Democracy Ambassador Simone Stevens
Debra Taylor: I'm very lucky today to have with me Simone Stevens to help promote voting and enrollment for people with disabilities across Victoria. Simone I'd like to welcome you here today. Thank you for agreeing to talk with us.
Simone Stevens: No worries Deb it's my pleasure. Thank you for the opportunity.
D: Each year as you know Simone we celebrate December 3 International Day for People with Disabilities and we do so to celebrate the achievements that people with disabilities have within their own communities and within our world, and the impact that this makes on our communities both large and small. The theme this year is 'leadership and participation of persons with disabilities towards an inclusive accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 world'. Quite a long theme for a very very important day. So Simone if you could tell us uh just a few answers to some really good questions we've got here today so we can get to know you a little bit more and a little bit more about what you've done in your leadership and participation in your community. Can you tell us what you've done in your career to help support access and inclusion for people with disabilities?
S: Well firstly I think, firstly I really like to think that it's education and educating the community and I'm starting off with that and then making the community aware that we're no longer living in the 1970s. Until we include people with disabilities and making sure that people with disabilities are feeling a part of their community yeah.
D: That's a really good answer. And would you agree with me that it's often also about educating people without a disability about making the world more inclusive for other people?
S: Oh definitely, yeah definitely. I totally agree with that yeah. I think that's not half the problem is um people without a disability not realising or, I don't know how to explain it but they don't seem to include people with disabilities or changing they need to or don't know how to yeah I just don't know. But I know it's really hard to integrate people with disabilities into um a community setting for example.
D: And would you would you say too that it's often more the environment that we live in that disables us more than our bodies not being able to to work in a certain way?
S: Yep okay yeah yeah.
D: And with with COVID-19 Simone did you find um did you find any barriers that were erected literally for some places overnight that made it harder for you to to come to interact with your community and your environment?
S: No more than usual really, to share the truth. But I know others um had to do it more harder than what I did but for me mostly. Yeah, yeah I know for myself those screens that were put up in shops to stop people breathing all over other people made it very difficult to hear the shop assistants yeah.
D: So can you tell me what why is it important for people with disabilities to enrol and vote?
S: I think it's vital that people need to vote no matter if they've got a disability or not. Um we have a duty um and a right and it's a privilege to vote and despite if you've got a disability or not and that's why I signed up to be a Democracy Ambassador in the first place and it's the best decision I've made.
D: Yeah and realistically voting is a way of us choosing new leaders in our community isn't it?
S: Exactly. But, um, it's, I don't think I would would I want to do anything, um, more anything different than doing my democracy ambassador because I love it, I really love it. And I come away from like feeling empowered because I've helped people and if I could help one person in in a session then I'm a happy woman.
D: Oh that's really cool! And in your opinion Simone how can Australians support more people with disabilities to participate in community and be leaders on various levels?
S: Well that's an interesting one because it's the way the society um interacts with people with disabilities? If they're open uh if they're more open then yes you're gonna get more positive feedback but if people aren't going to I guess be more open to people with disabilities then unfortunately it's not going to happen
D: Yeah, so we have to really change the way we think and how we really see the value of every human being in our community and what they can regardless of if you've got a disability or not.
S: Yeah, you know, yeah. And really it's up to all of us to help um as you mentioned earlier to empower other people um to be able to step into their power and speak up or speak out about what is important to them. It's everybody's responsibility not just one person.
D: Yeah true. How can you tell us, uh, sorry. Can you tell us how COVID-19 has impacted on the way you worked as a VEC Democracy Ambassador last year for our Local Council elections?
S: Well that's actually an interesting thing actually bringing up, because usually what we do is go out, you know, and talk to um groups as you know. But um we had to do things a little bit differently and I know for some programs and they really struggled because we had to do everything on Zoom or on Teams and I know it's a lot different to um face to face. And what what you can normally show face to face is extremely difficult on Zoom or Teams. You know, like showing ballot papers and you know how to do things. So, you know trying to explain and how to demonstrate um things like that is really difficult for some people with intellectual disabilities.
For example um the comprehension um and the level of um you know of mechanisms where their attention span you know you could get them in a room but what you know on the computer you just can't get it for very long because you know um they just lose interest. Yeah we did have to make them [the sessions] a lot smaller uh shorter didn't we our sessions.
D: Exactly, yeah. And it's just making that allowance and making sure that we were all aware of that and we were supporting each other because I know a lot of Democracy Ambassadors were struggling with that and supporting each other in doing that.
S: Yeah for sure.
D: How did the pandemic change the way you personally prepared yourself to vote last year in the local council elections?
S: It didn't really. It's funny, just because it really didn't impact me. I'm lucky to have an electric wheelchair so I'm able to take myself down to the post office and with my mask and everything like that and um votes that way. You know like vote for me I'm going to do that. So it really didn't um impact me at all.
D: Yep, okay, yeah. For some others it did, didn't it? Because it was a little bit different, they may never have voted at home before so it was probably a new process for people to learn over again.
S: Yeah instead of going to a voting center yeah yeah.
D: And we, I mean the local council will always be a postal vote so it is a new skill that we have to make sure that we continue to teach people moving forward as well because that's how we'll always vote for um local Council elections here in Victoria.
S: Exactly but also encouraging people that it's okay and if you are scared to do that it's okay to be scared, we can help you through that. You know it's like finding ways of doing things, yeah and helping them to find some supports from home to be able to their postal vote. That could be hard for some people if they don't have someone at home you can help them on a regular basis so yeah yeah.
D: And if you could give younger people in Victoria a piece of advice what would it be Simone?
S: Just to be yourself. That's a big one, um but also um just know that um if you want to learn something um ask for assistance. You know, so um and you just know that you're capable of anything if you want to put your mind to it.
D: Yeah, I like that. A good way to end our interview today! I'd like to thank you for your time Simone.
S: Thank you so much
On December 3 we celebrated International Day of People with Disability. This important day highlights the lives, contributions and achievements of Victorians with disability. We were delighted to speak to VEC Democracy Ambassador Simone Stevens about the 2021 theme 'Leadership and participation of persons with disabilities towards an inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 world'.
Simone describes what she does to help support access and inclusion for people with disabilities as education foremost.
'I really like to think that it's education and educating the community. I'm starting off with that - making the community aware that we're no longer living in the 1970s.
Simone agrees it's often more the environment that we live in that disables us, rather than our bodies, and adds: 'I just don't know... it [still] seems hard to integrate people with disabilities into a community setting.'
When reflecting on the extra challenge of COVID-19, she agrees that for some, barriers in the community were literally erected overnight, like masks covering faces and screens blocking sound for example.
COVID-19 also impacts how Simone works as a VEC Democracy Ambassador. Simone and the Democracy Ambassador team are now presenting education sessions online instead of face-to-face. To further adapt, the team make the online sessions shorter to help with retaining attention, as well as recruiting extra peer support.
'It's vital that people vote no matter if they've got a disability or not. We have a duty and a right and it's a privilege to vote. That's why I signed up to be a Democracy Ambassador in the first place... I come away from [an education session] feeling empowered because I've helped people. And if I could help one person in a session then I'm a happy woman.'
You can also watch the full interview on the VEC YouTube page.