How I have learnt to stand up for myself

By Zahava Robb

Growing up in a ‘lower-class’ family in Israel, my parents didn't always know how to fight for my rights. They wanted me to be part of society and lead as normal a life as possible. I always wanted more than this.

My father, of blessed memory, was a charming kind-hearted man who believed in the system. He believed every answer he received to his questions about my rights, even though most of the answers he received were negative.

The system I came from did not always act transparently towards people with disability. Access to reliable information about the rights of people with disability was not like today. At the click of a button, or through a keyboard we can reach so much information about our rights. Today, I would like to share with you how I learned to stand up for my rights, despite my challenges in navigating the system as a person with disability.

In Australia, The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 (DDA) makes it unlawful to discriminate against a person, in many areas of public life, including employment, education, getting or using services, renting or buying a house or unit, and accessing public places, because of their disability. In reality it is often a different story. My experience is based on where I grew up, but I also see this today in Australia.

During the nineties I had a serious deterioration in my medical condition, and had to be hospitalised almost every year for hip and knee replacement surgeries. I was in my late twenties, and at that time I was frustrated by my lack of employment and lack of education. This was because I did not complete my 12-year school certificate having spent so much time in and out of hospital.

At the time my doctors and social workers believed that I would be better to seek employment rather than return to school. They suggested I learn a short course to allow me to find work. This is why I left school at the age of 15. I was never asked for my input – I was given recommendations as to what would be best for me. Unfortunately, after 6 months of ‘research’ they could not find out anything that may be suitable for me.

The place I was offered to move was a professional rehabilitation centre - a workplace for people with disabilities.  What they didn't tell me was that it was a place where most of the people who came to it were people with intellectual and physical disabilities much more severe than mine.

I felt that the system had given up on me and it was the easy solution for them, to simply put me in a framework where I would "work" packing rags or alternatively folding rags. I knew that my intellectual level was even far beyond my biological age in those days.

The moment I realised they were going to "get rid of me" so easily, I decided I wasn't ready to be there, and not only that I wasn't ready to be there, but that I would never, ever let the system dictate my future or decide for me what I am able or unable to do. I decided to stay at home and I knew that at some point I would find a solution.

According to a Harvard Study on disability, many people with disabilities don’t enjoy their human rights, are not treated as equals, can’t choose how they live, and can’t get work (Harvard Law School Project on Disability, n.d.).

Consider this information from the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW).

An estimated 1 in 10 (10% or 380,000) school students in Australia have disability, and almost 1 in 18 (5.4% or 206,000) have severe or profound disability:

  • 12% (or 227,000) of male students have disability, compared with 8.2% (or 154,000) of female students.
  • 12% (or 85,000) of students living in Inner regional areas have disability, compared with 9.3% (or 256,000) of students living in Major cities.
  • 2 in 3 (65% or 148,000) male school students with disability have intellectual disability, 40% (or 91,000) have psychosocial disability and 36% (or 81,000) have sensory and speech disability. This compares with 54% (or 84,000), 38% (or 58,000), and 26% (or 40,000) of female students respectively (ABS 2019).

I’m a pretty strong person and not afraid to speak up for myself - what about those who don’t have the support systems in place?

A few years later when I didn't really know what to do with myself and I didn't even have a driver's license and let's not talk about the possibility of buying myself a car to move me around. I felt I had to do something with my life. I was still living with my parents and the desire to be independent in the financial, intellectual, and social sense made me realise that I had to fight on my own for the rights I deserved under the law that I felt must exist.

I contacted a social worker at the National Insurance (Equivalent to Centrelink here in Australia) where there was a department that dealt with occupational rehabilitation for the disabled and I asked for her help. In Israel, people with a disability can receive assistance in education and studies, obtaining a driver's license and purchasing a new car that is exempt from taxes. Finally, after many years of sitting at home, I met the social worker who had so much compassion and desire to help me, she admitted that these are rights that I deserve under the law. This inspired me to find out more.

I set out - first was the hard work of completing high school. Within a year and a half (and while being hospitalised as I mentioned) I completed my high school diploma with honours. I next learned to drive and bought my first car. I commenced professional studies, and within another year and a half I completed a diploma as a travel agent.

Later, I turned to the orthopaedic surgeon who treated me and the social worker of the orthopaedic department where I was treated, with a request. I asked that they write a letter of recommendation for me for the public housing department to explain to them the importance of an independent life for me, as I remember I was not yet working and therefore could not rent an apartment independently. The system was not ready to provide this support, in spite of the legal rules, so I prepared to fight for my rights. This involved taking on health arena and also social aspects (people’s perceptions) to prove that I was ‘worthy’ of living an independent life.

I can say today with complete confidence that the very fact that I learned to ask for help at a young age, and thanks to my stubbornness and perhaps also quite a bit of audacity that I had, helped me a lot in wanting to stand up for my rights as a citizen in front of the authorities.

So what have I learned along the way? No matter where you came from, you have the ability to achieve the life you want. These days with access to information, you can find a lot of support and educational resources:

  • Steven Covey’s Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Some great life lessons for all of us, especially to overcome any challenges life puts in your way.
  • Who moved my cheese? By Spencer Johnson. A new way of looking at dealing with the challenges faced buy all of us in life.
  • Demystifing Disability – Email Ladau. How to support and understand the challenges faced daily.

Most of all continue to life your life the way you want to. My simple rule – treat others as you would like to be treated yourself. Doesn’t get more simple than that.

Good luck to everyone!




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *