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Roll of honour

[ The University of Melbourne Voice Vol. 6, No. 5  3 May - 13 June 2010 ]

Ms Keran Howe, Victorian Women with Disabilities Network Executive Officer and University alumna was inducted into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women in March. The Honour Roll celebrates and publicly recognises the achievements of remarkable women across Victoria. Ms Howe studied at the University of Melbourne and pursued a career in social work following a car accident that resulted in a spinal cord injury. Ms Howe talks to Emma O’Neill.

What motivates your tireless efforts and commitment to promoting the human rights of women and in particular women with a disability?

I want to be part of the swell of voices that brings about change; to see a society that is more welcoming and valuing of the contribution of women with disabilities – whether we are in the role of employee or employer; as a member of parliament, local government or a board of management; in a maternity ward, or as the parent of a child at school.

What do you hope your inclusion on the honour roll will achieve?

It’s a great opportunity to raise awareness of the Victorian Women with Disabilities Network (VWDN) and the work that we are all doing to uphold women’s rights. I know that I am only one of a huge number of women with disabilities working to make our community better. I hope that other women with disabilities will be inspired by my acknowledgement and know it means the work of all our members is being recognised. Already, I have had countless people say that they had not realised the extent of discrimination against women who have impairment.

Before your spinal cord injury did you have much involvement with women with disabilities?

No, not at all. I had very little awareness of disability.

How did your injury affect your career path?

I incurred my injury from a car accident in 1972. At the time I was training to be a nurse. I loved that work but I was told it was no longer possible to continue nursing and I didn’t question that. I had no idea what my impairment would mean to my life. Initially I had a notion that I would sit under a tree in a white muslin dress, reading a book for the rest of my life – but I think that was just the Pethidine.

I was very fortunate to have received a Commonwealth Scholarship to tertiary study, which I had deferred. That scholarship gave me some sense of direction. The first thing I did, once the Pethidine wore off, was to organise to take up that scholarship. There was very little career counselling at that time and my career path was dictated by the experiences I happened to have. I initially decided to study for an arts degree but along the way I met a woman with a spinal cord injury studying social work which gave me an indication of that possibility. Given my interest in health, social work seemed a great way to remain in the health field as a wheelchair user.

Have you personally ever experienced social exclusion/discrimination because of your injury?

I experience small but powerful acts of discrimination every day. People may talk to the person I am with rather than to me, even if it’s me asking the question. There are countless shops and public buildings, still the majority, which I cannot access because they have steps. My consumer spending pattern is dictated by what shops I can get into, which isn’t the mode of choice. If I go into a clothes shop the change room is usually not accessible, even in new shops and even though that is against the Disability Discrimination Act. If I go on holidays it is extremely difficult to find accessible accommodation – accessible hotels are usually the more expensive ones. I know that at least one job I applied for, I was not seriously considered for because it was a government department upstairs with no lift. Public transport is still largely inaccessible. I could go on but I think Elizabeth Hastings put it extremely well during her 1996 speech to the Creating Accessible Communities Conference, “The primary experience of a human being with a disability, at least the primary experience in relation to community, is one of thoughtless, unnecessary and hurtful exclusion from nearly every social, political, educational, cultural, commercial or communication transaction. To encounter a barrier to freedom of movement or interaction once in a lifetime seems to send some people into a frenzy of punitive litigation; to encounter such barriers all day every day is the ordinary experience of people who have a disability.”

What are the biggest issues facing women with a disability in Australia?

The same issues that face other women confront women with disabilities, but they are significantly more serious because for every factor of disadvantage, one’s experience of marginalisation is multiplied a hundredfold. Women with disabilities face enormous difficulty in taking effective control of their lives: obtaining employment, accessing education, having a decent income. All of these factors render women with disabilities more vulnerable to powerlessness and to abuse. There is creditable research that indicates men with stereotypical dominant male attitudes target women with disabilities because they perceive them to be more passive and able to be dominated. Because of this, women with disabilities experience twice the likelihood of violence than women in general and still have much less likelihood of receiving appropriate help to escape that violence.

What are the current priorities of the VWDN and why have they been made a priority?

VWDN’s priorities are to improve responses to women with disabilities who experience violence, to achieve a more accessible health system for women with disabilities and to advocate for reproductive and parenting rights. These issues have not been addressed by the other disability advocacy groups and so it is important that we address these critical areas of concern. To do this we need to support our members to take on these issues and raise community awareness. One of the greatest achievements as an organisation is that there are more and more women now stepping forward to join with VWDN to get on board with our cause – both women with disabilities and other women. This is truly exciting and I think it means we will go from strength to strength.

Minister for Children and Early Childhood Development, and Women�€™s Affairs Maxine Morand (right) congratulates Ms Keran Howe on her induction into the Victorian Honour Roll of Women.

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