Milly Parker, Yooralla’s Disability Ambassador lived life in the fast lane on her way to becoming an accountant. It all came crashing down when a car accident left her with a permanent disability. How the businesswoman and disability advocate regained her life is an inspirational story of courage, anger, humility and love.
Written by Milly Parker
There comes a point in many relationships when the couple realise that they’ve spent more time with their significant other than they have with their family of origin.
It’s a milestone that can unnerve people who struggle with the emotional consequences of change.
I’ve achieved a milestone of sorts as well. It also involves a relationship. In this case it is the passing of my original self to the person I became in 1992. In September of that year, at the age of 21, I was involved in a horrific car accident. The result was an Acquired Brain Injury that changed my life more profoundly than if I had left home to cohabit with another person.
This year I will have lived half of my life with a disability.
Living with an ABI affects different people in different ways. In my case, my short term memory is poor as is my emotional control, especially when I get tired. I am impulsive, have trouble reading and retaining information, my organisational and complex planning skills are affected, my decision-making ability can be poor, I suffer from fatigue and my brain can’t cope in loud noisy places.
I can’t drive and I can’t take public transport. I’ve been accused of being a princess because I’m a taxi junkie and, even worse in their eyes, an abuser of the MPTP Card (half price taxi card). I’ve tried using public transport but my brain can’t cope with the lights, colours, noise or the planning needed to remember the right stop or connecting transport. The last time I tried I got off at the wrong stop and ended up taking a taxi home. I’m not the only one like this but what worries me is that there are many people in our community who aren’t self aware about the limits of their ability, be it for reasons of age, disability or whatever, who continue to drive, putting themselves and others at risk.
Taxis are not without their problems, either. I was abused by one driver when I showed by MPTP Card because “you don’t look sick!” I wanted to argue but my brain closed down. So I ran from the car, which is not my preferred way but my brain was in no mood to engage. The reverse of that is my experience with people who think a brain injury renders me deaf, dumb and stupid. How do I know? They insist on talking very loudly, very slowly and very, very close to my face.
All of the above means I have to plan ahead. For example, I often attend and speak at conferences and it requires more of me than just preparing my speech. Over time I’ve learned how to manage these occasions but I can still come unstuck if I’m not careful.
It’s a bit like living with a demanding toddler who won’t negotiate!
I can honestly say that after a long period of mourning for the life I had planned for myself, I’ve come to accept that the new and improved ‘me’ is someone that I actually like. I can’t rewrite history and nor do I want to. I know that I am a good and decent person; to that extent nothing has changed.
Each day brings a new challenge
Daily life can be frustrating, but I’ve learnt to live with it. I don’t really know when I wake up what the day will bring. There are some days when I wake with pain and others when my brain won’t function at its optimum.
The first challenge I faced had nothing to do with negotiating my way through meetings, speeches or other commitments. It was to heal my broken soul. I was made to feel worthless, not by an inner voice or a heartless person, but because having a disability generally means that society considers that you are less than a person without it.
If you want to know why the disability sector is celebrating the arrival of DisabilityCare Australia, then read the paragraph above. People with disability are generally considered to be hard work, demanding and a strain on the public purse.
It’s one reason why the participation rates of people with disability in the workforce are so low. Without going into detail, the OECD ranks Australia 21 out of 29 countries for employment participation for people with disability. To make matters worse, it also ranks Australia 27 out of 27 OECD countries when it comes to relative poverty risk for people with disability.
DisabilityCare is the best chance we have to change those statistics.
I began my life with an ABI as a statistic. Of course, I will always be a statistic, but I pushed myself to become so much more. It started with a beautiful dog and from there to a small business creating dog biscuits. I didn’t intend starting a business; I didn’t think I could. But when Riley came into my life I wasn’t happy with the quality of treats that were available. A friend suggested a recipe using human-grade ingredients and Riley loved it! I gave it to friends and got the same reaction. I felt excited and empowered and against my better judgement I asked the local pet shop if they would stock my products, which I called Happy Yappers. I walked out of the shop with a $15 sale. The cost of a pack of cigarettes today, but a million dollar contract to me!
While a business was born, the outcome was to affirm my independence from the welfare system and to tell the world, at least my very small part of it, that I was capable of making a change.
Today, I value my story as a businesswoman and as the first Disability Ambassador for Yooralla, one of Australia’s oldest and largest disability service organisations. Yooralla clearly appreciated the work that I was doing as a disability advocate and asked me to support them in their efforts to advocate for the rights of people with disability, their families and carers.
I’m not sure if anyone sees the irony in that: Australia’s foremost disability service asking ME to support THEM!
In order to run my business, go to work at Yooralla and expand my advocacy role, I have to manage my life so as not to overload my brain. There is a price for that and in my case it was to sacrifice my social life. For some that might be too high a price to pay. Not for me.
Over the years, through relearning certain skills and adapting to the reality of how my brain functions, I have experienced many highs and lows. Some were more profound than others. In some cases they are very personal but I’ve learnt that giving comfort to people – be it as a mentor or a friend – requires me to drop my guard, even if it can be an uncomfortable experience.
I had a life partner that I chose to leave after 15 years. Many people are defined by the relationships they have, and a person with disability can too easily fall into the trap of believing that a significant other somehow makes them more acceptable to society. I faced the same emotional turmoil as well as the fear of having to live independently and look after myself.
At the end of the day, I chose me above him. I chose to see the difficulties between us for what they were and not as the lesser of two evils – i.e. for both of us to be in an unhappy environment because the option of loneliness/isolation is worse. I even had to defend my decision to a doctor who thought I wasn’t capable of functioning without a partner!
There are parts of me that are different to the way I was born and will ever be thus. But the challenge I’ve been given has inspired others in ways that wouldn’t have been possible had I arrived safely on that fateful night.
Quite honestly, I wouldn’t want it any other way.