Med research trailblazer advocates for inclusion

Med research trailblazer advocates for inclusion
Posted on Wed 17 Apr 2019

by Tina Wild

 

Natasha Garrity is a force to be reckoned with. She’s been an ambassador for Cerebral Palsy Alliance (CPA), a “pin up chic” as she calls it, since childhood, became a volunteer researcher in high school, and is now an undergrad student, CPA employee, and soon to be international published author.

One thing’s for sure, Natasha certainly hasn’t allowed cerebral palsy to hinder her career path.

“Your disability shouldn’t determine your career choice,” says Natasha.

She’s quick to point out, however, that it depends on the type and severity of the condition. And she credits her incredibly supportive network of advocators for helping her get where she is today.

 

Family influence steers career choice

Natasha’s family interests clearly helped steer her towards a career choice between tech or research.

Her father and brother both work in technology, while her mother is a nurse. On learning of her daughter’s cerebral palsy diagnosis, her mother became interested in research and therapy, and leveraged this knowledge to advocate on Natasha’s behalf.

As a lifelong client of CPA, Natasha’s experience of many different therapies also sparked an interest in how the body works and moves.

 

Researchers cement career decision

Embarking on work experience at CPA Research Foundation (CPARF) during year 12 of high school cemented her decision to become a researcher.  

It was here Natasha drew inspiration from CPARF researchers and mentors Dr Sarah McIntyre (Senior Research Fellow & NHMRC Early Career Fellow, The University of Sydney), Professor Nadia Badawi AM (Macquarie Group Foundation Chair of Cerebral Palsy, The University of Sydney), and Professor Iona Novak (Head of Research, Cerebral Palsy Alliance Research Institute, The University of Sydney).

Natasha commends this team’s amazing work to find a prevention and cure for cerebral palsy with influencing her career pathway. And, Natasha now realises, developing the power of her social network.

“Who you are and what you’ve done can carry a lot of clout,” she says.

The connections Natasha developed through her work experience at the Research Institute led to the opportunity to be a co-researcher – Sarah McIntyre introduced her to Margaret Wallen, ACU, who onboarded her into a research project that involved children with cerebral palsy. Natasha’s role was to interview children with cerebral palsy, and it’s this paper  that will be published, with her name on it, in the USA later this year.

 

Uni disability team cater for all access needs

Natasha’s in her first year at Macquarie University studying a Bachelor in Advanced Science, majoring in chemical and biomolecular science, focussing on her interest in human biology.

So far, the university has been pretty good at catering for her access needs and she’s adjusted well. The campus wellbeing team takes care of all students’ health needs – be it mental health, disability, or counselling. Natasha’s disability support team have supported her transition to uni by developing an individual access plan, ensuring all her lectures are in the same room. She also has her own personal lab assistant for practicals, and will need adjustments for exams.

“I know Spencer Curdy here who has cerebral palsy, he studies law, and I’ve seen a few wheelchairs around the place. The lecture halls are pretty well set up for that.”

The only issue she’s had was during a power outage in the main building when they needed to change classrooms. The class had to cross a muddy field and a dam, without a direct pathway, to get the other side of campus. She made it, albeit slowly, but mentioned it would have been impossible for a wheelchair.

 

Principal and Professor intervene at school

Natasha’s experience at high school was somewhat harder. In terms of accessibility, Killarney Heights High School on Sydney’s northern beaches was good, in that there were lifts to the upstairs rooms and she had access to a school learning support officer. Yet despite the physical environment being set up reasonably well, “the biggest problem was the social isolation,” says Natasha.

While Natasha became friends with a group of five who also had disabilities, she didn’t have many outside of this. This was largely because of the school set up, with learning support officers hanging out in the library near them. “I mean, who wants to hang out with the teacher,” says Natasha.

To reduce the impacts of this social isolation, Natasha found a number of CPA’s youth programs, such as the Life Lab series, were integral in helping develop the social and practical skills she needed to transition successfully to uni.

While discrimination was never a concern within her school, she did experience significant challenges with NSW Education Standards (NESA).

“We had to go tooth and nail up against NESA to get extra time in my HSC exams so a scribe could write down my answers,” says Natasha.

Before winning this battle, which she credits to her mum and school principal for fighting firmly on her behalf, the family endured several rounds of application and rejections.

It wasn’t until Professor Nadia Badawi provided an expert opinion on cerebral palsy that NESA eventually allowed Natasha the extra time. Unfortunately the decision wasn’t made in time to allow sufficient scribe training for her first year exams. Unsurprisingly, this made her first year of HSC exams extremely stressful, but the second year was no trouble once she had the extra time she needed. Natasha firmly believes that because of her disability, NESA underestimated her intellectual capacity and assumed the extra time wouldn’t result in any additional success.

“If we weren’t privileged enough to have Nadia as a contact, we don’t think they’d have changed their decision. We were lucky. It wasn’t planning or justice, it was knowing the right people at the right time.”

Sadly, Natasha wasn’t the first student with a disability to experience these difficulties. While three of her peers benefited from the changes she fought for, she knows other students graduating previously experienced similar problems. She’s delighted that she’s helped pave the way for better inclusion practices for future students.

 

Natasha’s advice: Know your rights and raise your voice

Natasha’s advice to teens with a disability is

“Your disability shouldn’t hinder where you want to go and what career you choose. We have to clear the path for those behind us.

Be aware of your rights. You’re not worth less than the person next to you if you’re in a wheelchair. You will have to raise your voice."

“It’s getting better slowly. As we get out there into the community, my generation are the first to hit hurdles and break down brick walls. The previous generation was hidden away in nursing homes.

If you’re born now your prospects are exponentially better - in therapy, treatment and social acceptance, than my age or older.”

As far as her hopes for the future go, Natasha’s aiming high. Her ultimate career goal would be to follow in the footsteps of Sarah McIntyre and Nadia, though she admits “that’s a way off.”

She’d also love the opportunity for her career in research to present travel opportunities, as it does for her mentors, Sarah McIntyre and Nadia Badawi.

When asked if she hopes to inspire other people living with a disability to pursue a career in research, she responds with a grin “someone has to be a trailblazer.

Cerebral Palsy Alliance response to ABC 7.30 Report story

CPA had the pleasure of talking to RJ Mitte while he was in Sydney to launch the world premiere of Standing up For Sunny at the Sydney Film Festival.