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  • Writer's picturePeta

Never Give Up On Employment With Emma Bennison

This week Emma Bennison discusses her journey as a blind advocate, musician, and Chief Innovation Officer at Life Without Barriers. Explore her insights on disability inclusion, employment challenges, and the power of self-expression.

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Instagram: @petahooke


Episode Transcript:


Peta [00:00:02] Hello and welcome to the Can't Stand Podcast, the podcast answering your questions about what life is like when you have a disability. My name is Peta. I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host. And yes, I am sick. But never mind, I wasn't sick when I spoke to Emma Bennison, so you won't have to put up with this croaky voice for much longer. I thoroughly enjoyed talking to Emma. We spoke about what the disabled life currently is like in Australia. We spoke about her disabled identity and how that has evolved. We spoke about her, music career, and if she pursued it to the level that she hoped for, and she was kind enough to provide some advice for those of you who are still trying to find your place and find disability employment, a really, really tricky area of disabled life. I know I remember well and I hope her advice helps you if that's what you need. So without any further ado and so I can go rest this voice. Let's get into it.


Emma [00:01:24] I'm Emma Bennison. I have been blind since birth. I. Currently, I'm the Chief Innovation Officer at Life Without Barriers, which is one of Australia's largest providers of human services. And that role involves really making sure that we embed the voices of people with lived experience, be that of of any of the services that we provide, because we we go way beyond provision of disability services, to homelessness services, child use and family services and many more. Making sure that that lived experience voice is really embedded into everything that we do, and also making sure that we are employing people with lived experience in our organisation as well. And in addition, I was previously the CEO of Blind Citizens Australia and of a couple of arts and disability organisations before that. And in my other life, I'm a singer and a songwriter, and I'm also in a couple of boards as well.


Peta [00:02:42] You've been advocating for disabled rights for years, as you've just outlined. How do you feel about the current state of disabled life? What do you feel it looks like?


Emma [00:02:53] It's really easy for people from a position of privilege, such as mine, to say, oh yes, you know, things are so much better. And to an extent that is true. I still don't think that we have really cracked the attitudinal barriers that still stand in the way of full and equal participation, in, in, you know, all aspects of, of life. Until we actually really get to a point where broader society really understands the nature of true inclusion and sees it as a as a social responsibility rather than as a, as a problem. That's kind of, in the darkest corners that they don't really need to look at. We will always be excluded and and on the fringes. And that might sound like a pretty sort of dark, summation, but I'm not for a minute suggesting that, you know, the NDIS and the, the Royal Commission report and, and various other initiatives don't have a significant role to play. Of course they do. There are certainly pockets of society where I think things are significantly, improving and moving forward. But until we get to a point where disability inclusion is seen as everybody's responsibility, and until there's a realisation that actually any, any one of us at any time, irrespective of our social status, our economic status, where we live, whatever, could be disabled, then I, I, I still think it's going to be an us and them situation and that's and that's really what I think the biggest barrier is at the moment to equal inclusion. A lot of this comes down to people's fear. I did actually do a Ted talk recently about fear, and, and how it really shapes people's attitudes towards us. And, you know, it comes down to the fact that. Humans are a tribal species, and we have a tendency to want to gravitate towards people who look, sound and behave in the way that we do. And so when we come up against people who don't fit that mould, it is a natural, tendency for us to want to gravitate to people who are like us. So we were every single one of us. And I include people with disability in this really have to get past that, that fear. You know, I talk in the TEDx talk about my fear of, at times of, of going to airports because I have such terrible experiences at airports of people wanting to speak to the the person that I'm with rather than speaking to me, even if that person is, a maintenance staff member who I've known for for five seconds or, you know, just being left on a seat, as I was the other day for an hour and a half, because nobody remembered that I was there and that I needed assistance. So, you know, we're all experiencing a degree of fear, be that because we don't understand how to interact with people that don't look like us or because, we don't know how people are going to interact with us because we are seen as different. So, you know, until we can kind of get past that and really start to recognise that role unique. But we're also all interconnected and part of the one humanity. You know, I don't think we're going to, be able to move forward in the way that many of us would, would like us to.


Peta [00:06:50] What you've just outlined really illustrates why you're such a busy person. People have things that need to be fixed. Oh, where does your passion for advocating come from?


Emma [00:07:03] Right? From a very young age. I could see that there were inequities in my own personal experience. You know, I could say that in my education and in various other facets of my life, there were inequities. I also could see that I was someone who had a voice and who could use that voice to help other people, and also was at a fairly early age, exposed to, you know, people with a range of impairments through my work with arts and disability organisations and through my schooling where I attended first, school for the blind, that also, you know, had people with a range of other impairments attending, and then moving into a mainstream school environment. So I kind of really got an understanding from a very early age of, of some of those inequities. But also I got an understanding that I felt that I almost had a responsibility as someone who didn't have a voice and had that privilege to try and, you know, speak up wherever I could and try to make things better for the people who come after me.


Peta [00:08:22] You are really echoing how I feel as a privileged person as well, I. I. As much as I resisted wanting to work in the disability space for as long as I did, I did feel that responsibility and that obligation to make sure that more disabled people had the opportunities that I'd experienced just through, you know, lack of being born into the right family and the right environments. That allowed me to have the opportunities that I had. But in saying that, I think working in this industry and this area and helping other people is only benefit me and made me a better person and changed how I feel about my disabled identity. Have you had an evolution with your disabled identity, or have you always felt very strongly connected?


Emma [00:09:13] No, no, absolutely. I really identify with with what you just said. When I was really young. And I don't think I've ever actually said this out loud before, but. But it's such a good question. When I was really young, like when I was perhaps in primary school, and I had the experience of moving from a school for the blind into a mainstream school environment, I, I think I went through a period where I saw my disability as, as an advantage where I could. I saw it as a novelty. And actually, I think I probably saw it when I was very young, that it gave me a get out of jail free card, that I could kind of get away with stuff. And luckily I had some really, really good teachers who said to me, no way. You know, you're you're being measured by the same yardstick as everybody else. And I got that message really loud and clear, thank God, because, you know, otherwise it could have been a disaster. I'd work just as hard, if not harder than than other people. And, you know, I wasn't getting wasn't going to get an easy ride. But then I went through the same thing that you're talking about, where I really railed against, you know, being identified as an artist with disability, particularly because I, you know, I'd finished my uni degree and people were sort of saying, well, why did you come into the arts and disability area? And, you know, and I'm like, no, no, no. I, you know, I'm a I'm a professional artist, you know, which is just so incredibly naive of me to kind of to have that view of the world. But that's just, you know, how I, how I thought and then when I did kind of recognise that actually, society is pretty unforgiving, in many ways. And also, I think in the arts environment, in the arts sector particularly, you know, the opportunities are few and far between for any artist. It's a really, really tough kind of, industry to, to break into. In the same way that that you were saying once I did kind of let go of that resistance and really lean into what a, you know, what a fantastic opportunity it would be to to be part of the arts and disability sector and part of the disability sector more generally, like the the opportunities that that came to me because of that and, and the benefit, like, I think that I have benefited so much more from being in this sector than than anybody else has benefited from my being in it. I'm very proud of my blindness. I'm very proud of being a disabled person, but I'm also really comfortable with it in a way that I don't think I have been up until probably fairly recently. I'm really I'm really comfortable with where I'm at with it. The biggest support that I've had have has definitely been other people with disability and in particular other blind people, who who have been generous enough to kind of give me the benefit of their wisdom and their kind of approaches to life. And, you know, they've really, really been very helpful. I don't know how I would have gotten to where I am, you know, if it hadn't been for those experiences.


Peta [00:12:35] As far as your music career. Were you able to pursue it to the level or degree you hoped for?


Emma [00:12:43] I think that it it's probably not so much a question of whether I've been able to kind of pursue it to the degree that I've wanted to. As much as that, I think over time I've I've realised that what I'm really looking for is a means of self-expression. And that kind of links back to the advocacy thing. Although my music is not always about advocacy. It's about a lot of a lot of different things. But, you know, I've recognised that it's, it's self-expression that I, that I really crave. It's very hard to know whether the barriers that I experienced where we're really about, disability or whether they were just about the, the fact that. Perhaps my music was, you know, not of interest to a particular cohort or, or whatever. So it's very hard to separate in my mind the two, because, you know, I'm not in a situation, for example, where I'm a wheelchair user and it's a simple kind of matter of, well, I couldn't, you know, I couldn't access the stage or. It's more been about things like the visual nature of performance. And over the years and particularly, you know, in recent times, I think music has become so much more about the visual, so much more about what people look like. It's not just about standing on a stage and performing, anymore. And, you know, so much is about what you wear, how you look. All of those things. So, you know, I don't know whether that's been a disadvantage. It felt like a disadvantage to me at times. But yeah, it's it's kind of hard to separate those things out.


Peta [00:14:38] Talk to me about life without barriers. What's the purpose of your role? You said you're chief innovation officer. What are you pushing for? Change for us. One of the things that you're really trying to see occur in your role.


Emma [00:14:55] Life Without Barriers is an organisation that has over 8000 employees. We have a target that 15% of our employees will be people with disability. And and that that 15% will be, at all levels of the organisation. You know, as I said in my introduction, we're also looking more broadly at, you know, how do we embed lived experience, into the work that we do into our DNA? And how do we make sure that, that our organisation is reflective of the people that we support? And how do we make sure that people are genuinely heard and seen? And, you know, we we are an organisation that really, has some fantastic examples of that already happening and we just want to keep growing, keep growing that approach, over the next few years and, and really try to make sure that, that we're, that we're leading the way.


Peta [00:16:04] It makes me very happy to hear that Emma, particularly around people with disabilities being employed at all different levels because, particularly in the past and, I'm not discouraging this sort of work, if that, if that's what somebody has a skill set to do or has the passion to do. But from my own experience, the amount of reception jobs I was offered when I was overly qualified to do, it's fantastic to hear that possibly, you know, for those of us who do want a really, challenging and really want to lean into our careers, that is an option for people who do have a disability.


Emma [00:16:48] Absolutely. I mean, I think one of the, responsibilities that I feel that I have is to never forget what that feels like. I mean, I've had that experience, too. You know, of of being. Well, I had one particular job interview where I was sort of grilled about how on earth I would use the telephone. So. I understand, and I remember what it feels like to be disempowered and and to have assumptions made about you that are that are just simply not true. You know, I remember when I was, CEO at Blind Citizens Australia, I would quite regularly walk into, rooms full of people for, you know, meetings with senior bureaucrats from government or whatever it was. And I might have been with a sighted colleague and the assumption would always or quite often be that, you know, the sighted person that I was with was the CEO and I was the admin person. So, you know, the unconscious bias is alive and well. I think those of us who've who've experienced that and, and have the privilege now to be, you know, to be in positions where we can make change. We it's it's really important that we don't forget that it's really important that we don't lose sight of the fact that many people are still underemployed or, or unemployed. It's really important to keep that in our sights and and try and fix the problem.


Peta [00:18:29] Thinking back, and you were speaking about making sure you remember what it's like when you were, you know, possibly didn't have the opportunities or the sort of life, that you have now as far as your professional life. I used to listen to these podcasts as a young student sitting with cerebral palsy or just out of uni thinking, how am I ever going to get a role that fits my qualifications? How am I ever going to get that opportunity? Do you have any advice for those who are listening and thinking? That's all really well and good and all that. How did you get to where you are head watching? Say it. What advice do you have for them?


Emma [00:19:08] I just can't stress enough. Don't give up because it does. Like, you know, there's that old, old adage, you know, this too shall pass. And it sounds really cliche, but, you know, I think I spent a couple of years in just trying to find employment. And it was it was really depressing and really, really difficult. I still haven't lost that sense of appreciation, for the fact that I have a job. And I hope I never do lose that sense of appreciation because I think it's it's just so important. Yeah, I definitely would say don't don't give up. I would also say, don't be afraid to step into a role that isn't exactly what you want. I think there's often a sense, particularly if, like me, you've, you know, done a university degree, that you kind of think, well, I'm qualified now, so I'm not going to settle for anything less. The reality is, and this was a hard reality, and I think it's a hard reality for many of us to learn. You might have a qualification, but you might not have what I call the soft skills that you need to be an employee. And you can only get those skills by actually, you know, getting work experience. And and unfortunately, a lot of us, a lot of us think people with disability don't necessarily always get those opportunities to go and get a part time job at McDonald's or, you know, do part time work at school or at uni. And so we've often never been in the workforce before. And while that's not our fault, sometimes that means we do perhaps need to just go and do some volunteering or go and do a lower level position than what we're qualified for, recognising that that's not going to be where we're going to end up long term. We know that it's not about selling yourself short. It's about saying, okay, I just need to get some work experience on my CV and then I can go and do whatever I'm actually qualified for. I did a government, so I got a I got a bachelor's degree and then I did a government traineeship in office administration, where I spent quite a lot of time answering phones and stuffing envelopes. But I learnt a huge amount about how government works, and that has stood me in very good stead for my advocacy since. And so you might. It's very important never to discount anything that comes onto your path, because you just never know where it's going to lead. I think it's really important not to get into that mindset of being a victim. And the best way to stay out of that mindset of being a victim, which is really insidious, is to find something to do, something that gets you out of the house or something that gets you interacting with other people, and gets you out of your own head. Like, it's just so important. Being really, really appreciative of the fact that I have a job being really, really appreciative of the fact that, someone saw my leadership potential. Being really appreciative of the fact that I've had the opportunity to to run several organisations which, let's face it, not many people with disability in this country get to run an organisation because we're not seen as a safe pair of hands. Right. So I think that that sense of appreciation and gratitude, whilst it's really important, it can also be really destructive because you then have this sense of, well, if I've got this opportunity, and not many people get it, then I've really got to, I've got to be, I've got to do the best I possibly can. And I think sometimes that's where it comes from to it's not even necessarily about proving yourself. It's just about, wow, someone thought I was good enough to do this, even though I can't understand why they thought I was good enough to do it. But they they did. So I can't, you know, I have to make sure that I don't let them down and let the people who are supporting me down and let my community down. And so I think there's there's lots of layers to it. And I think it's really, really important to get clear with yourself about, you know, what? What is your own what are your own KPIs? What's what's good enough from your perspective? And also how do you balance that with also kind of self-compassion and self-love, which all sounds a bit schmaltzy, but it's it's super important, I think.


Peta [00:24:06] Thank you for listening to this week's episode, and thank you Emma for your time. If you did enjoy this episode, can I encourage you to leave a rating and review on Apple or Spotify, or share the show with friends? It helps more people find the podcast. You can always follow me over on Instagram. My handle is at Peter Hook spelt Peta Hooke  thanks again for listening. Hopefully I sound a little bit better next week. Until next week. Have a good one guys. Bye. I would like to respectfully acknowledge the Wurundjeri people and Bunurong people of the Kulin Nation, of which I record the podcast today. And I pay my respects to both elders, past and present, along with and especially to those in the First Nations communities who are disabled themselves.



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