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Breaking the bias on disability

A staffy, groodle, border collie and terrier sit on a log in a sunny park.

Soulaie is a fabulous friend, colleague, and fitness guru. She’s participated in bodybuilding competitions, loves her dog and dreams of setting up a hobby farm for rescued animals.

Like four million Australians, she also happens to have a disability.

Soulaie’s parents raised her to believe she could achieve anything she put her mind to. It wasn’t until she began school and signed up for the netball team that she realised other people believed differently – and, for the first time, Soulaie was subjected to judgement and bias based wholly on her appearance.

In this interview excerpt from a 2022 International Women’s Day panel discussion, Soulaie shares her experience of bias, how she deals with it, and the valuable advice she would give her 10-year-old self.

Talk to us about being a woman born with a disability, the different phases of your life and how you’ve evolved into the person you are today.

To start off with, I was born without my left forearm. At the time that I was born there was a one in 100,000 chance of your child being born with the disability that I have. It wasn’t until last year that I actually found out what caused it –  it was amniotic band syndrome.

I grew up in a really supportive home, so my parents didn’t actually know that I was going to be born with a disability. The doctors assumed that my parents already knew – which they didn’t – and they couldn’t give them answers as to why. So my parents, being the loving, beautiful people they are, took me away and said, ‘We’ll just raise her ‘normal’ she can do anything she puts her mind to.’.

I was raised in a home where there was nothing I had to do differently. If the dishes needed to be done, they needed to be done, and it didn’t matter whether my sister had two hands and I had one, there were no excuses – I had to do everything the same. I was not raised to think that people would judge, because the people around me didn’t.

When I started school, I started to realise there were things like bullying. I wanted to play sport – netball. My Mum played netball and I wanted to play. My parents said, ‘Well, if she wants to play netball, she’s going to find out whether she can do it or not, so let her play.’. And I was actually really good at it because being born with a disability, I didn’t know any different!

But before they even saw me play, the other kids – or some of the parents of the other children – used to make comments to my Mum and my Dad about me going out to training to be on the team. They didn’t want me on their team because they thought that their children’s team wouldn’t win. Anyway, I was allowed to play, and I was actually really good at playing and I ended up being centre.

I played netball right through school and high school. I then went on to play for a club and the club wouldn’t actually let me try out – they put me straight in the C grade team. After watching me play four games of netball, they then put me in the A grade team and let me play wing attack and centre, which are some of the main bibs in the team.

I suffered a lot of mental health based on society’s views of what I was capable of doing. People would think growing up with a missing limb that the hardest things I would struggle with would be things that were physical – like tying my shoelaces. For me, it’s other people’s perceptions of what I am physically able to do. I got to a point where I had to go back to my roots, and I had to remember what I was taught – that I can do anything that I put my mind to.

I’ve always loved fitness, so I started weight training, which is what I need to do to build up muscle in my left arm – it deteriorates if I don’t consistently use it. And then one thing led to another and my personal trainer at the time said, ‘You should compete in a fitness bodybuilding competition.’. And I was like, ‘Oh, me in a pair of heels in a bikini on stage? I don’t think so!’. I grew up four-wheel driving and camping and that kind of thing, so this was completely out of my world.

I looked into it a bit more and thought, ‘Do you know what? There’s are lot more to the criteria than I thought!’. You get judged on your symmetry – and there wasn’t a lot of symmetry there for me, so I had to think outside the square and train my body differently. I had to train every single limb I had differently to build a form of symmetry. For me, it was never about winning, it was never about becoming a pro or anything like that – it was simply going, ‘I can do this and if I can mentally push myself to this point, anybody can – no matter what life throws at them.’.

It ended up creating quite a good career for me and I ran my own business for quite some time in the fitness industry and inspiring people living with a disability to reach their goals and step outside their comfort zones. So yes, I did go on stage, and they offered me a handicap last minute because they didn’t have a category for someone missing a limb. I was a little bit sneaky and had looked at the criteria they mark on, and I knew if I wasn’t symmetrical in my upper body, I would lose points. But you get marked on your stage presence, your confidence, and your charisma – so where I was lacking in some, I made sure I was 100 per cent in others!

Out of 35 girls, I placed Top 5 and qualified for nationals. I was able to grab the microphone and do a little talk to all of the other people. There was a man sitting in the crowd in a wheelchair and he was clapping and bawling his eyes out. He spoke to me later and he was so proud that I did that for people living with a disability and that I got up and showed them that it doesn’t matter what the external world thinks, you can do whatever you put your mind to. So yeah, that was my story! I didn’t go and compete at nationals – I decided to have a pizza and hang up my heels and my job was done.

What’s one thing you would take back in time that you have access to now?

I would take my dog. Animals don’t judge – they love you unconditionally and you know that no matter what you look like, they love you!

What are some of the things that get you out of bed, that you are really looking forward to over the next 15-20 years?

I constantly love to set myself physical challenges. Since bodybuilding, I have been looking for something else. I hike quite a lot and I try to do five kilometres every day before I start work – I love hiking! I had a friend who has passed away, but we were going to do Kokoda together, so that could potentially be something I look at. I’d like to do rock climbing at a different level than just socially, so that could be something.

My main goals over the next five to 10 years? My partner and I are both really strong vegans, and we love animals and looking after them and rescuing them, so my major goal is to get a property with a little hobby farm where we can educate people about animals and take care of them and that be our sort of family life.

If you could hop in a time machine and be face-to-with your 10-year-old self, what advice would you give her about the bias she’s about to face?

Well, I wasn’t prepared for the extra judgement. Bless my parents’ cotton socks, they were amazing and taught me I could do anything possible – but I was not prepared for the external judgement that would come.

I would tell myself that it will be hard and there will be judgement. Remember to believe in yourself and believe what you were taught. You can do anything possible and by believing in yourself you will inspire yourself and the people around you.

Until recently, Soulaie was a member of the Kinora team at My Plan Manager (she’s still working with us, but in another area of our business!). She told attendees at the International Women’s Day panel discussion that ‘Kinora is a great place where there is no judgement. You are there no matter what disability you have or if you don’t have a disability, but you are supporting someone with a disability – it’s a place where everybody fits!’. Jump on to www.kinora.com.au to find out for yourself.

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