Tuesday, November 11, 2008

Australian Women with Disabilities Retreat!

In organizing my visit to Australia, I was extremely lucky to coincide my trip with the first ever women with disabilities leadership retreat in New South Wales. Earlier this year, when I began my e-mail correspondence with Sharon, she said something to the effect of, hey, my network is planning a retreat at a beach resort north of Sydney, would you like to come along and help with some of the exercises and meet more women with disabilities in Australia?

YES! YES, I WOULD!!!

So I set up my travel plans in order to include this retreat, which was held at O’Carrollyn’s, a fully accessible resort in the town of Port Stephens, which has this really incredibly beautiful beach that reminds me a little of the Pacific coast of Baja (Punta Cabras especially), only with a eucalyptus forest edging it. Every cabin at O’Carrollyn’s is accessible with a roll in shower. Yes, it is crip heaven with koalas. One of the staff manages trips to the beach with an accessible beach chair and lift.

About twenty women attended from all over the state of NSW and Sharon, Barbel Winter and some of Sharon’s co-workers coordinated it. My job was mainly to provide input on and observe the process of the curriculum, although I did help with some exercises and took a lot of the group photos. The group was incredibly disability diverse---we had women who used wheelchairs and walkers, a whole crowd of blind/visually impaired women, a deaf-blind woman, women with hidden disabilities, women with cognitive or intellectual disabilities, the works. I ended up relying on lipreading generally and of course was completely wiped out by the end of the retreat.

For many women, it was their first time connecting with other women with disabilities, while others were longtime activists in the network. I felt very lucky to be part of this gathering---there were lessons to learn from each person present.

We did have a group agreement to protect people’s privacy and so in order to report on the retreat without violating that trust, what I am going to do is essentially comment on overall structure, and then focus on lessons learned over those three days.

Fundamentally, the goal of the retreat was to get the women to take risks by examining how they work with others in a group setting. Women were given different tasks to do as a team, and then were asked to focus not so much on the outcome of the work, but on the process of that work, to better understand why and how one develops as a leader for women’s disability rights. The retreat process proved to be extremely challenging for some group members, while others felt more comfortable studying their own feelings and ways of working with others. Some women’s disabilities required more facilitation so they could participate in the retreat, and we learned how to do that over the course of the retreat.

So, here are some lessons learned/things I thought/points of interest:

...Leadership from behind/leadership in front. What does it really mean to be the sort of leader everyone notices? What do people do when they see a leader out front? Do they see this person as a model, someone to look up to, or do they try to cut the person down to size? What do people see when they see a leader who works behind the scenes and perhaps does tasks like mentor others, guide people to be empowered? Is there a balance between leading out front and leading from behind the scenes?

...Public vs. private motivations. In private conversation, what do we tell other people we really want? Are we willing to act on those statements in front of a large group? Will fear about what the group will think of you hold you back? And, who is all talk and no action?

...The age gap. Negotiating this is one of the key issues for a women's disability rights movement. Are younger and older women able to relate to each other? Can they work in ways that give people at all places on the age spectrum power? Is there real recognition that those with differing life experiences have different skills to contribute?

...Leadership and creativity. Do people with unusual motivation and drive have the social room to flourish creatively? Are they able to take risks, succeed AND fail? Are they subjected to negative or positive criticism? Are they encouraged or aware of how to work in a balanced way with all kinds of people?

....Finding roles for all. How can a group effort make the most of each individual's strength? Frankly this is a very common issue in the disability movement simply because people's abilities vary so widely. Are we able to recognize ability in others? Are we willing to volunteer what our abilities and interests are? When is facilitation necessary, or needing someone else to help us say what we find hard to say ourselves?

...Group process vs. top-down decision making. This retreat examined how we work together as a group. Top-down decision making is so common we didn't really need to try it so much. Working through a group process that is inclusive of all people is incredibly difficult especially given personalities, time constraints and disabilities. But in the end, recognizing the shared effort among the group leads to positive feelings for all.

...Cultural diversity. This group tended to be less culturally diverse than I perceived Sydney in particular to be, but women did come from all over the state of NSW. I don't think we really addressed multiculturalism, or lgtbq issues since the focus was on working across boundaries in a group. Perhaps overtly addressing these areas would have led to some healthy acknowledgement of issues.

...Fear. As those who know me can probably guess, I found this topic of great interest because it is interesting to see what people will do when put into public situations involving fear of different kinds. No, we did not shut people away in dungeons, but instead focused on social situations when the pressure is on, such as when doing public speaking or being bullied by a force more powerful than you. It seems, in general, that some people are fairly confident in situations involving social fear, while others are much less confident, and this seems to depend on experience. Most women took a while to get past the fear to be able to think creatively on their feet. The question I would ask is, how often do women with disabilities take the risk to be put in situations of social fear? And also, it seems to me that a key component of getting past fear is being able to ask questions, not as a stalling tactics, but in order to see clearly what is happening and to resist forces of oppression.

...Creating positive feeling. How do we applaud and recognize one another's efforts? How can we ask constructive questions inquiring why someone did something, rather than negative unconstructive feedback which serves no one but the criticizer? How can we avoid gossip? How do we have FUN????

I would very much like to thank Barbel and Sharon for their hard work and for allowing me to tag along, and also all the women at the retreat, who worked hard and thought hard and allowed me to learn from them. I hope that this was the start of something constructive in NSW and a boost to the women with disabilities network! Best of luck to everyone as they make their way in the world, and thanks for the Vegemite...!!

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