Sometimes you step in conversations where you don’t know where they’re going to lead. 

In March 2018, I was asked by a close friend to assist with the development of an initiative she was wanting to push off the ground about an issue very close to her heart and something I am passionate about as well. Now as we close the year, I look back and think – WOW – How far we have come and how proud I am to be part of what this idea has blossomed to be! 

Here is the full story. 

As my dear friend Marni Walkerden shared her story with me, I began to see just how much people didn’t know about the world of invisible disabilities. Her idea was held together by the simple sentence of ‘not all disabilities are visible’. For years she has lived with a disability that is not obvious to others, she has what is called hereditary spastic paraplegia or HSP. Since acquiring a disability parking permit some seven years ago, she has been regularly bombarded with abuse because others assume that she is wrongfully using her permit. 

SOMO Society all about marketing and engaging with people in meaningful ways. We understand our clients/products and learn about people all in a successful effort to deliver high engagement which translates into a relationship that can become transactional. We do this predominantly through social platforms and, as a team, we spend hours understanding the message of our clients and pinpointing where receptive individuals spend time.

With a proposal, a campaign objective and marketing strategy formed, and other willing partners which included: Fairhaven, Imperial Centre, Blue Badge, Ability Links slowly through the course of the year collectively we started building the elements to what was now called Think Outside the Chair. The chair in our scenario being the wheelchair, the universal symbol for disability, but as we know, not all physical disabilities require aids like a wheelchair. This simplistic idea – that the diversity of disabilities transcend a chair is something that the public needs to consider.

The logo was born and the website followed soon after. The logo is a true representation that the wheelchair is not as all-encompassing as it seems, and that there are some in our communities that don’t need one yet still are classified as disabled. Finding partners came surprisingly easy; with three particular organisations very keen to jump on board. 

Marni works with Ability Links NSW that assists with people with disabilities and their family members and carers to link back into the community. Fairhaven is one of the Central Coast’s leading local charity’s and NDIS providers provides supported employment, community participation and residential supports and opportunities for people living with disability on the Central Coast. They were a very early supporter of this initiative. Gosford’s Imperial Shopping Centre had already been taking steps to eliminate abuse both in car parks and the toilet blocks in their space and we were very happy to receive their support without hesitation. Blue Badge Insurance, whose initial survey about invisible disabilities sparked our interest also came on board and offered their support.  

In August, SOMO created a series of videos that clearly outlined the story of invisible disabilities and generated more traction to audiences on Facebook and the website. It focuses on car parking abuse and judgements when using the disabled toilets – and show clearly that even though people look okay, in reality walking to the car or going to the toilet creates emotional stress and physical pain. Everything is not as it seems. And we need to encourage support and compassion for people whose lives are difficult every day.

This was Marni’s story from the beginning. Constantly being misunderstood when using her disabled parking sticker because she didn’t ‘look disabled’. It wouldn’t surprise you to find out that she is not alone. 

In November, the ABC posted a feature on their Instagram about a woman in South Australia whose story was remarkably similar to Marni’s and so we contacted the journalist. 

One fruitful conversation after another, and we had rolled around to launch day. On December 6th at Gosford Imperial Centre we heard from our partners about their roles in the campaign, we were supported by members of local government attending and the local radio station Star 104.5 FM came as well. We introduced flyers and bumper stickers in hope that they community will share our vision.

One of the big surprises of the day was as we were leaving, when we discovered that our launch had been featured as “‘Invisible’ disabilities campaign calls on community to ‘think outside the chair'” on the front page of abc.org.au and the Top Stories bar. The same journalist that had written the article we had found contacted us requesting photos and one thing lead to another and it was NEWS. We were shocked and so happy to see the press traction it deserves!

We have been asked about more orders for stickers and have received emails from across interstate and the world, included the U.K and the U.S and even Denmark so it is very exciting that this ball is rolling. So now as I sit writing more emails and thinking about our next Instagram post, reflecting on this project and SOMO’s involvement in it I am ready for what’s ahead because I think it’s going to be BIG. Bring on 2019!

Susan.

Deb Warwick from Imperial Centre, Marni Walkerden from Ability Links, Monique Cardon and Sarah Williams from Fairhaven and yours truly!