‘I was born with Spina Bifida and in a wheelchair by age 9. My Mum was everything to me; my mother, best friend, an inspiration, a guiding light, my carer, someone to turn to in bad times. She was a courageous, compassionate, determined woman. So, when she was diagnosed with breast cancer in 2001 and died two years later, it was devastating. I was only 16.’ I had the pleasure of interviewing and welcoming Kirrily Hayward to the Humans in Geelong team.
‘School was hard. I missed so much of it because of endless appointments and operations. Mum took me to all these and stayed after the ops. I suffered bullying and exclusion, kids can be cruel. I struggled with identifying with a disability. So, I was determined to join in. I was deemed ‘one who’d give stuff a go’ because I participated in so many different sporting events.
‘When cancer took Mum at the end of Year 10, the rest of my schooling was a write off. I do thank the many teachers that I am still dear friends with for helping me get through.
‘From the age of 14 I was right into Humans Rights and equal rights re marriage, I’d debate this with my family. I always knew from when I was young that I had crushes on girls, it was powerful and confusing. I came out to my Dad in 2010 and that’s when he walked away.
‘In 2007 I moved from Ballarat to Geelong. I studied Social Work at Deakin University. In the first month I felt this was where I belonged, it was my scene. I joined the Uni Queer Collective. I was a student rep and made many awesome lifelong friends. It enabled me to gain pride in the identity I’d been hiding.
‘Then in 2009 I had a difficult year for a number of reasons. I experienced mental health problems, anxiety and depression. I kept telling myself ‘you can get through this, don’t give up’! However, I ended up getting really sick and it resulted in the amputation of my right leg. My second leg was amputated in 2010. My spina Bifida was the worst level, it’s called myelomeningocele and affects the lower body.
‘I got through all that then was re-hospitalised with a pressure sore in 2012 and had 3 months in hospital. From there I was transferred to transitional care in an Aged Facility. Someone young should never have to see what I saw. I kept to my room.
‘Even though to this day, I live in an Aged Care Facility, I had to get my confidence back. I had to get back into the community; physically, mentally and psychologically.
‘In 2013 I took a trip with friends to the Pride March. We dressed up and I had the best time. For once in my life I felt I was fully celebrating who I am. I was proudly wearing the rainbow flag.
‘My activist journey included the Equal Love Regional Rally. I met Coby and we became family. I joined the local LGBTIQ networks. I was an advocate for disability and Marriage Equality.
‘In 2014-15 I was part of the Summer Foundation that advocated for rights for young people in nursing homes. I did a 20km Fun Run as part of this. I’ve also been the chair of Mainh for 3 years. This is a support group for under 65’s in nursing homes. We want to see action! I’m also part of the Geelong Accommodation group, Women with Disabilities Group and Geelong Rainbow.
‘All this led me to work with Clickability, the Australian Disability Services. I was proud to be their Social Media expert for a couple of years.
‘Winning the 2018 Geelong Disability Award was amazing. Almost as exhilarating as talking to 25,000 at the Equal Love rally. I was talking along side Sharyn Faulkner who is like a Mum to me. The last 6 months of that fight was exhausting to say the least but I am thankful for the support of Sarah Hathway and Dean Cardigan.
‘My next plan is build up my own business in consultancy, mentoring, educating and speaking #livedexperience and to hopefully complete my studies.’
Story: Jacqui Bennett. Photo: Supplied