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My community: or how a friendship shaped my journey.

“My best friend Kaz”; that's really what this short article should be called. How did I get involved in the youth with disabilities community? It was my friend Kaz.

Kaz was born with her feet back to front. Kaz was, and, 60 years later, is still my best friend.

From the age of two years, she had many operations at Stanmore Orthopaedic Hospital in London. I would push Kaz to school in a pushchair (no wheelchairs available to us). She wore callipers like Forrest Gump, and her shoes were medical boots - not pretty for a little girl.

Even after years of treatment, walking wasn't easy and her feet still very disfigured.

Growing up, people looked at us as an odd little couple. At times they were cruel and unkind (and not just the children).

Then, at the ages of 13 we heard about an organisation called PHAB (in those days Physically Handicapped and Able Bodied, the language of the '70s).

We went along, one non-disabled and one disabled, but first and foremost two teenage girls who loved music, clothes and boys.

Here, at these discos in a youth club, we were treated equally, valued and heard. And in that youth centre called “Studio One”, my journey in this amazing sector working for young people with disabilities started.

I went on to run PHAB groups in the UK, be on National Councils and Committees, work as a liaison officer and train as a youth worker to teach other youth workers how to include “all” young people in their youth centres.

I also wrote a piece in the UK Government's “Youth into the 90s” document that talked and promoted the inclusion of young people with disabilities into the mainstream youth service.

All those years ago I would've thought that here in 2020 youth with disabilities would have a voice, be treated equally and feel valued citizens. Unfortunately that is not the case for many.

My role as CEO of YES Disability Resource Centre is to hold the space for youth with disabilities to be heard and to have influence. Being part of a community that really listens to the voices of youth with disabilities is fun, frustrating, exciting, innovative - and most of all unpredictable.

An example of unpredictable with an amazing outcome was a meeting with the Minister for Disabilities and a group of eight youth with disabilities for a quick hello - or so she thought!

Next thing you know the young people have suggested a national youth with disabilities conference, and the Minister, caught with the enthusiasm, suggests, "Great, let's hold it in Parliament."

I have to be honest, I sat there thinking How on earth are we going to make this work in one of the most inaccessible buildings in the country - but we did.

The two-day conference, called I-Lead, was amazing and the I-Lead team presents regularly to Government Departments on health, employment, education and more. They've started the journey of a movement of voices of youth with disabilities, and found their leadership!

Sonia Thursby, MNZM

Sonia Thursby is the CEO of YES Disability Resource Centre and CEO of PHAB Association. She has worked in the disability and youth sectors in New Zealand for 25 years, and prior to that in the UK. Currently she is an Executive Member of the New Zealand Federation of Information Centre Board, Board Member of Workbridge and an elected member of the Ministry of Health NGO Council.

 

Photo: Sonia Thursby and her best friend Kaz.