In the lead up to International Day of People with Disability on 3 December, UNSW Paralympians Prue Watt and Alex Lisney reflect on the power of resilience.
A current student and University alumna respectively, Watt and Lisney combined study and training on UNSW Elite Athlete Program scholarships. Winning Gold and Bronze in London 2012, both women went on to compete in Rio 2016.
UNSW Workplace Diversity Officer Will Hunter asked the athletes about their future goals and how the University and others organisations can better support people with disability.
Reflecting on International Day of People with Disability’s 2016 theme – 17 Goals for the Future We Want – what are some of your personal and professional aspirations?
Prue: “I have many aspirations in line with the 17 Goals for the Future We Want. As a neuroscience student and elite athlete, I have a strong interest in generating ideas around improving the health and wellbeing of my fellow citizens.”
“One goal I have is to develop a personal training business that offers specialised fitness training for individuals with disability, and disability confidence and awareness training to fitness franchises. I have a number of friends with sensory and / or physical disabilities who I’ve spoken to about their own physical and mental wellbeing goals. It seems that there are a number of obstacles to full participation in the mainstream fitness industry. I would love to help to reduce these barriers and promote inclusivity of people with disability, empowering them to achieve their health and fitness goals.”
Alex: “I hope that by representing cerebral palsy in something as big as the Paralympics I can show that disability is so varied and affects people in many different ways. I want to show the world that people with disability can do great things and push physical boundaries.
I also hope to achieve the goal of reducing the severity of cerebral palsy. This goal comes from my work on the Cerebral Palsy Alliance Board. We do some amazing work in the service industry as well as the research and prevention area. There are some great research projects around the world looking at how we diagnose and treat cerebral palsy to reduce the severity.”
How important do you think resilience is to achieving goals in life?
Prue: “Resilience is vital to personal and professional progression, particularly if you have experienced setbacks in your career. It is about being willing to go outside your comfort zone, be daring and approach things again, potentially in a different way. Taking these steps can certainly bring an element of uncertainty but I find it useful to provide me with the motivation and willingness to embrace a challenge with an open mind.”
Alex: “Big goals in life are rarely easy to achieve. They take hard work and dedication and are bound to come with a few detours or knock backs. I try to focus on the bigger picture and try not to get caught up in small matters. Understanding what I want to achieve and knowing that my journey to that goal may not always be smooth lets me get to where I need to be.”
UNSW’s 2025 Strategy vision is “to be Australia’s Global University… and to advance a just society”. In terms of supporting people with disability, what are the key actions UNSW can take to help deliver on this commitment?
Prue: “I think one of the major actions would be to provide an environment where students with disability feel more comfortable to approach and join one of our many clubs and societies. I think one of the key ways this could be achieved would be to provide executives of clubs and societies with disability awareness information so that they are equipped with knowledge and confidence to build an open environment that promotes social inclusion and participation for all. It would also be useful for students with disabilities to contribute input into how clubs and societies could become more inclusive and accessible to support student engagement. The many sport related clubs and societies could also consider showcasing their sport in an adaptive form, wheelchair basketball for example. This would enable both students with and without to participate and learn from each other.”
What sort of support did you receive from UNSW staff and students while you were studying?
Prue: “I have had outstanding support from academics and my fellow students. I have had very understanding lecturers and demonstrators who have been very helpful in providing me with flexibility with deadlines and academic requirements. I wouldn’t have been able to balance my athletic, sporting and work commitments without their amazing support.
“I have also had fantastic support and huge interest from my university friends and fellow students. It is wonderful to feel that something you are working very hard towards is so wholeheartedly embraced!”
Are there any key areas where UNSW can improve its support for students with disabilities?
Prue: “I think one of the main areas for improvement would be around the development of self-advocacy skills, as well as the awareness of disability generally.”
Having graduated from UNSW with a Bachelor of Engineering and now working for a Sydney-based firm, what was the transition from university to working life like for you?
Alex: “The transition from university to working life took a while for me. After graduating, things were starting to ramp up towards Rio and so I began work part-time. I was extremely thankful to my company for allowing me so much flexibility especially when I was travelling for over four months of the year. I am now taking a year off from elite sport and working full time. It’s different and I love it.”
You are working in a traditionally male dominated area. Were there any barriers relating to your disability, and if so, how did you overcome them?
Alex: “I haven’t experienced any noticeable barriers to working in engineering. Although the workforce I have been involved in usually does have more males than females, I have never been the only female in a group. I find that the groups of people I work with are all so passionate about what they do that the genders within the group are irrelevant. I struggle to walk long distances without proper ankle support so I just have to make sure that if I am going out on site I have proper footwear. Luckily I need steel caps [boots] on so that problem solves itself pretty easily!”
What were some highlights of competing in Rio 2016? What was your favourite or most special moment?
Prue: “My personal highlight during competition was swimming a personal best time in my 100m breaststroke, beating the time I swam at the Paralympic trials this year. One of the most special moments was being in attendance at the final of the Australian Men’s Wheelchair Rugby against the U.S. The game went into extra time twice and in the final minutes, Australia won Gold by one point!”
Alex: “There is something really special about competing with the whole world watching. I loved being in Brazil especially riding my bike on the road and through towns in the mountains. People came out onto the street and cheered for us (and that was just in the training ride). There was a real sense of community throughout Rio that showed through the people who supported the Games.”