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Fiona Demark: Resilience, Pole Dancing & Living With Vision Impairment

Fiona is one of the most positive and resilient people I've ever met.

From growing up in a country town where her disability was ignored rather than accepted. To the loss of a parent and how she has grown to love who she is, exactly as she is.

Connect with Fiona:

Connect with Peta:

Instagram: @petahooke


Episode Transcript:

Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to the I Can't Stand podcast. The podcast answering your questions on what life is like when you have a disability. My name is Peter. I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host. This week I have the amazing Fiona Dimmock. If you'd like to ask me a question for a future episode of the podcast or suggest a guest, you can contact me via my Instagram. My handle is at Peter Hook spelt P 88 H. Okay. Find my email address or via my website Okay. Without any further ado, let's hand over to Fiona.

Fiona [00:01:03] Hi. I'm Fiona Demark. I'm an inspirational speaker and resilience coach. I also work around disability awareness for the Department of Transport here in Victoria.

Peta [00:01:15] I research my my guests, regardless of whether I've known them prior to an episode or not. And through my research, I find out that you grew up in a very small community in rural Australia called Broken Hill. What was it like growing up in Broken Hill?

Fiona [00:01:34] Look, I think it definitely had its advantages and disadvantages. It was a place where there weren't many resources. And so you needed to sort of work out how to face the challenges that you had with a different perspective and to kind of think outside the square a little bit. And I guess in some ways, I was forced to participate in mainstream education and to kind of get along with things and build a lot of resilience. Having said that, the disadvantage was the same thing in the sense that there weren't many resources. So any time I needed to go and see a specialist, I had to travel five and a half hours away to go to Adelaide. There was no specific services set up for people with disabilities, so I didn't actually even know anybody as I was growing up in my town that actually had a similar condition to what I did. So it was quite isolating in some ways, but certainly taught me how to be quite resilient in others.

Peta [00:02:40] Claiming from what you've just said do when you were a kid growing up in Broken Hill, do you think people just sort of ignored the fact that you had a disability rather than embracing it?

Fiona [00:02:51] Oh, yeah, absolutely. And look, I was taught to ignore it. I think really only. But I would probably say really in the only maybe three years or so. Ago I realised that I needed to really embrace my disability and stop being ashamed of it. And I think because of where I grew up, there was that police just get on with that attitude. So whatever normal happens to be, everyone was just expected to be normal. And so to fit in. And of course there was times where I couldn't and it was totally inappropriate for me to do so. But that expectation was still there. And when it wasn't there, it was like, okay, well, you know, we're not going to actually adjust anything for you. You're just going to sit off to the side and not participate. And so even then, it was like a consideration, but it was done in the wrong ways.

Peta [00:03:46] What do you wish? Looking back at the sort of things that were put in place to make sure that you could participate in that community. If you could wave a magic wand. What sort of things would you give little Fiona to be able to participate in that community to a more inclusive standard?

Fiona [00:04:05] School was probably pretty much where most of the holes kind of appeared. So educating teachers to say, okay, we'll look into you need to come up with accessible formats for things and don't expect me to just sit there for 40 minutes in class while you've got an overhead projector of something on the blackboard where the students are taking notes. Actually give me something to do during that period of time rather than me sitting there, usually trying to look like I was fitting in with the rest of the class and doing stuff. And it's like the teacher knows that they've not given me the notes. Like, I look back now and I think, What did they think I was doing? Because obviously I was doing nothing. The other thing is, oh my gosh, p class really only in the last couple of years of I embraced my physical so sort of sporty sore eyes. In some instances I was even punished like I was set with the kids that were riding lawns for not having brought their pay uniform because I couldn't participate in oh, let's, let's play hockey or cricket or basketball and expect to find it to participate. Well, of course I couldn't. So they didn't adjust it. They just sort of said, will you sit over there with the kids in white lines as well?

Peta [00:05:20] That is horrendous. Oh, my goodness. And not only that, like, I can't imagine how boring it would be to wait for your classmates to finish their work at the same time. You're not actually taking in the information and learning anything.

Fiona [00:05:35] Not. Not. And so, you know, you look back and I think, gosh, like I actually did reasonably well at school. And I think that that was pretty lucky, in essence, because, you know, there were a lot of things that were put into place that actually did assist me.

Peta [00:05:52] That's a testament to you, Fiona. I wouldn't call it luck. I would just say it's hard work and possibly a little bit of stubbornness.

Fiona [00:06:01] I would say a lot of sheer stubbornness. And, you know, it comes also from those, you know, expectations of other people around you. Look, I mean, I even had an immediate member of my family say to me, I don't understand why you're stressing out so much about saying your high school. You're never going to achieve anything in life. I guess in essence, once again, that she's stubborn. Streak came out of me and I went, I'm going to prove you wrong and happened to be the first person in my family that actually went and got myself a university degree and a full time job straight out of university in the field that I was qualified to do.

Peta [00:06:39] So how long did it take you until you met somebody else with vision impairment or blindness?

Fiona [00:06:46] I was actually really lucky that I got the opportunity because the resources were so poor where I grew up to connect up with Vision Australia and they used to run camps for teenagers doing recreational activities twice a year. That was I was probably about 14 I think, and suddenly met all of these kids that had vision impairment. Many of them had worse eye conditions than what I did at the time because my vision has deteriorated over the years. And I was just thought, Wow, these guys have got this stuff together. They were walking around with their white canes perfectly, okay? They were using all the little gadgets and you know, they were okay with everything. And I'm like, Hmm. I've got a lot to learn from these people. And it also taught me that, yes, there are things out there that I can do, what I can really set goals in life. We have to kind of hit rock bottom in some ways to work out where we want to go. And I certainly did that when I was about 16. I really should have been clinically depressed was probably something that, you know, should have come on the agenda, but it didn't. It was kind of like, come on, you've just got some stuff happening. You can't work it out. But essentially one of my parents had passed away. I was really struggling with my identity, my disability. That was heaps of stuff going on. And that was the moment that I decided that I wanted to be a social worker. And that was that was a really huge thing and I didn't realise it at the time. It's only fairly recently that I look back and went, Wow, that was a pretty big epiphany to have when you're 16.

Peta [00:08:22] Well, I'm really sorry you had that experience. That sounds really, really challenging, but congratulations for getting yourself through it. That is just such a clear indication of how strong a person you are. And resilience is a thing that's ongoing in your life. I mean, obviously you had that built in resilience. When you have a disability, many of us are are resilient, often by default or by the circumstances that we're pushing. But I think also what people forget is that just because we have a disability doesn't mean that other challenges in life don't occur, like losing family members like, you know, illness and sickness in the family or any of the challenges that anybody else face. How did you bring yourself to that 16 year old Fiona that was really struggling to a person now who coaches resilience?

Fiona [00:09:20] I think it is just realising that I have utilised the tools and resources that are there for me and trust me. Like there are definitely those moments in life. Like everybody, I sit there and I go, Oh my gosh, this is the most terrible thing. And I question myself and there's been all sorts of things that have sort of happened across the years, and I think it is really a matter of just going, okay, well, at some point you've got to pick up your stuff and keep on moving forward. And if I can share some of the tools and resources that I've used to do that for myself with other people who are struggling, then, you know, that's part of what I think I'm here for.

Peta [00:09:58] What is one tip that you would give someone to make them feel that little bit more resilient?

Fiona [00:10:05] I think it's about knowing that you have the strength to get over everything that you're faced with, like we're not given challenges for no reason and we do have the capacity to overcome them. Other people have overcome them. You can overcome them too. You've just got to work out what it is that gets you through that. And everybody has different abilities and different things that will work for them. So sometimes it's about having good support networks and support people. Sometimes it's about going for a run or doing some kind of exercise, listening to your favourite music, escaping into a book or a movie, whatever it happens to be that works for you, then you need to tap into that thing and say, okay, and this may work sometimes and maybe not next time. So it's good to have a plan B and to not be too hard on yourself, to actually say, Well, you know, today I'm having a bad day. That's okay. As long as tomorrow's something different. Social media, especially, has taught us to only see the positive things that are happening in other people's lives. And we think everything's so perfect when you're feeling great. Well, I want to share this with everybody. Like I've just done something fantastic of just gone on a holiday, you know, I'm all snazzy up wearing my favourite outfit or whatever it happens to be. You feel really great about posting that on social media because it's you're in the moment yourself, but when you're having one of those moments where everything's going to crap and you know, are you tired, you're in pain, you're exhausted, you just want to cry because everything's just turned upside down. The last thing you want to be doing is reaching for the camera or the, you know, putting a post on social media saying, well, today's absolutely rubbish. You just want to kind of go and hide and do whatever that thing is that is going to help you get out of it. And by the next day you're feeling better again. And it's a new day and you don't really feel like reflecting upon how rubbish yesterday was because I'm not in that space anymore.

Peta [00:12:03] Yeah. I think in the past when I've posted something negative about my life or a challenge that I've had, I also feel like I'm putting a burden on other people. They're opening their phone to me to be stimulated, to be entertained, to be educated. And yes, education means all sides of disability. But if they've had a really hard day, the last thing I want to do is to then add on to their load. So I'm very aware of when I post negative things and also when people sometimes come across it, I'm then well past where I was. Half an hour ago. An hour ago yesterday. And then you're getting the messages of saying, oh, you four, are you okay? Which is lovely. And then you have to sort of calm everybody down and say, No, I'm fine.

Fiona [00:12:58] It was just a moment that was that's that's now finished. And I've moved on.

Peta [00:13:05] I have to say, I really admire your courage with your. I'm not too sure whether it's a newfound hobby, but your very talented hobby of pole dancing. Can you tell me a little bit about that?

Fiona [00:13:19] It was something that I think I had always had in the back of my mind of, Oh, that'd be cool. I think, Oh, I always wanted to do some kind of dance class. And, you know, it comes down once again to this whole independence. I want to do things by myself. I don't want to rely on somebody else kind of thing that quite often comes out of disability is then I think, Oh, well, I don't have to have a partner if a pole dance and the pole is ever going to move like it's just in one spot and I need to remember where that is, but I don't have to worry about somebody else moving and then having to reconnect. So that was the basis of it. It's yeah, something that I really enjoy because it is so challenging and it's not something that you could just learn by someone saying, okay, well, he's the, he's the steps or he's the skills. It is actually something that you can only do as you become more strong and as you become more flexible. And yeah, there's a lot that goes in with that and a lot of body confidence stuff as well. I can I thought I was okay with my confidence levels, but now I'm there in the sports bra and booty shorts and just sort of I think, Oh, there's more skin out to stick to the pole. It's a good thing I'm not going to follow that.

Peta [00:14:33] How does somebody teach you something visual that is pole dancing?

Fiona [00:14:38] They have to learn really quickly how to explain things. And you know what? Sometimes explanations don't don't work. And they just kind of have to kind of come in that hand to me and say, put your hand over here. And I'm like, okay, cool.

Peta [00:14:53] You mentioned before about body confidence. I'm really interested to know as somebody with vision impairment. Do you feel that pressure to have a certain body? Because as somebody with a disability who sits in a wheelchair, I sort of don't because there's no direct comparison really out there of what I should look like. So I'd be really interested to hear your perspective.

Fiona [00:15:22] You know what? It's interesting. It's one of those things that, look, I think, yes, society is just ingrained that into us. Well, I grew up with that perspective of be like everybody else. And so obviously you pick up the the the good and the bad that come with that. And so there was that expectation to have some kinds of body image. But, you know, now the older I get, the less I care about what other people think. And I do my own thing. And as long as I'm happy and I think my sense of what I look like just needs to represent who I am. You know, the body image is more about fitness rather than about, you know, what I look like, but more do I feel comfortable in myself. And so do my clothes feel comfortable? Do I have a healthy body rather than having to look a certain way? To be honest, I don't care what other people think.

Peta [00:16:21] With somebody with vision impairment, you feel like you've developed like higher life skills. Because I feel like I'm pretty adaptive as well. Is your are your senses enhanced, for example?

Fiona [00:16:36] Yeah, definitely. And look, I could tell you, my my family would definitely agree with that. My husband says, yes, you've got an amazing memory. I will not try and have an argument with you about something that happened six months ago because you can repeat exactly what happened. Even things like my hearing lot. My kids hated it when they were little because I could never get up to mischief. You know, moms have got us in the back of the heads. Well, I think I had like back senses. And so it was like, stop doing that. And so, like, how can you tell? You can't say me and I need to see you. I can hear you. They're probably doing the good old teenage roles and whatever else that man, I'm like, you know, whatever. I can't say it, I guess.

Peta [00:17:16] When you think about the average person and I like to think that the average person is listening, let's just assume that the average person is listening. What's one thing that you wish the average person better understood about living with a disability?

Fiona [00:17:33] That people with disabilities have learnt to adapt to make their lives work for them. And you don't ever get to see the amount of things that we do that are adept adaptations are things that we've automatically just done for ourselves, because that means that we don't have to ask for help. Or it means that, you know, that that's our system of doing things. It looks like we're functioning quite well on the surface. But if you actually realised all of the things that we're doing underneath the surface, all the systems that we've got in place, all of the strategies that we've implemented, you know, it's not just like every day cruisy. Just do you think there's all of these things that are sitting in the background that we've actually established to make sure that our life is like that? And as soon as one of those things goes wrong, then all of a sudden that system falls to pieces.

Peta [00:18:31] Yeah. There's no such thing as spontaneity in my life, that is for sure. It's all about planning and preparation. Where am I going and where am I going to park? And what happens if it rains because my wheelchair can't get wet? And how long can I hang on to the toilet to go out before I have to come home? What happens if I'm in pain? All these sorts of things that I don't really talk about or I mask because it's just I would be talking about it every day. And it's it's boring to me. So I can't imagine how boring it would be for other people to hear me talk about it every day.

Fiona [00:19:08] And I think so often, you know, people could Oh, you're so inspirational. You do all of this stuff and it's like, I don't know, otherwise it's all about just that's that's my life. And, you know, you do the things that you do because you do them. It's not because it's inspirational or it's like, Wow, I'm doing something amazing. It's like, Well, I need to have some kind of process in place to make this happen because it wouldn't happen otherwise.

Peta [00:19:34] Yeah. I mean, you know, whether it's in whether people think I'm inspirational for going to get my groceries, you know, like you say, I don't find that very inspirational. But I guess people can't put themselves in our position to really say, well, what choice does she have? Of course, she has to go to the supermarket, get food.

Fiona [00:19:58] That's right.

Peta [00:20:01] What do you love about having a disability?

Fiona [00:20:04] I think it makes it make it makes me who I am. You know, it's part of my identity. And as I said before, I've only really embraced it in the last couple of years and to stop feeling guilty or trying to fit in. And now I'm just like, no, this is the way you take it as it is. And look, it's made me, you know, less judgemental. It's made me more aware of other people and their needs. It's certainly influenced my family in that way as well. It is really just part of who I am. And if you took it away from me and waved that magic wand and said, Are you fixed? I'd be like, I don't think I want to be fixed as such. Like, I like being who I am. And if you took that away, I wouldn't be who I am.

Peta [00:20:49] And is there anything you don't like about having a disability?

Fiona [00:20:52] I think. Society in terms of the way that they treat people with disabilities. And look, hopefully, you know, if you're a baby. Fiona Now growing up in the world or a baby. Peter Now growing up in the world, hopefully people's experiences are a little different to what we did. So if we go back to that, that thing where my parents just said, just get on with it, be like everybody else, you know, that was good in some senses. But now I look back and go, Well, no, because I was never like everybody else. And so to actually get me to come to the point where I'm okay with who I am, I needed to get past that.

Peta [00:21:35] And finally, what do you hope the future will be like for people with disabilities?

Fiona [00:21:40] I really hope that people are just embraced for who they are, and that would be the most amazing thing to be able to just say you are who you are. We're not going to try and label stuff. We're just going to treat you equally like everybody else and just get on with it and stop judging people.

Peta [00:22:01] Thank you for listening to this week's episode. I hope you enjoyed it if you did. Can I ask you to leave a writing interview? If you listen on Apple Podcasts. It helps more people find the pod or share the podcast on social media. But with a friend it all helps more people find the podcast. Until next week. Have a good one, guys. Bye.


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