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In this episode Pete and Tristram talk with Isabel Osuna-Gatty about culturally and linguistically diverse communities, how they view disability and how their approach to community is so different.
“When I first arrived here I was struck by the reliance on funding as a pre-requisite for action. In Venezuela, no-one gave us money, we rolled up our sleeves, went out to the communities and got on with it. I believe it’s not the role of government, private enterprise or other agencies—it’s up to the individual and the community to take responsibility. We need to think differently, we need to change the culture.”
Produced by: Black Me Out Productions
Grow Bold within the CALD Community
PETE and TRISTRAM: Welcome to the Grow Bold with Disability podcast brought to you by Feros Care, a podcast dedicated to smashing stereotypes and talking about the things people with disability care about most. To help us live bolder, healthier, better connected lives. I’m journalist Pete Timbs and I’m Tristram Peters. I work for Disability Service Directory, Clickability, and am a wheelchair user living with spinal muscular atrophy.
PETE: Today’s episode of Grow Bold with Disability is growing bold with cultural and linguistic diversity or CALD and our guest is Isabel Osuna Gatty who was born in Venezuela and is blind. Well, was blind. We’ll find out a bit more about that later, but she’s had to overcome a lot of different types of disadvantage upon moving here to Australia. In this episode, we’ll discover how Isabel became blind, why she moved to Australia, some of the adversity she’s had to overcome and what drives her passion not only for the CALD community but also for the Australian Aboriginal people. Isabel, welcome to Grow Bold with Disability.
ISABEL: Thank you very much for having me here.
TRISTRAM: So, Isabel, let’s start from the very beginning. You are blind in one eye. How did that happen?
ISABEL: Well, it’s a long story. Basically, I was a big baby and my mom was a small woman, and the doctor fractured my job with the forceps when I was born. Didn’t say anything to my mom and my jaw grew inside of my scull, so my eye sockets grew instead of being round, they grew elongated. So, with time, if with age basically my right eye basically emptied and then I had retinal detachment. So, they be, you know, when the eye hospital got that all fixed and I had a cataract as well. So, they decided to do that operation at the same time. And, of course, being me they socket where the lens sits got damaged during the operation. So, they didn’t want to touch my eye for five years. So, I was totally blind in my right eye for five long years.
PETE: Well, so now there’s a lot of a bit of a story before that because I have spoken to you before about this stuff and it is very interesting. That sort of came on a little later in life, but you had a fair bit of adversity growing up back in your school days in Venezula as well because of this, well do we call it a deformity with your jaw?
PETE: That’s correct. Yes, that’s correct. Basically I didn’t have a bite, so I rarely smiled. Um, I didn’t have any friends. I was bullied horrifically by everyone. Um, because, yeah, imagine my lower job being on one side and my upper job being on the other sides and none of my teeth touched. I had to cut all my food very, very tiny and literally eat with my tongue. As I said I didn’t have any friends. I have very few friends, you know, that could really understand I where was coming from and I just basically put my head into books and read a lot and learnt a lot in this time. So yeah, I felt I was different and nobody really liked me.
TRISTRAM: And so, in terms of, you know, access when it came to learn, you mentioned there loving the books and engrossing yourself with those, those were your friends. That’s how you staved off the isolation I imagine.
ISABEL: Absolutely, and also first felt very strange being so young and knowing all about, you know, Egyptian Empires and all this. Who would want to have a conversation with you when you’re five years old and you say, well, you know what I want for Christmas is a book on Egyptian civilization, you know?
PETE: Now this problem was kind of solved when you got a little bit older. Was it in your early teens where you discovered what was actually wrong?
ISABEL: Well because I learned so much. My aunt was a secretary off a paediatrician so I always asked her to bring the magazines over to me, and I will be reading, you know, medical articles and all kind of stuff. And I knew that my situation had to have a solution. But unfortunately, you know, my parents were, you know, too busy in this place to, you know, pay any attention. So, my sister was actually playing golf, and as you would imagine, because my eyesight was really bad by then, I was almost legally blind. I was minus 18 and to be legally blind you had to be minus 20 so I was very, very blind. So, I had those horrid, you know, bottle glasses, you know, where you, you know how it is, is so you can imagine
PETE: The coke bottle, yeah.
ISABEL: Yeah, and with the smile, and with the glasses imagine you how I would look looking around the streets. So anyway, my sister was actually playing golf. And of course, I didn’t see when she picked up the golf club. And she hit my face and I was so happy, so happy that she hit my face and she was freaking out. And I was on the floor going, yes, I’m going to see a doctor, yes. And my sister was going on my God, I killed her. I killed her. Anyway, I ended up in a paediatrician and he was like, Oh My God. This is not from now. This is from before, And I said, Yeah, I know. So, I was very tomboyish, and I had literally taken the information about my surgery on that before we you know, we didn’t have laminating, so I had taken sticky tape. And I put sticky tape on that page, and I folded, and I put in inside of my wallet. So, when he asked me, I took that out and I said, this is what I need. And he says, how old are you again? I go 11. He was like, oh my God, you sound like you are 20. And I said, I know, that’s what everybody says. So anyway, he said, you know, this is serious. I’m gonna take an X-ray. So, he did, he took an X ray, and it was actually pretty serious because one side of my jaw was actually coming out on the side off my sinus. So, it was really, really serious. And I said, well listen, you need to sit down with my parents, really explain the situation because otherwise nothing is gonna happen. And he’s like, how old are you again? I’m like, Okay, just do it. So anyway, yes, that’s how I ended up having an amazing surgery. So, when I went I had the best surgeon in Venezuela back then. He was actually from a German ancestry, so he had been trained in Europe, and what they had to do was actually they had to – imagine this is a long time ago – you know how braces are from the outside now. Before that didn’t exist, they had to put a wire around each one off your teeth and then pull them all together. So that’s what they did. They put a wire on every one of my teeth and then then the surgery was to actually break the jaw. So, they broke the jaw in three parts then put them all together. I have wires. I do not bleep at airports, thank God. But, you know, they put it all together and they wired my jaw, and I basically was like that for one whole entire year. So, I had to be inside. I couldn’t be outside because something with the UV rays or something. I can’t remember exactly why, but I just couldn’t be outside. But anyway, I lost a lot of weight. I was about 25 kilos, and I was very hungry because all I could do was use those tiny little straws that are sometimes used for stirring the coffee. That’s the only thing that could go through my teeth.
PETE: Wow for a year?
ISABEL: So, I was so hungry I would take the jello and basically swish it around. And I just swallow because I was so hungry. So anyway, after one whole year of these horrible you know, I had to have lots of injections. I’m petrified of needles because of that. I had tons of injections every day. And then finally they took out the horrible wires. And, um and, you know, I said to my father, the only thing that I want to know I want to do is I want a bite something. So, he gave me this Venezuelan biscuit called Coco Sete. It’s made with coconut and cocoa on I bite the biscuit and I looked at the bite and I just went, Oh, my God. This is so cool. And to me, of course, because people take that for granted, you know what I mean? But to me, that was so amazing to be able to chew with my teeth. Um, yes, so I became normal in a way. So, at the same time, contact lenses came to be. So, my aunt took me and gave me some contact lenses. So, by the time and this is a complete true story, I’m writing a book. So, I’m not telling you a lie because I want people to buy my book. I went back to school and no one recognized me. Well, that was a coolest thing. That was a good thing, because I thought OK, well, great. Um yeah. And that’s when I knew who off those people were really my friends. And those people are still my friends today.
ISABEL: Today. Today. Today. Yes. Yes.
PETE: Yeh, we all find out our friends when it all comes down to adversity don’t we. Now let’s move.
PETE: Let’s fast forward to, you’re living in Australia now. Obviously, you’re living down in South Australia. How did you end up here?
ISABEL. Well, that is another crazy story that goes in my book. I met my husband when the Internet wasn’t even the Internet. You know how, you had to put you had to plug something on the wall and it would go nininini.
PETE: Yeah dial up.
ISABEL: Remember that? Yes, you’re probably too young for that.
PETE: No, no, no no.
ISABEL: But anyway, there was back something in Hotmail that it was kind of like pen pals. You could have pen pals and you could meet people as it happens. Since I was little because, as you know, I was very lonely. So, I had friends in Brazil, in Sri Lanka, in England everywhere. Because that was my way of having friends. They couldn’t see me, so that was great. So, um, I met my husband. I said well you know what? I want to meet somebody, but you know what happens if that guy falls in love with me? I’m not interested, you know. So, I looked around, you know, I was in Venezuela, remember that. So, majority of the guys were in the States, and we’re only about three hours from the States, and I said forget it I’m not looking at this. So, I saw two guys in Australia, and it went great. There is no way that can jump on a plane and be here tomorrow, so that’s not going to happen. I’m going to write to the two guys from Australia. So, one of the guys had children. I didn’t have any children, so I thought no, I’m not going to go there. So, I chose the other guy, and I thought he was funny. He said, oh you know, he wrote something like, you know, I’m you know, when I meet somebody, I used to be friends. But, you know, if you don’t think you want to write with me, tell your sister or something like that. Anyway, I thought he was funny. And, well, he’s funny. That’s good. So, we started writing to each other, and, um, yeah, well, he’s still my husband and, we’ve been together for 21 years.
PETE: Congratulations, nice work.
ISABEL: So that’s how I ended up in Australia.
TRISTRAM: How did you had you find it when you moved to Australia? Culturally, what was the difference? Were there any?
ISABEL: Oh, my God, yeah, huge. I mean, we, you know, are very Americanized, you know, because I went to school in United States, by the way. So, I did my high school and university in the United States, so I’m very Americanized in that sense, so I don’t have these very South American you know, a lot of people. I’m a little bit different in the sense because I work, I grew up, um, with a Jewish family in America. So, I come from, you know, different values. But for me, um, I thought that it was a very individualistic society. That was the thing that caught my eye the most. In Venezuela we are very much together. We get together and we help each other, and it’s constantly this collective society mentality that something when I grew up in the States. Having lived with a Jewish family, the same thing the Jewish community is very close together. So, when I came here, I’m like, Oh, everybody you know is by themselves. But you know what caught really the most of my attention. I walked into Sydney and everybody was wearing black, and I said to my then boyfriend who died, oh my God, everybody’s wearing black is somebody so important. And he goes, No, everybody wears that. We don’t wear black unless somebody dies, And I just couldn’t believe the whole entire Sydney full of people wearing black. I’m well how boring, so of course until the day of today I’m actually right now wearing a very red blouse. I wear colour. I wear colour in my hair. I wear colour everywhere. I just don’t like wearing black. So that was my second culture shock, right?
PETE: That’s a really funny point.
ISABEL: Yeah. I didn’t know that.
PETE: Guess what I’m wearing right now Isabel? Black, sorry.
ISABEL: What, black? On no. You’ll blend. It’s funny, we don’t obviously see these things because we grew up around them. And as you know, this podcast is about the sort of cultural and linguistic diversity that we find here in Australia. What are some of the other issues that you’ve come across, especially with people you’ve worked with people, disability, people with disability within the CALD community, what do they face?
ISABEL: Yeah. I mean, and having, you know, come from Venezuela where I know, you know, you hide you hide your people with a disability. You know, back then they were, and I tell you another true story, you know, if you have a person with a disability in your family, that person just didn’t back then, didn’t go to school, you didn’t show them. They will be living in, you know, in a room in the basement of the house. True story, 100%. Um, and when I was in primary school, of course you know, I was different, and I saw a lot of children with Down Syndrome running around the streets all day long. And I was like, Oh, my God, you know, why are they? So, I went to talk to my mom and I say, I know that, you know, we have a few kids in the street with Down Syndrome. And how come they are not in school? My mom says they can’t go to school, And I’m like well, why not? And Mama’s said because they have Down Syndrome. And I thought I was weird. I always wanted to be a teacher, So I asked my dad to buy me a blackboard and some colours, some pens and stuff. And I said to Mama we’ll tell all the mothers of the children with Down Syndrome to come in the afternoon. I was in fourth grade. To come to the house, and I’m going to be teaching them when I finished my school, I’ll you know, I’ll teach in the afternoon. So that way, then you know they are running the whole day they’re not learning. So, I had a classroom of about four or five kids with Down Syndrome, and it was fantastic. Fantastic. I mean, I told them the colours and how to how to colour and how to, you know, I’m very artistic. So, we did a lot of the stuff and I told him how to, you know, the letters and things like that. You know true story. About 20 years later, my mom contacted me and said, Remember, one of the one of the girls that you used to teach her name is Valentina, and I say, Yeah, well, her mom called me and let me know that she became a Paralympian. Wow. Wow, you know. So that’s the thing you don’t know. You don’t know that the ability that a person has, you know, I mean, is yourself about helping. So, for me, it’s is that it is being able to, um, you know, change that mentality. And here, in my experience as well, with people from CALD backgrounds here, they’re still very afraid that, you know, or still don’t think that a person with disability has the power and the ability to do something you know what I mean. Um and that’s what you know, my role in I just want to tell people everybody has a purpose in life. We all have something that we can do, and we need to push other people and help other people make sure that that happens.
TRISTRAM: Absolutely. And I mean, that’s influenced the work you’re doing now. You’re currently on a project that’s reducing cultural stigma and improving education pathways for people with disabilities from CALD backgrounds. Tell us a little bit about that project.
ISABEL: Yeah, so basically, I cover the central and northern South Australia region. My role is the National Disability Coordination officer. And what we do is we will ensure that we work with services that work with people with a disability. But we have to make sure that people have access to tertiary education, and tertiary education means so typical one and above. It doesn’t mean university but also means university, but it is about the person having an option. If they want to study what they want to study, how they’re going to do it. And there are services and supports available for that person to do that. So, my role is to, you know, talk to services and ensure that the systems are in place to for people with disability, to access education. So now, I have one particular project working with CALD communities and, um, you know, partnering with Feros Care at the moment to make that happen. But I’m also, you know, running around in, you know, around my region to ensure that that happens as well.
PETE: Now 2016 was a pretty big year for you. Tell everyone what happened to you in 2016. What award you took out, which is pretty incredible.
ISABEL: Oh, okay. Oh, yes so, I won, it’s a long name, I won the 2016 Australian training award for excellence in language, literacy and numeracy practice.
PETE: Which was incredible. Because you’re the first person from a CALD background to do this as well.
ISABEL: Yep, absolutely. I was just I thought at the beginning, you know, not being a native speaker, not having been born in Australia. I just saw somebody else is gonna win, you know? But it was it was wonderful to you also meet the person who won their award before. She was a judge for, you know, when I was a finalist and she said to me, Isabel, if I had applied for that award against you, I would have lost. I thought, Oh, my God, that it is the biggest compliment you could ever give me. Um and yeah, basically, it is, I’m passionate about education and I’m passionate about people learning how to read or write. That is you know, because as you know, I was a book nook. You know, since I was little one. So, to me, it is like if you don’t have that, you know, knowledge is not there. You can travel to other countries just by reading books. It’s just the most important thing that anyone can have is to be able to read and write. So, I was passionate about that, and I would I was working back then with Aboriginal communities and doing all kind of crazy stuff. And I was blind in my right eye while I did all of that, um, and you know to me, was, you know, um, that award was that I got a recognition for, you know, many years of working in in remote communities and also with CALD communities across Australia. So, I was very, very pleased. I’m very surprised to have won an award that, you know, it’s such recognizable award across Australia.
PETE: Yeah, it’s very well deserved. And you mention the Aboriginal communities there. You said you basically when you arrived in Australia, you volunteered up north for quite a long time. Where did that passion come from?
ISABEL: Well, um, as I said, just you see the need and I see here in Australia the famous thing, oh we are not going to do that because we don’t have any funding. Listen, if we had that mentality in South America, we would have never done anything. We see the kneed, we get our hands dirty, and we just do it. We don’t take no for answers, because otherwise, you know, listen in Spanish. I cannot even translate the word welfare, you know, if we get together and we feed our people and we help our old people. And, you know, it’s like we just get together and do what we need to do. Here in Australia, oh, yes, we need to do that, but we have to wait for the funding from the government or whatever to do it, I’m like, No, let’s do it. So I had a friend of mine that had a, um you know, she had actually won the inaugural award that I won, but by actually going to the middle of Australia, setting up a learning center, she was amazing. So, I thought, Well, yeah, you need help. I go there. So, my boss thank God from work would actually allow me to go there every three months, spent two weeks and I would just go there and say to my friend, what do we need to do? She goes, whatever. Okay. And I just see whatever. So, you know, that’s the thing. You know, if you think it is possible to do, just go do it, just don’t way for for the funding, just don’t wait for anything, just just do it because, you know, if the willingness is there, things happen.
TRISTRAM: That fight is so, so important that such a powerful thing to convey to people that things aren’t always going to go well and fighting for it is so important sometimes, isn’t it?
ISABEL: Oh, absolutely. And I think it’s all about that. It’s about passion. You know, a lot of people are and you notice everywhere, and I noticed that everywhere I go in work, you know, if you if somebody has a title and they represent a an organization, But if that passion is not in the person, nothing happens literally. Nothing happens. But then all of a sudden, the person goes away and there is a new person with the same position in the same organization that is willing to do something. Then things start to happen. So, it is the person. It’s you. It is your capacity to actually make a difference and not just, you know, follow the job description that somebody gave you. If you have the capacity to make a difference and to do something, you will do it because you want to, and that’s what we as a society, and that’s why the collective society is so important. We need to work with that mentality that you know that I think that person, I think I’m all by myself. If I want to do this, I’m all by myself and I can’t do that. No, there are many other people that wanted to do the same thing that you want to do is just and the universe will find a way to for you to connect you to the other people. And once you have that, you’ll do it.
PETE: It’s funny we, um we like to finish off our podcasts because, as you know, it’s called Grow Bold with Disability. We always ask our guests what growing bold means to them. But I don’t think we need to ask you. I think I think you just told us it’s all that passion, really. Isn’t it?
ISABEL: Yep. Absolutely. Just go and go and don’t let anyone tell you otherwise. I mean, if I had listened to all the people around my life to tell me that I was not able to do something, I would have never done anything. Because it is absolutely unbelievable how you know people live with the glass half full, they also live with a glass half empty. I don’t. I live with glass half full and see how we can fill it up. So being bold is to do. To think outside the square to really get yourself outside of your comfort zone. And, you know, the universe will make it happen. Trust me, you just have to go out there and do it.
TRISTRAM: Isabelle, thank you so much for joining us today on the Grow Bold with Disability podcast brought to you by Feros Care. And listeners can find out more about Isabel and the amazing work she is doing in the links provided in today’s episode show notes include the upcoming book,
“I hope” Isabel, thanks so much for joining us today.
ISABEL: Yes. Thank you so much.
PETE: Before we go when will the book be ready.
ISABEL: Well, I hope the book will be ready possibly in the next two years. I’m gonna take time while I’m doing this work here that I have to work from home to start writing my book. So hopefully maybe in less time. Maybe in a year’s time.
PETE: Can’t wait. We look forward to it. Thanks, Isabel.
ISABEL: Thank you so much and take care of yourselves.
PETE: Thank you for listening. And if you have enjoyed today’s episode that make sure you subscribe to the podcast
“Grow Bold with Disability” and if you like what you heard, then please take a few moments to pop over to iTunes and give our podcast a quick rating so we can continue these conversations and encourage people to grow bold.
PETE: This podcast is brought to you by Feros Care, an NDIS partner delivering local area coordination services in Queensland, South Australia, and the Australia Capital Territory. Feros Care is a people care organization committed to helping people leave bolder lives. We call it growing bold and for over 25 years Feros has been making it real for both older Australians and those living with disability. To find out more head to Feroscare.com.au
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The content and views discussed in this podcast series are those of the individuals involved. They are not necessarily condoned by, or, are the views of Feros Care or its employees.