Making Change Happen – One Presentation at a Time

An interview with Mary-Lou Ward, public speaker and disability advocate by Mel Newcomen, speech Pathologist, Gippsland Regional Communication Service.

“Listen to them…listen to people (with disabilities).”- Mary-Lou Ward.

mary-louMary-Lou Ward, is a 30-something year old, modest, quietly spoken woman who is changing the world one presentation at a time. I spoke to her after the last program of the day at Noweyung, a day program located in Bairnsdale, Victoria. She was soon to head out to do the weekly shopping for herself and her husband Peter. She agreed for me to talk to her about her public speaking experience, educating others about communication and disability. The talks have been supported by the Gippsland Regional Communication Service.

I have known Mary-Lou for 4 years in my role as a speech pathologist for the Gippsland Regional Communication Service. We met in August 2011, when Mary-Lou wanted to make a difference in the community. She noticed that service staff and other people often had difficulty communicating with her because her own speech was sometimes difficult to understand. Mary-Lou felt that people just did not know how to talk to people who are difficult to understand. She believed education was the key. Together with the Gippsland Regional Communication Service she developed her own presentation, drawing on her life story and her lived experience of how people could communication better with people like herself.

Mary-Lou has presented to audiences as varied as swimming instructors to disability case managers, and personal care assistance to parents. No matter the audience, the feedback has always been positive. Mary-Lou’s presentation and manner seems to disarm audiences and enables frank discussion about communication and disability. Mary-Lou makes people feel comfortable to ask a person with a disability questions they have wondered about.

When asked what she felt people gained from her presentations Mary-Lou replied, “I talked strongly (and people learn) new things.” I wondered how Mary-Lou felt the audience perceived her. For many audience members this may have been a first-time experience participating in training lead by someone with a disability.  Mary-Lou said that people “listened okay” and that the audience thought she “could do it.”

We reflected over the past 4 years and how Mary- Lou’s presentation skills and confidence had developed. I asked if she had ever done public speaking before we worked together.  Mary-Lou smiled and shook her head, “Never.” In the early days Mary-Lou said “I was brave.” And now thinking back over her achievement Mary-Lou said it made her feel “very good… proud (and it has been) exciting ”. And when asked if she would recommend others to take part in such an experience, Mary Lou smiled and said “yes, it is a good idea.” I asked what she felt the future will hold for her to which she confidently replied “more invitations (to present).” Which based on her success is very likely.

Finally I asked her how people in the community could most help people with disabilities. After careful thought Mary-Lou replied, “Listen to them…listen to people (with disabilities).”