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You are reading: My Story — Student Voice: Helen Miller

Overcoming the challenges of disability: A creative path to success

“My beautiful little baby girl was born with twisted feet.” This is the last line of a poem my mother wrote when I was born. It was the most determining factor in the person I became.

Growing up on a farm near Dalby, Queensland, I endured multiple operations throughout my childhood to correct talipes in both of my feet. At age nine, I was hospitalised for major surgery. Lonely and afraid in my private room, unable to run and play to fill my days, I began to think. My mind has not stopped since.

My mother had always tried to protect me with lines like, “there are things you won’t be able to do in your life”, or “stop running; you’ll hurt yourself”. This provoked my strong independent spirit, because I was determined to be like anybody else and to do whatever I wanted. That was when I started climbing mountains — figurative ones, of course.

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Challenged by abuse, discrimination and struggles with my physical limitations, I flourished in the face of adversity. I married and bore three children, writing my first novel during their daily naps to relieve my mental boredom, then undertaking a Bachelor of Business (Accounting) degree when they reached school age.

When my children were older, I moved to Brisbane and enjoyed a highly successful career, working for the State Government in Financial Learning and Development. I even received a Certificate of Recognition in the Australia Day Awards in 2001 for my work with the implementation of GST, and completed a Graduate Certificate in Business Administration.

Through this period of my life, I developed an interest in self-growth and ways to deal with the emotional impact of mountain climbing. After several short courses in various alternative topics, I completed a Graduate Certificate in Neuro-Linguistic Programming, which taught me techniques I use when I’m overwhelmed.

I had successfully disguised my disability for enough years to be a player in the roles and environments where I worked, but my feet were not going to let me continue that path. Osteoarthritis had developed to the point where the bones in my feet collapsed. That was nine years ago. The consequences were devastating.

I lost my career and my income. Centrelink wanted me to work eight hours a week, telling me to “dumb down” my resumé. At job interviews my walking stick was noticed before anyone looked into my eyes; no work was offered. My world shrunk into a single recliner chair mired in depression.

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My husband and I sold our house and made a tree change to Stanthorpe in the Southern Queensland granite belt. It was then that I found new purpose in my life. I wrote my second novel, then a third — when I was creating, I was not depressed or bored, but happy and absorbed. I was determined to make the most of this phenomenon and become an accomplished writer, so I studied creative writing and wrote many short stories, including an anthology for my major research topic: practice-led research into multimodal metaphor. My first short story was published in the literary journal Bukker Tillibul, with the editor commending the accomplished work.

I went on to publish one of my novels but, on the disability pension, I do not have the income or mobility to market it in the usual ways, so I plan to use what I learned about multimodality and take my stories online. Since I cannot pay for expert help I must do it myself, hence, my return to university to study a bachelor degree in digital design and internet communications with Open Universities Australia through Curtin University.

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My first degree was done by external study, i.e., piles of printed materials and limited interaction, tutoring and feedback. It did give me a foundation for future online studies in terms of discipline and time management.

Living in a remote area, and with a mobility impairment and chronic pain, online study is ideal because I do not have to travel to a campus or be constrained to a fixed timetable. It also gives me mental stimulation and interesting activity to fill my days and take my mind off the downsides of my daily experience. That said, one negative is the risk of using it as an excuse to avoid outings and mixing with people when I feel low.

You do need to ensure you have suitable equipment; for example, a computer with enough memory and up-to-date software. Sometimes a video may be slow to download, given the internet speed, but that is a great chance to practice patience. I will often download materials when internet access is good, which enables me to study offline when necessary.

I particularly enjoy online interaction through discussion boards. These seem to work best when they are a component of the overall mark, as students are given a reason to take part. Through group interaction I have made good friends, even though I have not physically met them. Another value of online study is regular feedback and guidance; I find the Curtin University tutors are good in this respect.

Access to online study has been easy via Open Universities Australia (OUA) and I have been able to choose courses that suit me from a wide range of options. I think OUA is wonderful in that it not only provides access to courses in specific areas, but the website is user-friendly, and links between courses and units have opened up an undiscovered world of potential knowledge.

The greatest benefit my disability has given me is strength against adversity. The second is my love of creating and learning. My next mountain may be a PhD.

Read more inspiring stories of student success here.