Finding Your Own Shape

Being the Best I Can Be: Canterbury Girls' Secondary College Leadership Conference

International Women's Day Eve Dinner, 7 March 1995
Elizabeth Hastings
Disability Discrimination Commissioner

Elizabeth Hastings

Good evening.

I am delighted to have been invited to speak to you tonight on the Eve of International Women's Day, as so many of you are at the eve of being women yourselves, whether international or not. I can tell you, from my own experience, that being a woman kind of creeps up on you: one minute you're a girl, or an adolescent (whatever that may really be), and the next you are a woman! You have responsibilities, a mortgage; there is nobody else around to feed the dog, do the laundry, remember to buy fresh milk; you have a job in which people come to you for advice, and there's nobody just behind you to take over when you're not sure. You find yourself giving addresses to other young women - and you realise they don't see you as "another young woman" at all, but as real adult!

I can still remember the moment a few years ago when I got a grip on the fact that I was , for better or worse, a "real adult". It was when I was engaged in the annual enrolment week at La Trobe University, and suddenly noticed that the new students' parents were younger than I was! It's at moments like these you need Minties! You recognise there's no going back, no going home to Mother: adulthood, you're standing in it. Or, in my case, sitting in it.

Thinking about this takes me back to when I am your age: when I am just starting out at secondary school, when I am approaching the decision making middle bit, when I am studying for the opportunity making or breaking last bit. I try to remember what I thought my life would be at that time, and realise that I had no idea at all. I just knew it would be something.

As a girl who had a disability I wasn't really sure how much of ordinary life was open to me to dream about. You must remember that 30 or 35 years ago people who had disabilities were still not very visible in our society. In those days I was considered to have a serious disability, one which meant I had to go to a special school. I left that after year nine, but by then I had learnt that I would not have the same choices as other girls. Also, having a disability was not very helpful in the boyfriend department! No matter what I knew about how loving or funny or kind or interesting I may have been, all that interior stuff just didn't wash with boys. This was the hardest thing about growing up with a disability: the constant experience of not being seen as a real girl, a real teenager, a real young woman. Instead I was seen as "brave" or "determined" or "strong" - "different", and certainly not "gorgeous"!

It was hard to hang on to my sense of my own self when other people's picture of me was so strong. In fact, for a lot of the time I believed the outside world rather than myself, and this made me very unhappy. I imagine a lot of you have felt the same way at times: inside yourself you know something true about who you are, but those outside do not seem to see that part of you, and you begin to wonder who's right.

That's why I have given this speech the title "Finding your own shape". I think that title fits with the overall theme of your conference which is "Being the best I can be". Jenni tells me you girls decided that theme, and designed the brochure (as well as organising the whole shebang!). To my mind it's a great theme, and a great illustration on the brochure. You have three heads, the first unformed and blank, the next beginning to have profile, or shape, and the third a fully realised face, with mind, experience and personality behind it. Did you know that somebody has said "after the age of forty everybody is responsible for her own face"? (Actually, whoever it was probably said his own face, but on the eve of International Women's Day I'm translating freely.) 

I think you have captured that idea in the design of the brochure, and in the theme. You have recognised that both the face you end up with, and the person you become, are something you can be, and should be, active in creating. The question, of course, is how to do that: how to be a creator of your own self, how to be responsible for your own face, how to discover and become the best you can be. How to find your own shape.

Vision - developing your imagination, becoming a creative planner

One important thing would be to develop your capacity to be a visionary, to develop and hold on to a forming idea or vision, just as you did for this conference and dinner. What's a vision? Well, it can be anything - an idea, a picture, a shining symbol, a feeling in your heart, a hope. It can also be a gloomy, frightening monstery sort of thing: not all visions are terrific. Probably you'll have many ideas about your future, as you did about this conference, some more optimistic than others. You'll play with them in your imagination, in discussions with friends and family, and in the light of your school results! I had ideas of being a librarian, an astronomer, a medical researcher, a social worker, a lawyer and an anthropologist in my last years at school. None of these became my vision, however. In the end perhaps a vision has to grow like a crystal till at last it is beautiful, worth striving for - and your own.

Experimentation - being an adventurer, an intrepid explorer

At last I found myself at university studying psychology, and somehow that one stuck, though I still could not call "being a psychologist" my vision. Rather, at university I wanted more than anything to fit in, to belong, to be enjoyed and liked for myself. That, if anything, was my vision at that time. I threw myself into university life, joined the Choral Society, went away on intervarsity choral festivals, became secretary of the Psychology students' society, spent hours in the cafeteria or the music room, did vacation work on campus, had endless philosophical conversations in the pub (I still have those, by the way - not only in pubs!). I talked about life and values with my friends, as well as about boys and fashion; and when I could find time, I studied. In this way I achieved one of the tasks of my life: I was a Uni Student, doing what most Uni Students did. In that place I was not "different", "brave" or "determined": I belonged.

I think that made these the best four years of my life, because it was the first time I had this experience of experimenting, being an adventurer, an intrepid explorer in my own life. Some even thought me "gorgeous" and towards the end of my third year I was engaged to an Engineering Student. I did not in the end marry him, or anybody else, but that's another story.

Risk, Tenacity and Love

I think my vision for myself did not arise until I was working as a psychologist and began to know what it would be to be a good one.

Then I put my heart into it. I came to know some psychologists who I admired, and whose work seemed to me to be of value, and I decided "there! that is the place I want to get to. . .", and many years later I did - though the place was not quite as I had envisioned it at the beginning. I began and discarded three post-graduate degrees before I gained my Psychodrama certificate, which is not recognised by any academic institution in Australia but which is the most hard-won and valued certificate I have!

Why did I eventually commit myself to that particular sphere of excellence? Having arrived in the profession almost by mistake, I was very fortunate in my colleagues. These were men and women who were thoughtful about their work, who discussed it all the time, and who began to teach me what it was to enter into the life of a person - the responsibility, the distress, the excitement of discovery and connection, the fearfulness and uncertainty of life, the wonder of healing, the necessity of love.

In due course I began to teach others and so learned even more what was important to me and why. There is nothing like teaching to make you get to grips with what you are doing! Ask your teachers and your parents, consult your own experience of assisting other people to understand or do something you thought you understood or knew how to do.

Instructing may be an emotionally neutral activity, but to my mind real Teaching is a form of loving. It's a giving from yourself, it requires generosity and patience, thinking and creativity, and it absolutely requires humour. You can ask your teachers and parents about that, too! It also requires risk: any real relationship, with yourself or with someone else, has an element of risk. There is the possibility of disappointment, of rejection, of not meeting the demand, of looking or feeling silly - perhaps [gasp] of actually being silly sometimes!

I don't think it is possible to learn, or to teach, without looking, feeling and being silly sometimes, so you may as well develop an appreciation of the experience, rather like developing an appreciation for of fine wine or food - not every experience will be delicious.

You need also to be selective about your teachers. The people who surround you and guide you in life are yours to choose. You can't always stop people trying to influence you, but you can always choose what to accept and what to reject; what to digest and what to spit out; what to try and what to avoid.

Making glorious mistakes

Mistakes may be carelessness, but not always so don't let anyone define your act or decision as careless if it was a well thought out mistake! You can't get anywhere without making a lot of mistakes, and some will be doozies! I think I made a mistake in my willingness to leave university straight after my degree in order to support my fiance as he finished his studies. Straight out the window went any ideas I had of post-graduate research and the academic life. Note, I called these "ideas" - I don't think they had become "vision", they did not yet direct my life. However I did limit myself in the decision I made then. I also made other things, unimaginable at the time, possible.

When I started working as a Psychologist I made some huge mistakes - that's why I had a supervisor. When I first began to conduct group psychotherapy my Teacher must have been in an anguish of dismay at the dopey things I did. Even now I know that my Senior Policy Adviser could kick me sometimes for some of the things I say, and I could certainly kick myself (if that didn't require a small miracle) for some of the things I do.

I think that is part of being alive, truly alive, rather that merely existing - the readiness to risk, to be in error, to learn, and to go on appreciating your vision and purpose, to go on recognising your true intent despite the tangle you may have got into. After all, a bird that falls out of the nest is still trying to fly, a producer of hard flat little things may have been working towards scones, a person who makes odd noises may still be trying to sing, a sinner may still have a vision and hope of being good, of getting it right.

Making mistakes, making unwise decisions, getting it wrong - all these are necessary to find your own shape, to working out just what is of value to you - so you may as well make them filled with life, and glorious. Then, perhaps, find someone trustworthy who may be able to help you work out what the mistake was and what to do next.

So far I've talked about allowing your vision to grow in you, about being an experimenter, an adventurer, an intrepid explorer, about risk, tenacity and a bit about love (you can never ever say enough about love!), and about making glorious mistakes.

Jumping off the mountain

In 1978 I was asked to give a short address on my personal experience of developing self image as a person who had a disability. Short is not the word - I was given 5 minutes. Another psychologist, one who had no disability, was asked to give the "real speech" which my words would just be illustrating. She talked for 40 minutes and did not mention the experience of disability once!! I couldn't believe it, and when it was my turn I jumped off the mountain! After a lifetime of being grateful, careful, reassuring, polite and totally bland to people who patronised or discriminated against me (and other people who have disabilities), I got very angry, and I let it show! By the end of my short speech I was shaking with anger, and with fear of what I had done; the audience was applauding loudly; and the fellow on the dais with me was in tears.

"The Australian" printed the speech, and I was launched on an unexpected path of political activism. I was invited to join various boards of organisations which worked for people with disabilities, and I became a member soon after of the Victorian Committee for the International Year of Disabled Persons. That was in 1981, so some of you were only just, or not quite, born. In Australia that International Year was very successful, and some important changes were made in legislation and in attitude.

For me, it was important in that I began to speak out about the discrimination and injustice I saw, I wrote a lot of papers and gave a lot of speeches, and one day someone rang me from the Federal Attorney General's office and asked me if I would be willing to be one of the seven part time Commissioners of the first Human Rights Commission in Australia. Taking a deep breath because this was entirely out of the blue, I jumped off the mountain again and said yes.

That Commission lasted 5 years, till the current one was established to replace it. In those five years I travelled all over Australia, gave speeches, and made decisions (with my colleagues) which had an effect on Australian law and institutions. That is an amazing thing to think about, really. I was 32 when I started, and a lot of the time I felt like I was three. The mountain had been a lot higher than I thought!

When that Commission went out of existence I continued my own professional development and concentrated on becoming a good psychotherapist, a fully qualified psychodramatist (which took 10 years altogether), a supervisor and teacher in private practice as well as in my work at La Trobe University. These were good years, and apart from going to Nepal for pony trekking, white water rafting and elephant riding, and to India for a camel safari, I didn't jump off any more mountains. At least, not public ones! I think as we develop in any work or profession, there are always mountains beckoning us to explore and perhaps go hang-gliding from on our inside.

Here comes Everest again!

One day in December 1992, just as I was completing my plans to work part time at La Trobe and increase my private practice as a psychologist, I got another one of those phone calls! Someone from Attorney General's wanted to speak to me urgently. Again I was asked if I was willing to be considered for an unlikely position: this time the full time and first Disability Discrimination Commissioner, to administer the brand new Disability Discrimination Act.

After reeling around for about 24 hours I told them I would be willing to be considered, and ten days later I was appointed by the Governor General. (That, by the way, is a formality - he didn't actually shake hands with me or pin any ribbons on my lapel - in fact I have not met him.) Well, that changed my life a lot, I can tell you!!

I closed my hard earned private practice, spent several evenings mastering the Disability Discrimination Act, responded to journalists who appeared out of nowhere, and launched into the unknown.

I want to tell you about my first minutes as Commissioner:

The head office of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission is in Sydney. That's where most of my staff are and where most of my many, many meetings take place. On my first day, February 8th., 1993, I got on the plane, arrived in the Sydney office, and confronted a secretary, which I'd never had before, and a Senior Policy Adviser, also a pretty strange animal to me, both sitting there expectantly with note pads at the ready. I put my brand new briefcase (my farewell gift from La Trobe) on the desk, looked at them looking at me, and said "I haven't the faintest idea what to do next!". Having broken the ice and instilled confidence, I asked David to take me out to buy coffee making equipment for my office. When I had that installed I was ready to meet people and start working out what to do.

I've been working it out ever since.

I now have seven staff in my own section, as well as the general staff of the Commission. I've had to learn how to be a boss. I've also had to learn about the law, about the public service, about employers, business operators, politicians, fellow Commissioners, public education, the media, budgets, airlines, e-mail, organisations of people who have disabilities, where's what and who's who in Parliament House, public transportation, the ins and outs of insurance, Federal-State relations and, recently, High Court Decisions.

I think this may be the highest mountain I've ever jumped off - but as I write that I realise each mountain is a preparation for the next. With each mountain I have become more able to say "I haven't the faintest idea what to do next" - and work it out from there.

Becoming the best I can be

That may seem like an odd place to come to after 46 years of living. Surely someone my age should know where she=s going and what she's doing! Well, yes, and no. What the thirty or so years since I was your age have taught me is that life is always surprising and I never have the answer, the solution, the plan ready. Always I have to jump off the mountain, into life, and work it out from there. There are some basic principles which keep me flying - things like ask for help when you need it; be kind as often as possible; think; appreciate your own efforts; teach others when they ask, and when you can; appreciate their efforts; if you can't see the whole vision at least concentrate on the bit you can see; be choosey; say yes to life and the unexpected (which are often the same thing); seek and give forgiveness where necessary; don't take yourself too seriously and don't rave on too long at dinner speeches.

Sometimes I break these rules.

Always I am finding out about myself, about other people, about living.

I would, if asked, change one thing about this conference, but I would not have known what it was till I got to this point in this address - it would be to change the name from "being the best I can be" to "becoming the best I can be". Decide your goals, and learn from that decision. Work out your principles, and grow with what putting them into practice teaches you. Create your visions, your purposes, and let them take you to the next place, the next decision, the next purpose. Become - actively, adventurously, experimentally, intrepidly, lovingly - and never stop becoming: who knows what your best will be, or what eventually is your own shape!