Rachael Watson is a Brisbane NDIS participant, dual gold medallist Paralympian and this year’s International Day of People with Disability Ambassador. Rachael speaks with Carers Queensland about the significance of International Day of People with Disability, why access and inclusion for people with disability is important and the role the NDIS plays in this.
My name is Rachael and I am a dual Paralympic gold medallist from the Rio 2016 and Tokyo 2020 Paralympic Games. I am also an ambassador for International Day of People with Disability. I'm a triplet and have two brothers, one of whom has a disability as well.
I've always loved being around the water. I learnt to swim as a child in my grandparents' pool and I have wonderful childhood memories of the fun games played in the pool with my siblings.
Following an acute onset of a rare neurological condition in my early 20s, I started swimming weekly for rehabilitation. I really enjoyed swimming and found I was able to make quicker functional gains in the water compared to on land because of the immersion and buoyancy assisting. I had to relearn how to swim which was very difficult, but once I progressed along the way I decided to start training with a coach. I then found myself working towards targeted goals and began competing. I never thought at the start I'd be representing Australia at the Paralympics so to sit here with two Paralympic gold medals is something I still pinch myself about. I mean, I believe it happened but I don't think I quite realise yet just what I've achieved. This is because you're constantly thinking about the next goal and then preparing for it so you can't focus too much on recent success.
I've been around disability a lot and certainly have a lot of lived experience which is why I'm so passionate about issues affecting people with disability.
Why is International Day of People with Disability important?
International Day of People with Disability is important to me because the day celebrates the achievements of people with disability that otherwise may be missed. However, the most important reason behind the day is it gets people talking about everything disability-related and this includes discussing and addressing important issues. Not all the conversations are going to cover easy topics, some of it will be really in-depth difficult discussions, but it is so important. Once this takes place then I hope that positive change would happen which can't be done overnight, so it's important that continuous conservation and long-term action is a key focus.
Why is access and inclusion important for people with disabilities?
Access and inclusion for people with disability is important because creating an accessible and inclusive environment means we then create achievable opportunity. The flow-on effect is huge and generally can be long lasting if done right.
We can enable people with disability to enjoy life without needing to feel isolated. People become healthier and happier and therefore we essentially see less incidence of preventable diseases. Not only that, but people who have previously had very minimal exposure to being surrounded by disability are suddenly able to learn how to create relationships and work together. Recreational activities are just as important as employment opportunities as people need a way to relax and do something they enjoy. That might be going to a musical theatre performance or participating in sport or just having a simple catch up with friends. Regardless of what it is, an accessible and inclusive environment is a positive thing for everyone.
Why is it important for the community to also have inclusion at the forefront of their minds?
The community needs to have inclusion at the forefront of their minds because every single person is worthy of being included. This is actually relatively simple. It literally comes down to creating opportunity for everyone to participate in the same experiences in life together. Of course, there are times where a different path needs to be followed to cater for individual needs, but it's still achievable to include people regardless of their background. If it's done well, one single environment or activity should be able to have all people in the same space together whilst fully catering towards their individual requirements. It also helps the rest of society learn to value what people with disability can do and how to be tolerant.
The COVID-19 pandemic was just one example that really highlighted this. Before the pandemic, people with a disability were turned away from jobs, not because they lacked the right skills but because they were seeking flexible working arrangements. They were simply told ‘no’ without any real reason or consideration. Yet suddenly a pandemic hit and employers were forced to find new ways for people to still do the job. Not surprising many employees were happier with the flexibility. This is something people with disability had been asking for and it was simply ignored.
What do you see is the NDIS and Carers Queensland role in this?
The NDIS and Carers Queensland can help facilitate partnerships with government and community organisations to help create a smooth service to enable people with disability and their families to have the correct support in place for their individual needs. As a participant of the NDIS myself, I understand there are still problems with the scheme and these affect me too, but there are also positives and before NDIS was introduced there was very minimal support available. I am grateful that there is now a long-term government support scheme available even if it does present with challenges. It's really important that moving forward that communication across the board happens and access to services are made easier for people with disability. The correct services with competent staff is really important, and this is where days like International Day of People with Disability can highlight issues affecting people with disability so that support services and staff are aware of this and can help rectify this.