Empowering women with a disability

Pauline Vetuna
Keran Howe has worked in community health for over 25 years. She has worked hard to help improve the lives of women with a disability. Keran is a wheelchair user. After her accident Keran had to adjust to a new life and career. But she found other people's attitudes the most frustrating. Keran now works at Women with Disabilities Victoria. She says access to health services is a very important issue for women with a disability. Another important issue is the right to have children. Access to jobs is also important to ensure independence.
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Pauline Vetuna on 27/06/2011
A portrait of Keran Howe smiling and wearing glasses

Keran Howe: a lifetime advocating for the rights of women with a disability

I met Keran Howe three years ago in a train station elevator. We struck up a conversation. I soon got to know a remarkable woman. Keran has spent a lifetime advocating for the rights of women with a disability. Women with disabilities are amongst the most marginalised people in society. I recently caught up with Keran again to chat about her life's work.

Childhood memories

Keran grew up in beautiful Deniliquin in New South Wales. She has fond memories of her childhood. Keran's mother encouraged her kids to explore their surroundings. Keran made the most of what the town offered. She loved sport, going to the cinema, and attending dances.

Keran says her family and Catholic education had a strong influence on her social conscience. Growing up, she noticed that Christianity placed an emphasis on making society fairer for everyone. Working for social justice was a way those Christian values could be expressed.

Nursing studies

Keran decided to study nursing after high school. She moved to Melbourne and began her training at the Mercy Hospital. It just felt like I was in the right environment for me, Keran says. It ticked the boxes in terms of me feeling like I was making a contribution to the world. She enjoyed the challenge of learning about how the body works. She also loved working with people.

But Keran was involved in a car accident a year into her training. Her spinal cord was cut. She was permanently paralysed. Keran spent six months in hospital. She had no idea what life would be like as a wheelchair user. But she was determined to continue on as before. Keran says people around her would refer to her tragedy. But the heroic victim was not a role she wanted. People would say things like 'isn't it wonderful you can still smile?' Those kinds of comments were particularly jarring. There was this inference that my life was over.

People's attitudes

Keran says other people's attitudes were a source of frustration. I wanted to be seen for who I was, not for what other people thought I was. Dealing with her own attitudes towards disability was also a challenge. I had to deal with my own internal disablism too. My own view of how I had seen people with disabilities didn't fit with how I saw myself.

Keran realised she would have to follow another career path. She completed an arts degree, majoring in politics and psychology. Her studies combined interests in how we form our views of the world and the external social structures that shape us.

Human rights

Keran says cultivating an understanding of disability as a human rights issue opened her eyes. She began to see the barriers of disability as societal, not merely personal. Physical buildings, prejudice and institutional blocks limit the freedom of people with a disability. It's all those barriers and all those attitudes that are a drag on your life, says Keran.

Keran's interest in disability as a human rights issue was galvanised in 1981. It was the International Year of Disabled Persons. Keran was working as a community development worker at Yooralla. She then moved back to Deniliquin where she worked as the town's only social worker. She got experience with many issues including poverty, disability and housing. The work gave her an insight into how limited access to community resources leads to disadvantage. Keran also faced problems such as family violence and sexual assault.

Community health

Keran then moved to Ballarat to work in community health. In Ballarat she started to realise that women with a disability were among the most disadvantaged people in the world. It sounds ridiculous now but those issues weren't talked about or written about, Keran says. She believes the main reason for women's disadvantage is poverty.

Keran's next role at Melbourne's Royal Women's Hospital added to her understanding of the diversity of women's lives and experiences. Many women don't have the same access to education and work because of their particular situation, Keran says. This means they can be stuck in poverty. Women with disabilities often have this experience. Their marginalisation can be exacerbated by other factors such as race or physical isolation.

Empowering women

Keran now works as executive director at Women with Disabilities Victoria. She remains passionate about improving the lives of women with a disability. Priorities to tackle are:

  • Violence against women with a disability
  • Access to women's health services
  • Reproductive rights
  • Employment for women with a disabiliy.

It's fantastic to join with other women and advocate around those issues, Keran says. She is particularly pleased to see improvements in domestic violence services. Many women's services are now prioritising women with disabilities as part of their main focus, Keran says. Change is possible. Change can happen and it's been through our partnerships with other women's services.

Employment crucial

Keran says employment is crucial for tackling disadvantage. It's only when you've got money that you have any capacity to take some control of your life, she says. Keran gives an example of a woman seeking to leave a violent relationship with a person they are financially and physically dependent on. People's options are often dangerously limited. Keran stresses that economic empowerment is an important part of empowering people with a disability. (But) there's significant discrimination against people with disabilities in terms of being able to win jobs.

Keran says the community needs to highlight the inequality that women with a disability can face. Everyone needs to acknowledge that it is unacceptable and demand change. Keran also believes quotas for employing more women with a disability are essential. I want to see the whole community have a commitment to understanding and changing that inequality.

Readers comments (2)

can i please have contact details to touch base with Keran Howe or her collegues

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