and uniforms to reading mail and helping us find a suitable house. Then of course, there was the postman who saved me from getting lost on the way to our first day at day care. I’ll never forget him, but he probably doesn’t remember me.

For me though, the most important role I have is being the Mother of my son who is 14 and my daughter who is ten. Let me answer the two questions I am most frequently asked on this subject. Yes, they are both fully sighted and yes, they do help with reading mail and guiding us from time to time, because as with any family, they are part of a team and need to learn to take responsibility. But you’d be surprised by the number of people who assumed that they helped us when they were two or three years old, which was certainly not the case.

I am also the CEO of Blind citizens Australia, the national representative voice of Australians who are blind or vision-impaired. It is a national role, so I travel frequently. We are currently advocating for improvements in areas such as:

  • Improved access to touch screen technology, particularly to EFTPOS terminals and ATMs, but also in household appliances like washing machines, ovens and the thermomix
  • Seamless and stress-free access to air travel for people who are blind or vision-impaired travelling alone or with a dog guide
  • An audio description service on Australian television. Audio description is a separate track containing a verbal narration describing actions, scenes and costumes interspersed with the dialogue to bring TV to life for the 450,000 Australians who are blind or vision-impaired. You can hear a demonstration of audio description on many DVDs and there is quite a lot of audio described content on Netflix. Australia is the only western country which does not provide this service.

 Since I took up the role just over twelve months ago, staff numbers have grown from five to twelve, we have merged Blind Citizens NSW into BCA and we are building collaborative relationships with service providers like the guide dog organisations and others across the country. So it’s a busy, exciting and challenging role as you can see.

In my spare time, I am a singer/song-writer. In 2015 I released my album, “Fine Line” which is a personal reflection on various aspects of walking the fine line between being a mother, a sister, an advocate and an artist. Copies are available for sale tonight and you can also find it on Apple Music, Spotify and other streaming services.

Speaking of walking a fine line, many people ask me how I do it all. To be honest, it’s not always a walk in the park, which is the case for most women I speak to who are juggling work and family responsibilities. But what keeps me going is the knowledge that I am truly making a difference in people’s lives. Whether that be with my children, through a big advocacy win, by being able to mentor younger people who are blind or vision-impaired or through music, I am having an impact, whilst at the same time, working to change public perceptions about the capacity of people with disability to live productive lives and contribute to society.

So that brings me back to where I started, why I am not your inspiration. Having heard a bit about me and what I do, you may well disagree that I am not inspiring. You may be wondering how you would do all the things I do in a week if you were blind, or maybe you’re just assuming that I am being modest.

Before you decide, let me tell you about some other successful women I know. There’s Fiona, who has six children, a law degree and is a Director of Blind Citizens Australia. Then there’s Karen who is a General Manager within a large organisation and is a single Mother of two children. Lauren lost her sight in a car accident and has since become the best writer of policy I know. Finally, there’s Julie, who lives on a property outside Bundaberg, works as a psychologist and is also a single Mother of two. All four women, and many more who I don’t have time to tell you about, are totally blind but I’m pretty confident none would consider themselves inspiring. They are just getting on with their lives, sometimes having good days, sometimes having bad days, making mistakes and making a difference in big and small ways in the lives of their families and their communities. In short, they are just doing what all of us aspire to do, living meaningful and fulfilling lives.

Having heard all this, you might be asking yourself what the big deal is. Surely myself and the other women I’ve spoken about would feel proud to be referred to as inspirational. The problem with being an inspiration is that it is yet another label which singles us out, (as if being a woman who is blind wasn’t enough). It can also put people under a great deal of pressure to keep being inspiring, when actually they may just be having a bad week and want to hide from the world like everyone else does once in a while. Being inspirational is also contextual and fickle. I can be inspirational one day, invisible the next. What do I mean by that? Let me give you a recent example.

On 3 December, the day designated International Day of People with Disabilities, I was awaiting a flight from Sydney to Hobart in the Virgin Australia lounge. About ten minutes before the flight was due to depart, I was advised by a staff member that the meet and assist staff had been too busy to come and guide me to the boarding gate, so it was too late for me to board my flight. I politely but firmly expressed my frustration and was told that a supervisor would come and speak to me. This took over forty minutes. It ultimately transpired that the lounge staff had simply forgotten about me and that following the incident, the supervisor had been too busy to speak to me. When he did finally prioritise me, he made a number of assumptions about me, including that I would need to travel on a direct flight due to being blind and that I would require the use of a wheelchair to get to the gate. His demeanour changed considerably once he became aware that I was calm, intelligent and articulate, that I had two children waiting for me at home and that I was the CEO of Australia’s peak body representing people who are blind or vision-impaired. Had he known more about my background, would he have unconsciously put me in the inspirational basket, rather than the invisible one and having done so, would he have handled the situation more appropriately? That’s anyone’s guess, but it goes to the heart of why discrimination is still alive and well in our society. People don’t always discriminate consciously, but people with disability are too often characterised, (particularly by the media), as heroes, as objects of charity, or as inspiring, but when it comes to accessing basic services, (which we pay for like everyone else), we are too often forgotten as I was by Virgin Australia.

So I leave you with this thought to ponder. Were it not for my blindness, would you consider my story as inspiring? If so, that’s great and I hope it gives you the motivation to chase whatever dream you have been too afraid to follow. But I challenge you to really think carefully about why particular people inspire you and to consider what is inspiring to others about your own life story. Do you consider yourself to be inspiring? What assumptions do other people make about you because you are a woman, a teacher, a police officer and so on. For instance, you may have heard my story and found it inspiring, but think about the last time you saw a person with disability in the street and whether you made assumptions about that person like what they did for a living, whether they could live independently and cook for themselves or whether they had children. I challenge you to be careful about making assumptions, they can be dangerous. I challenge you to treat everyone you come into contact with as if they are the most inspiring person you will ever meet. When we’re all inspiring to one another, we will be equals and that’s all any of us really wants, to be a visible part of society, to be heard and to be understood.”

Emma Bennison
Chief Executive Officer