When two Australian Paralympians couldn’t answer a simple question about the lack of diversity within the Australian Paralympic team, they knew it was time to help take action.
It was 2012 when Paralympians Kathleen O’Kelly Kennedy and Brad Ness attended an Indigenous pre-employment program workshop run by Outback Academy Australia at Roelands Village in WA.
Speaking about the fortunes of the Australian Team at the 2008 Beijing Paralympics, the Paralympians were asked the following question by a workshop attendee: “But where are all the black fellas?”
It sparked the beginnings of a program developed by OAA – The Red Dust Heelers – which now supports Indigenous communities across the country through the power of Para-sport.
Since 2012, Red Dust Heelers co-founders O’Kelly-Kennedy, Ness, Para-athlete Robert Pike and Aboriginal athlete Ryan Morich, along with Paralympians and wheelchair basketball athletes have worked to spread the values of Paralympic sport and breakdown misconceptions around disability by travelling to communities around Australia.
“What we do in communities helps to remove any negative stigma and perceptions that might be there in relation to disability,” said O’Kelly-Kennedy.
“We do this by celebrating the achievements of our Aboriginal and other athletes and by using our own experiences of disability to promote active living.
“It’s important for Aboriginal people to see themselves front and centre in this Paralympic movement, to believe that it’s something that is there for them and for the people they love too.”
Outback Academy’s Chairperson Leanne Miller, a Yorta Yorta woman of the Dhulanyagen Ulupna Clan believes that the Red Dust Heelers program’s strength is in having strong leaders with disabilities demonstrate the value of diversity and inclusion, and that despite common misconceptions within Indigenous communities, disability must be talked about and embraced.
“Being Aboriginal and having a disability can present a double barrier to inclusion. The importance of dealing with shame and feeling welcomed and valued in your community is critical.
“The Red Dust Heelers do some great work in reducing shame and isolation and increasing self esteem in our young people.”
Today the Outback Academy’s Red Dust Heelers, including their NWBL and WNWBL teams, provide a growing community for both Indigenous and other young people to be part of, as well as a platform for advocacy for social change. Their community engagement program encourages participation in a broad range of para-sports, with some Heelers opting to try wheelchair rugby, athletics and swimming.
“Word of mouth and the power of social media has helped us a lot in spreading our message across the country. We have requests for visits as far as Broome, Townsville and Halls Creek and have been able to deliver our program in Port Hedland, Pilbera, Rockhampton, Bunbury, Shepparton and most recently in Kalrgoorlie,” O’Kelly-Kennedy said.
And their visits are making a lasting impact on communities time and time again.
Outback Academy’s cultural advisor and team mentor, Darryl Kickett of the Noongar People from the Narrogin area of WA says it’s programs like these that are orchestrating a powerful and positive shift within communities.
“The work I witness the Red Dust Heelers doing in schools is extremely high impact in regards to the ‘stickability’ of the message about respect for people with disabilities,” he said.
“Clearly there is a powerful, collective impact, across so many children that I have never seen before.”
O’Kelly-Kennedy says each visit and each program is modelled around reconciliation, an important step in bridging both Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australian communities together.
“We model reconciliation without even using the word, as we are Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people; young, old, women, men, all working together and enjoying each other’s company and respecting each other.
“Young people without disability leave looking at disability without shame, in a completely different light.
“I had one girl excited to tell her sister’s friend that she could be a Paralympian one day. We always have children not wanting to give the wheelchairs back because they stopped looking at them as something someone is confined to, but rather something someone can do a lot of cool things with.
“These kids are going to grow up to be adults with empathy and understanding of the importance of creating an inclusive society. These are the children who, as future leaders, are going to focus on what people can contribute to our world and not what they can’t.”
The APC has been a partner of the Outback Academy Australia since 2013, working together on projects to provide more opportunities to young Indigenous people with disabilities. The next phase of the partnership will see the delivery of a new health promotion and education package for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability, that will use para-sport and sport settings as a tool to promote health and wellbeing.
By Sascha Ryner – APC Media