Communicating for change
14 December 2020 at 8:18 am
As a proud person with a disability, El Gibbs has spent her career communicating and amplifying the voices of the disability community during times of crisis and triumph. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
Working in the community sector was not necessarily a choice for Gibbs.
Landing her first job in her early 20’s, it was one of the only sectors that was welcoming and flexible enough to accommodate her disability.
But over the years, she has made a mark on the disability community and wider social sector that is not likely to be forgotten.
As the head of media and communications for People With Disability Australia, she has been at the forefront of communicating and advocating for the rights of people with disability throughout the rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme, the disability royal commission, and COVID-19.
And it was her work as the media spokesperson for the disability community, leading a team of disabled workers to provide COVID information the government wasn’t, that landed her the Disability Leadership Institute Lesley Hall Award for Lifetime Achievement.
Now, a new chapter awaits as she leaves PWDA after five years and steps into a new role yet to be announced.
In this week’s Changemaker, Gibbs talks about the triumphs of her work, what inspires her to keep going and stepping into the spotlight.
How did you get involved in the social sector?
So I first started working in the community sector in my early 20s. And the main reason I started working for community organisations was because I’m a disabled person. My disability is often quite stigmatised. I look weird in some people’s eyes and I need to work part time. I tried to find work that accommodated my reasonable adjustments [and that] was much more accepting of the way I looked, and it wasn’t easy. So I ended up in the community sector almost by accident because it was somewhere where I could get a job, and where it was ok to look different.
Did you think that when you entered the world of communications that you would be having the kind of impact on the disability community you have had throughout your career?
I think I was just trying to pay the rent! I worked in politics for a while, and teaming that with my work in the community sector, it taught me how to communicate complex ideas quickly and to produce material that was much more accessible for everybody, not just people with disability.
When the NDIS started, I started reading and writing about the NDIS, and so I have written and talked about the scheme for a long time now. A lot of the freelance writing that I did about disability policy in particular has led to my job working at PWDA. But I think my role at PWDA combined my love of deeply nerdy policy work, and creating change, like getting the royal commission and being of use to my community. That’s something that I value very much, that people find what I do useful and I have appreciated being able to communicate about those complex ideas.
What’s been some of your proudest moments over the span of your career?
The royal commission is definitely one. The community fought for that for a really long time and I played a small, tiny role in it. But I’m pleased that there is now a structural examination of the complex issues that lead to violence against us. And I think that that’s going to be really important as the years go on.
I was also the media spokesperson for PWDA during COVID-19. Being a voice for our community wasn’t easy, especially because I’m not a very public person, but as I said to anyone who would listen, things are hard in our community and you need to pay attention. I feel pleased that I was able to get those messages across in a variety of formats and in a variety of ways.
And where do you draw inspiration from to do your job?
The disability rights community in Australia is full of some of the most extraordinary people I have ever met. I have been incredibly privileged over the years to meet people who are some of the smartest advocates, some of the best campaigners, some of the most knowledgeable people about how we can make our lives better, and I’m lucky enough to call some of them my friends.
It’s a community that is often ignored, and often unrecognised for our skills at campaigning, and our skills at achieving change for our community. I think that the disability rights movement has achieved enormous amounts over the years. There are still far too many disabled people in segregated environments, living in closed group homes who don’t have choices, who don’t have options, and who don’t have freedom, but I think that we’ve also achieved some monumental social change.
I also think the rest of the progressive sector could listen more to us, and learn more from the success that we often have that isn’t recognised.
What kind of advice do you have for other people wanting to do good?
The community sector is different than it was when I started 25 years ago. There are a lot more options to do good in the world. I think that social enterprises (not disability enterprises) and B Corps are great options for people to do good in the world.
For young disabled people coming out of university or school, my advice is to be proud. Your skills as a disabled person are incredibly valuable, and it took me a long time to learn that pride, to learn to be proud of who I am as a disabled person and not to apologise or feel like I’m less than. I love the fact that I’m seeing young disabled people there now. It makes me so happy that they are coming into the world, fired up and ready to make change.
But what I would say to the wider social sector, is let us in. How many disabled people work in your organisation? If not, why not? And what are you doing to make that change? We’re 25 per cent of the population, yet we aren’t 20 per cent of your workplace. I think they’re the kinds of questions that I’m keen to get on the table.