Words are powerful things. We all know and recognise that, but sometimes the words we use are so ingrained in our daily language, we can forget to question them.
For Wollongong local and passionate advocate Rebecca Lachlan, the power of words has motivated her to create change.
Rebecca’s dream is to help us change perspectives through the words we use.
“For a long time, people have associated having a disability or mental illness with having a problem… this is reinforced by our labels and the assumptions made by those people who have not experienced these challenges. The reality is that everyone will experience mental health problems or a form of disability at least once in their lives,” says Rebecca.
Her own experience helped her to appreciate the many and varied ways people experience the world, and their different needs.
“Twelve years ago I experienced a stroke, which resulted in ‘Locked-in Syndrome’,” says Rebecca.
“The early hours of Easter Monday in 2008 changed my life forever. I was only 26, young, fit and healthy. What I at first thought was food poisoning turned out to be a stroke caused by a clot on my brain.”
Despite being told she might not recover, Rebecca was determined to get her independence back.
What started with wiggling her toes led to increased movement, and after seven months of rehabilitation, mostly at Port Kembla Hospital, and then another two years as an outpatient, Rebecca’s recovery progressed.
Through speech therapy, occupational therapy, physiotherapy, hydrotherapy and hypnosis, Rebecca regained many of her pre-stroke abilities. Today, Rebecca is classed as hemiplegic on her right hand side, with limited function in her right hand and leg.
“In open spaces I use a walker for mobility, although I can walk independently within enclosed surroundings. I drive my own car and live in my own house with my husband,” she says.
After returning home from Sydney one day via train to Unanderra Train Station, Rebecca was appalled at the effort required to get up the stairs, and started campaigning with a group of concerned local residents to get a lift installed at the station. This campaign has been successful, with works on the lift underway, and Rebecca’s work led to her being named the 2018 Woman of the Year for Wollongong and earning The Disability Trust 2019 Self Advocacy Award.
Rebecca is committed to advocating for people with altered abilities, and celebrating the way people with altered abilities can adapt and achieve things in their own way. She wants to create positive change and encourage people to be more accepting of our different abilities.
She’s also working to encourage the use of ‘altered ability’ rather than ‘disability’ when we’re talking about people’s different abilities.
“Mental illness can be a hidden disability which people are reluctant to share openly in case people give them a label or put them into a category which they perceive as unreliable, dishonest, untrustworthy or incapable,” says Rebecca.
“A physical disability is often harder to hide. As a result, these people may be treated as if they are incapable of achieving or performing at the same level as those around them. The truth is, people who have faced and overcome many obstacles – including those with physical and mental disabilities – have valuable experience in dealing with stressful, depressing or traumatic experiences and using adaptive techniques to cope with day to day life. They can be resilient and remarkably resourceful in finding ways to adapt, to achieve, and to live their lives.”