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Achievements in plain sight whilst disability appears ‘invisible’ for sailing golden girl

When people think about disability, they often think of the physical, visual side, and disregard any other disability that takes a different, often invisible shape. 

Where disabilities identified by the use of a wheelchair or assistive technology are apparent and easier to identify through related difficulties requiring support, the opposite can often be said for invisible disability

However, internal barriers influencing personal or professional success still often need to be navigated in plain sight. 

Invisible disability, or hidden disability captures a whole spectrum of disabilities or challenges that are primarily neurological in nature, and for the estimated one in 10 people living with one or more, these silent challenges of dealing with stress related
symptoms or suffering in silence are real. 

However, when treated with understanding and acceptance, the same challenges are equally surmountable, for which rising star of sailing, Chelseann Osborne, provides a shining example. 

Featured in Feros Care and Screenworks’ six-part series, Fearless Films,
the Townsville 19-year-old’s sailing achievements – which include a gold medal for Australia at the 2019 Special Olympics World Games in Abu Dhabi – are celebrated, but can be met by surprise, with even some of those on her inner circle unaware
of her Autism. 

“A few years ago, my mum and dad told me I had a disability; I always knew, I just didn’t know exactly what it was,” Chelseann said. 

“Even when I go and hang out with friends, not all friends know I have a disability.” 

While Chelseann wasn’t born to the water in hailing from regional Victoria, Filmmaker Robert Crispe’s Golden Sails reflects a young athlete who certainly took to it, after moving to northern Queensland in primary school.

A talented and focussed sailor emerged, finding success through a committed approach determination to not missing out on any opportunity. 

Fast forward and Chelseann is now a fully qualified sailing instructor who runs youth and children’s learn-to-sail courses, while compiling achievements reflective of her approach to life. 

Topping off her Special Olympics World Games gold medal, Chelseann was also the Queensland Sports Athlete of the Year with a Disability and Junior sports citizen award for Townsville, Australia Day winner in the same year. Those achievements came on the
back of an Australian Sailor of the Year with a Disability in 2018. 

The challenges of an invisible disability

However, look closer and while Chelseann’s current standing as a junior gun receiving accolades, medals and fanfare from Townsville council and community paints a picture of a sporting prodigy, internally, her achievements weren’t attained
without overcoming significant social and physical barriers, partly due to the nature, understanding and acceptance of an invisible disability. 

Defined as a physical, mental or neurological condition that is not visible from the outside, people with an invisible disability can experience a limiting or challenge of movements, senses, or activities. 

Equally, simply because a person has a disability, it does not mean they are disabled. Many living with these challenges, like Chelseann, overcome non-inclusive language, perceptions and stereotypes such as “weird”, or “different”,
due to people judging others by what they see, and drawing conclusions of what a person can or cannot do due to the way they look, to become fully active in their work, families, sports or hobbies. 

Like many, Chelseann has worked hard and reached a point of success and social belonging, but look closer, and the picture of public acknowledgement, acceptance and admiration of her achievements strongly contrasts with previous, ongoing experiences,
which began as a misunderstood child not so long ago. 

“She spent most of her kinder years with very little interaction with other kids and when looking at her, nothing presents, she has definitely had a lot of troubles in life,” said Chelseann’s father and coach, Peter. 

Also living with low muscle tone due to a chromosomal deficiency, something most of us take for granted like walking took Chelseann 2-3 times more effort, and the misunderstanding and unknown surrounding her invisible disability took its toll. 

“My main difficulty is learning new skills and learning stuff. In high school, it was a little bit easier as I knew more about what my disability was, but in primary school, it was kind of weird as I knew I was getting assistance, but I didn’t
know why,” she said. 

“No two people with Autism are the same, so it makes it hard to explain exactly what it is, because I may present it one way and someone else a completely different way… I did get bullied, a lot.” 

Still “struggling a lot” in high school, Chelseann received assistance, but was able to make friends and found her social belonging. 

Chelseann’s mother Karen said the one constant was sport, and particularly sailing, which has set the course for her daughter’s current path and future goals. 

“From a shy little girl who didn’t talk much, to now being very much out in the community connecting with ministers and doing interviews, I said to a friend ‘ I can’t believe Chelseann is doing that’,” she said. 

“Sailing has built up her confidence, and when she’s out on the water she has to make her own decisions, so that’s great for her.” 

Now undertaking a sports science degree, Chelseann also has a Certificate 3 in support work, which she has used to intertwine her own experiences and dreams with those of others. 

Part of a Sailability program designed to provide an inclusive and supportive environment, Chelseann assists other young sailors learn the craft, and also carries out support work and mentoring. 

“She assists a young boy who is into sailing, so she takes him to gym or to Sailability Townsville, or even just goes and talks to him at his house,” Karen said. 

“Chelseann also has a girl she picks up from work, takes her shopping and takes her swimming. She wants all sports to include everyone and wants to assist more people with disabilities to get into sport as she’s seen how much it has helped

How the NDIS helps Chelseann

Building her capacity through a National Disability Insurance Agency (NDIS) funded support worker who joins in on fitness walks up Townsville’s Castle Hill and works to increase independence on trips away for sailing, Chelseann’s future is

Proud of her Special Olympics’ medal and planning on repeating the feat at Para Olympics level, Chelseann always stays true to herself in setting a course towards further success. 

That course, which could be defined as unique compared to the average sailor, has Chelseann setting her sights on winning a medal in the pinnacle of the sport: the Olympics. 

Whether she makes it to the Olympics or not, through living boldly with as fearless of an approach to life as the friendly and engaging teenager portrays in her film it won’t be through a lack of commitment. Regardless, it’s a course she couldn’t
have plotted without the life experiences her invisible disability has contributed to crafting.


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