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  • Writer's picturePeta

Sara Shams: Disability Representation As A Woman Of Colour

Bangladesh to Brisbane, Sara Shams flourishes as a pharmacist, model, and disability advocate. With pride, she champions disability representation, offering a unique perspective as a double amputee and a highly accomplished woman of colour. A must listen, episode this week.

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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 Peta. I have cerebral palsy and I'm your host this week. I have Sara Shams on the podcast. I think having the unique perspective of being born in Bangladesh, growing up in Auckland, being a double amputee and now being a successful woman in Australia in both the medical field and in modelling made for a pretty great conversation. So without any further ado, I'm going to hand over to Sara.

Sara [00:00:57] Hi everyone, and thank you so much for having me on here today. So my name is Sara. I am a bilateral through knee amputee and full time prosthetic legs user. And I am also a pharmacist and a speaker and content creator and model. So a few things to add to that list, more recently. In terms of my disability, I was born with high disability. I had a genetic anomaly known as tibial hemimelia, which means my tibias were absent at birth and that's why I became an amputee around the age of six. Growing up, having a disability and being so visibly different to everyone else. As a child. It wasn't something that really impacted me much. I think something something a lot of us can relate to. Growing up, I think we are stronger than we think as a child. I really wasn't part of the disability community growing up because in the nineties and early 2000 we didn't really have that connection. I didn't really know many people with disability or other people like me, which really I didn't have that connection with community and and really impacted how I saw myself and how I related to my disability. Honestly, it was actually social media that led me to becoming, I guess, more involved in the community and seeing others thriving in life with a disability empowered me to do more in this space because the feeling that I got seeing other people doing so well, I wanted to give that feeling to others. And that's why I got more involved in something other than just being a pharmacist, basically.

Speaker 3 [00:02:41] That's very similar to my story. As someone with cerebral palsy, I was often the only one except for when I was at physiotherapy or like disability related appointments. And I think being the only one was a blessing and a curse because I had no comparison. So I never saw my disabilities a negative or I never really understood the discrimination that I would, you know, do face as an adult. And I think that was a good thing as a child to be a little bit naive. How do you how did you give your disability when you were younger? Did you consider yourself disabled?

Sara [00:03:19] Honestly, I didn't really. I knew I was different because obviously I didn't have legs. But it's not something that I really felt like, Oh, I'm disabled and I can't do some things. And my family were really supportive of me, encouraging me, letting me know that I can do anything that I want to. I do have to add that I was born in Bangladesh and unfortunately the South Asian culture, there's still a stigma attached to disability, unfortunately. I've got two older siblings and they were going to a certain school. My parents wanted to for me to go to that school as well, but I was rejected from that school because of my disability and because it was something that would distract other children. At the time I felt quite sad because I couldn't go to the same school as my siblings. But I thinking back now, I think how horrible that was. But my parents moved to New Zealand to give us better opportunities, a better life, and growing up in New Zealand definitely gave me more of an independence. And I think that growing up in Bangladesh probably would have been a whole completely different experience compared to one in New Zealand.

Peta [00:04:29] It's so difficult when you hear that education systems reject children like that term, that you'd be a distraction. First of all, most kids are distracting. That's just being children. And also your pure existence of just appearing different goes to show how much of an education those adults had to have and how hopeless they were. Yeah, it's so interesting to sort of reflect back and think how those what sliding doors moments really impact you and how you think of yourself.

Sara [00:05:03] Absolutely. And I think that's something that happened to me when I was older. I think that would have affected me a lot more because I would have understood the situation more as in what the thought process was behind that decision. Because, you know, being a 45 year old, I was like, okay, that's sad, but I go to a different school. But I think now if that happened, I would be outraged.

Peta [00:05:26] Absolutely. Yeah. And like, I'm also fascinated because with you, like, I've done so much research on you, Sara, but I just sort of think I'm so fascinated because there's not many people in the disability space that gravitate towards the medical system. Like I've had so many negative experiences myself. So do you think having parents who are doctors help you in your influence in the medical system? How did you view the medical system when you were younger?

Sara [00:05:59] I'll show something from the really great question. So thank you for asking me this question. For me, I think having both parents as doctors, it made me realise that just like everyone else, there are differences between health care professionals. My parents are both great doctors, but that is not the experience that I got when I went to see different health care professionals. And I think my parents being health care professionals, I realised that yes, even though they have the same training, you will not get the same service depending on who you go to. And for me that was really clear when I would go to doctors or other health care professionals when I was younger and they would tell me what's wrong with me or what needed fixing or what the issues were and actually didn't listen to my concerns and what I required. And having both parents with medical background definitely inspired me to go into the profession and become a pharmacist, because I think that by having someone with lived experience of a certain situation like having a disability, it enables me to treat others differently. And I wanted to do that in the pharmacy profession because I think often pharmacy is a profession where you can be judged for things that you might need or not need or, you know, unable to follow some sort of instructions, etc.. But that's not because you don't want to. It's because of your, you know, whatever expense you may have had would have shaped that. And so for me, that's where I wanted to make a difference as well in that profession. Another recent thing that I've done is actually joining boards. So being and becoming a board director of a couple of different boards, because honestly, growing up in the nineties, I saw no one like myself in leadership positions and that really impacted how I saw myself and what I could achieve as an adult being in leadership roles. Currently, I can tell a difference with the perspective that I bring to the table that is different to others at that table as well. So that's been a really, really fantastic and eye opening experience for me.

Peta [00:08:12] Has it been surprising sitting on boards or, you know, looking at policy and influencing policy maybe of how much people who are trying to do the right thing but don't have the experience of disability still have so much to learn?

Sara [00:08:31] Yes, it has. And it's and I don't think it's that they don't want to learn. It's just that they don't. First of all, I think that knowing how to go about learning because I think it's how to talk to people with disability, I think that's a skill that people need more often than not, that you're too scared to say something and then ignore the topic altogether, which I think is very, very detrimental. And everyone has been very welcoming. And in terms of me speaking my part, having a voice at the table, which has been fantastic.

Peta [00:09:04] I started the podcast under the same vein because I really wanted people to feel comfortable to ask questions about disability in a context that was comfortable to me and comfortable to them. Under the same vein, is there any question that you wish you got asked more often?

Sara [00:09:25] I think probably something that's not related to my disability, because that's not all I am what I'm about. Yes, I do advocacy work. Yes, I want to break this case conceptions about disability. But often I wouldn't mind just being asked about, you know, what did you do on the weekend? If I see someone who I've never met before or. You know, I guess one of my goals, something along those lines, not nothing to do with my legs or my disability.

Peta [00:09:53] Okay, so what are your goals? So.

Sara [00:09:57] For me, a continual goal will definitely be to break the misconceptions and break the ablest ideas of people with disability where, you know, we are not able to do something because of this or we can't get that role because of that. And also the representation increase the representation of people with disability on every platform and not just tokenistic representation, authentic representation of different types of disability, not just one or two to tick a box. And I think being a disabled woman of colour, that is also something that impacts me because in terms of representation that yes, even though I think that people with disability and disabled representation is better these days, I think a lot of the time it's still the white male or white female representation, which is it's not where it should be, it's not where it should be. You know, in Australia, where multicultural society and the intersectionality of being a disabled woman with colour is not unique to me. There's many of us like that out there and I think that representation can increase.

Peta [00:11:08] I was going to ask you. It was on my list of questions, so already talking about it. So I'd love to hear how you think we can better support people of colour who have disabilities. You know, I'm always conscious of when I have people on these podcasts of whether I'm getting the right balance. I haven't got it right. It's still a work in progress. But how do you think we can move forward? Is it just pure. Making sure people have the opportunities and seats at the table.

Sara [00:11:40] A lot of the time, the opportunities are not extended to people of colour and that's sort of an almost like a cycle because if we don't get the opportunities and we're not getting the exposure and so that people don't know about us and so we're not welcome to that table, if that makes sense. So I think the more people reach out, that is going to give us more opportunities to have a voice. And obviously I don't speak for every disabled person of colour. At the same time, I think it's definitely a community that is still stigmatised within the South Asian community. So disability is still an embarrassing topic. It's still something that I think a lot of people are encouraged to hide about themselves. For me, it's heartbreaking to know how the people may be feeling because it's isolating. And even I think even in today's society, there is an element of not being good enough because you have a disability. It's always sort of you're just a little bit less than everyone else. And that's the conception that I'm really trying hard to break. And a lot of that is raising awareness and letting people know of that community that it's okay to be different.

Peta [00:13:01] And if this is an inappropriate question, like, nope, no problem, I'll move forward. But I'm really interested to hear how you go about when you go back to Bangladesh and you visit and whether that's a draining process for you because you don't feel as welcomed into a culture that you're part of. What's it like?

Sara [00:13:21] Look, I'll be completely honest. I haven't actually been back to Bangladesh in a very long time. There's a lot of physical barriers in Bangladesh. It's a it's not an advanced country. The physical environment is very difficult to navigate these days. Everywhere there's no ramps nor railings. Footpaths are terrible. So that's one aspect of it. And secondly, in terms of the cultural, I guess, expectation, I'll be honest, it's definitely not a place where I would be comfortable showing my disability. But the last time I did go back was turning 2007. So it was a long time ago and perhaps things have changed. But yeah.

Peta [00:14:05] I want to talk another aspect of your life that might be a little bit newer and that's modelling. Tell me about why you got into modelling and how that happened.

Sara [00:14:17] Oh, it's still a bit of an unbelievable aspect of my life, to be honest. Basically, I it all started because I became active on Instagram and I just started posting about my life as an amputee. And fashion's always something that I really loved but not something that I really related to because the standards of beauty do not include people with missing limbs, let's be honest. And growing up, that really impacted how I saw myself. I find myself with and becoming active on social media made me realise that I wasn't the only one feeling this way. The first time I posted a photo of me wearing shorts, I received so many messages from people just from around the world saying, Because of you, I did this for the first time. I wore this dress or attended the Zumba class that I never wanted to go to. And it was not just people with disability who remained non-disabled as well. And so that really turned my attention towards the fashion and creative industries, where there is a huge lack of representation of people with disability, as you would know. And in terms of the runway, I attended the model costume for a show in Brisbane, so it was good design a cute. I was absolutely terrified as I waited in line to do my walk alongside these tall, leggy models. And I overheard a couple of the girls talking amongst themselves saying, Oh my gosh, I'm wearing these heels today and I feel like I'm going to fall over. And there I was, you know, on stilts. And I'm thinking in my head, I am more likely to fall over than anybody else here. But I'm going to do it. I'm going to do it and I'm going to see how I go. I went, I did it. I got the role and I walked on that runway and I just felt so proud to be there. And I'm working towards a day where it's not groundbreaking to see people in a wheelchair or to see people with prosthetic legs or assistive technology on a runway, because it shouldn't be it shouldn't be like, oh my God, this branded this. How amazing, I think. It should just be a given.

Peta [00:16:28] That's amazing. I envy your self-confidence. Have you always been self-confident and how do you go with body image and all that fun stuff, particularly growing up in the nineties, in the early 2000s. That was a really toxic time for body image. So I'd love to hear how you go from posting a photo of yourself wearing shorts on Instagram to be like, You know what? I'm going to try out and do a runway.

Sara [00:16:58] It was a result of obviously years of working on myself and my internal critics and internal ballistic ideas. Growing up in the early 2000, particularly that my disability was something I was really ashamed of. I never showed my legs. I never wore skirts or shorts that showed my legs all my disability. And, you know, I used to get teased at school called No Legs, sorry, which, you know, like right now I'm thinking that's really original. But at the time it impacted me and that's why I put my Instagram page, our legs. No worries. It was like a nod to my bullies. My disability was something that I really did not relate to or was proud of growing up in. In the early 2000, even though I went through uni, I did my bachelor's degree, my master's degree, and I'm married. And even though I was doing well professionally and personally, there was always a part of me that felt like I wasn't good enough and it was tied to my disability. Seeing other people, as I see other people thriving in invisibility made me question why I treated myself that way and why I was acting the way I was and what opportunities are pushing away. But more importantly, it made me question what message I was sending to others like myself, to parents with children with disabilities, because I did not want people to be growing up or going through that that day thinking that they should be hiding that part of themselves because it's not something we need to hide and it's not something that makes us any less. I think children these days actually are more content, which I love to see. I think within their disability they're just more accepting of themselves, which is amazing. But at the same time, there's still that perception of being disabled makes you a little bit lesser. And that's what I want to. A break for people with disability and without disability as well.

Peta [00:18:58] Representation is so important. And what you've just said really encompasses the power of representation to have these little kids not see their disability as a negative role being less than. I'm really interested to hear. When we use a symbol for disability, it's the international symbol for access, which is that little person in a wheelchair, probably a manual wheelchair. Do you ever get frustrated that that symbol doesn't represent all that's in the community or yourself?

Sara [00:19:31] Oh, it is absolutely frustrating. I've been a piece so many times for parking in a disabled parking bay that it's just it's disappointing and frustrating and it's a symbol that doesn't apply to obviously, someone like myself, but also invisible disabilities. You know, the disabilities come in various different shapes and sizes and forms, and I think sometimes it contributes to misconceptions around disability.

Peta [00:20:00] Sitting here and this happens a lot in my job, But you're certainly no exception, Sara. Like, you're such an accomplished, happy person, seemingly, that, you know, is really keeping goals in life, both personally and professionally. So I'm going to ask you, how do you feel about the word inspiration?

Sara [00:20:20] Oh, see, I do wonder how you feel about the way I writing as well. But truthfully, I definitely have conflicted feelings about that word. I too often have been looked at as an inspiration for going and doing my grocery shopping. Like, that is not something that, you know, is extraordinary or something that I should be looked at as being sign o another experience going to the gym. Why am I inspired for going to the gym? You know, people with disability also want to be fit and healthy and maintain fitness goals and. For me, that is actually the opposite of being a compliment because they are assuming that I am not capable of everyday life or I am not capable of achieving any more than that. Which for me does not sit right about on the evidence. On the other side of that is when I do something that is, for me, an achievement. Like, for example, I completed the bridge to Brisbane on both my running legs and everyday prosthesis. And for me that was an achievement because I worked hard, I learnt to run on the blades and I fell over a few times because Brisbane is very hilly and if someone looks at me like I'm an inspiration for doing that, then yes, I think that's for me that's acceptable. And I guess another thing would be being on the runways. For me that's a big achievement for me and I'm proud of that. But if you are looking at me like I'm an inspiration for getting out of bed or because I'm not at home crying over my disability, then no, please do not give me that either. I think a lot of the time people with disability either see two ways as someone to be petite or someone to be inspired. And I think that is not the way I want to be known for having a disability.

Peta [00:22:14] When I see you kicking goals professionally, particularly when you're in your modelling, because that's when you're most visible to me in your work. It just makes me so happy, particularly to see somebody with a disability getting opportunities they deserve and that they're good at, but also see that friends are seeing the value in us as well.

Sara [00:22:37] Yes, absolutely. And don't get me wrong, there's a long way to go with that. I have discussed and spoken with many brands who are just don't realise the potential yet. You know, a business decision. It should be a business decision because we are a big part of the market and are not tapping into that market. I mean, I've had brands come to me and say, Oh, we didn't have a budget for a disabled model, and it's like, I'm not a it's a model, a model with disability, but it's not a budget specifically for a disabled model, you know. And I think sometimes it gets exhausting being that advocate, exhausting explaining why they should be more inclusive and diverse. And I think that's something that you can relate to as well, because being an advocate is exhausting and can be exhausting. Brands are definitely getting better, and there's definitely more brands than I can think of above my head who are doing it really well and using a diverse range and not just using one type one campaign or, you know, rolling us out or wheeling us out for interesting people with disability or just, you know, International Women's Day for a little bit something different, you know. So I think that's where when they've just every day disabled representation. That's what I know, that we're done.

Peta [00:23:59] Thank you for listening to this week's episode. I hope you enjoyed it. As always, I'm going to ask you if you did enjoy the podcast, could you please leave the writing and review on Apple or Spotify? If you have a question for a future episode of the podcast or I guess you'd like me to interview in coming weeks, please send me an email, my email addresses, I can send podcast at or via Instagram at Peter Hook. Thanks again for listening as always and until next week. Have a good one guys. Mine.

Peta [00:24:44] I'd like to pay my respect to all Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, but especially to the pioneering people where this podcast was recorded.


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