This month, we interviewed our new WWDA President, Jess White, so you can get to know Jess, what she does and what she does and what she stands for.
1. Can you share with us some of the moments in your life when you’ve been most proud to be a disabled woman?
Without a doubt, the arrivals of both of my children. I manage a lot of different conditions, including for example an autoimmune disease, which all presented unique challenges during each pregnancy. There was immense pride when both Stevie (4) and Luke (2) arrived happy and healthy because I tried to apply all of the lessons regarding managing my conditions in the second pregnancy, it took so much effort, and we all pulled through safely.
Secondary to this, completing my law degree with not only honours but at the top of my class – this was a milestone that was only achieved with incredible persistence and the support of a strong female mentor who remains a dear friend (and colleague from time to time). I’d already completed a couple of degrees but had always wanted to study law – with a strong sense of justice from a young age, I never thought studying law would be something available to somebody like me. There were many times when I wondered if I was doing the right thing but I kept persevering part-time and stayed the course. I was too shy to attend the graduation ceremony but did go to the awards night where I took home three awards and was immensely proud of everything I’d had to overcome to get there. It is particularly poignant now as my mum, who passed away suddenly a few years ago, was in attendance.
2. Has it always been easy to identify as a woman with disabilities?
Not always – I grew up in a highly dysfunctional home situation and have had to seek out assistance much later in life. There is not enough room here to unpack this but I do know that the repercussions for children not receiving appropriate supports as early as possible can be lifelong. Though symptoms have been present for years, I did not have answers until about ten years ago. Now that I am in a position to better understand my conditions and how they affect my life, I have much more empathy for my younger self, can reconcile past trauma and proudly identify as a woman living with disability whenever I can.
3. What does it mean to you to be a disabled woman working in the legal sector? How can the law be used to protect the rights of women with disabilities?
I am immensely proud to be a disabled woman, particularly one with a young family in private practice, working in the legal sector because it means times are changing. I love my job: my firm is a diverse and inclusive one from the top down. All four partners have caring responsibilities and three of them are women. We have an array of amazing clients across government, not for profit and business and we operate nationally. I enjoy doing my absolute best for my employer because, in turn, I have access to flexible work arrangements which help me balance professional commitments with being present for my children and managing my health.
The law can be used to protect the rights of women with disabilities in many ways. We have disability discrimination legislation in Australia, for example, and I encourage anybody reading this to visit the Australian Human Rights Commission website (and of course the WWDA website) to learn more about how this works and how you can assert your rights where you think they may have been infringed (in employment or education, for example). The first step is knowing your rights and identifying where you can go for assistance.
4. Previously you’ve spoken to WWDA about being a survivor of abuse and sexual assault. What are some of the accessible resources and supports that have helped you heal?
I can only speak to my own experience of healing, everybody’s journey is different, but am happy to share what has worked for me (not necessarily in this order).
- Creating a habit of getting moving – finding whatever exercise works for you, your circumstances and building a sustainable (ie realistic) routine.
- Help from a professional – my GP is a legend. She has referred me to local services and been an ongoing support. Telling her was the first and hardest step.
- Finding a support service – finding someone experienced and qualified who you feel comfortable disclosing to is a game-changer. There are many supports available and if I was starting the therapy journey again, I would start with 1800 RESPECT.
- Practising Mindfulness – Sitting still or stretching each morning, noticing feelings and letting them go, focusing on breathing etc.
- Caring for someone or something – I’ve found solace in my children, my partner, our pets and our garden. I get immense satisfaction from caring for and supporting them.
- We know you enjoy gardening! Do you think you could share with us your biggest gardening wins…and your biggest gardening fails?!
Gardening is the coolest thing and can bring so much joy no matter where you’re living – I’ve lived in a tiny apartment and managed to grow epic cherry tomato hauls with regular cockatoo visitors eating them to currently having a wild backyard with so much natural light inside I’ll never run out of room for indoor plants. Bliss. The biggest win to date has been successfully transporting my potted plants from the ACT to Victoria recently – they survived the heat and are thriving in their new home. I’m also great at propagating entirely without any knowledge – it’s all accidental wins.
My biggest fail easily is forgetting to wear garden gloves, my rose bushes always remind me. Also, failing to properly research the right conditions before moving certain plants – catastrophic.
7. Finally, as the newly elected President of WWDA’s Board – what is your vision for a world in which women, girls, feminine identifying and non-binary people with disabilities are safe, supported and equal in our community?
My vision for all women, girls, feminine-identifying and non-binary people with disabilities is to live peacefully in a world with no structural barriers: to have equitable access to everything they wish to pursue in their lives. We shouldn’t have to advocate and fight for things that so many take for granted but advocate and fight, we must. I want all of our members to feel safe and supported always, so that they are in the best possible position to choose how they want to live their lives.