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Karni Liddell: “I never thought I’d be a mum”

Paralympian Karni Liddell is speaking up for those who can’t always speak up for themselves.


Karni Liddell: “I never thought I’d be a mum”

Paralympian Karni Liddell is speaking up for those who can’t always speak up for themselves.

As the Queensland Ambassador for the NDIS, Paralympian Karni Liddell has a message for people finding it frustrating to navigate the system: things can only get better. Ms Liddell is a single mother of an active two-year-old son and being wheelchair bound, says she could never have fulfilled her dream of becoming a mother without the NDIS.

“I certainly wouldn’t be able to work to the level I work, with a two-year-old, without the support workers I’ve access to through the NDIS,” she says.

“We have to be mindful of the fact that the last system was horrendous. With the last system people like me who worked and paid tax could never access services like I access now. I struggled and fumbled and my parents did everything. That’s no way to live. I certainly wouldn’t have been able to be a mother. I would have had to move home with my 60-year-old parents. It doesn’t take 24/7 care to keep me working. It’s not a big package – I’m talking a few hours a day – that enables my parents to be parents and grandparents and my friends to be friends.

“I totally get there are people out there who are finding it really hard to access the system and I’m really, really angry about that.

“It was supposed to be a really open communication between a planner and a person with a disability and their families without having to prove they have a disability a thousand times. I’m in a wheelchair, so it wasn’t challenging to prove I’m disabled, but at the same time, it hasn’t been a smooth road, because of the system.

“There has to be a market for us to use. If I get money for a carer but can’t find a carer, the system doesn’t work. There’s a lot more to this than meets the eye. Medicare didn’t work straight away. In 10 years’ time we’ll look back and realise why there were issues.

“It comes down to the market; people out in the community need to start seeing us as customers in a multibillion-dollar market.”

Ms Liddell was diagnosed with spinal muscular atrophy at 12 months. Specialists told her parents she would not walk or crawl, and was unlikely to reach her teenage years.

Defying all odds, she went on to become a champion swimmer, breaking her first world record at 14 and winning bronze medals in the Atlanta Paralympic Games in 1996 and the Sydney Paralympic Games in 2000.

Ms Liddell is a sought-after speaker and received a standing ovation for her TED Talk in 2014. She’s visiting the Sunshine Coast on June 21 for In Conversation at Venue 114.

“Personally, I believe the thing that has disabled me most in life is this belief we are the riskiest people in the room to work with or have as a customer,” she says.

“That’s an incorrect belief. That’s why I have to fight to fly every week. Ninety-five per cent of my life as a speaker is travelling around the world in a wheelchair and I have to fight to get on a plane… Going to an airport is like going back in time.”

She talks at length about the airlines that have two-wheelchair policies and says she is often refused entry to a plane if an able-bodied person arrives at the airport before her with, for example, a sore foot and takes the last wheelchair, despite Ms Liddell having booked the wheelchair when buying her ticket. She talks of her humiliation and embarrassment at having planes delayed while airport staff check the batteries in her motorised wheelchair for the umpteenth time.

And she talks of the money lost when she was booked to deliver a $5000 speech for International Women’s Day in Sydney for the Macquarie Bank and didn’t make it due to airport staff losing her wheelchair.

Ms Liddell is a passionate and outspoken advocate for people with a disability and can do up to five speaking engagements a week. Like any working mother, she finds balancing work and motherhood challenging, but she’s not complaining. “People certainly didn’t think I’d be a Paralympian or a mother,” she says. “I’ve never shocked as many people as I did when I said I was pregnant. I truly didn’t think it was going to happen for me.

“I’m a changed person in every possible way. I’m happier, softer, better at my work, better at speaking. I’m very empathetic; I was pretty hardcore before. He’s a good kid and he loves other people. And – he’s very active.

“I find it hardest when I’m sick, but I’m sure all mothers would say the same thing. We do the best we can and I do everything for Kai. A lot of work goes into organising my life and sometimes I’m late and things don’t get done, but I never thought I’d be a mum and I can’t believe it. I am so grateful.”

The In Conversation event, which supports The Compass Institute, includes lunch, drinks and the inspiring speakers.

Karni Liddell will speak at In Conversation – Disability Vs Ability on Friday, June 21 at Venue 114, Bokarina. Tickets include lunch and are available through Proudly supported by My Weekly Preview.


Leigh Robshaw is a journalist who has worked in the media industry for more than 20 years. Originally from Sydney, she has lived and worked in London, Tokyo and Latin America. She joined the team in 2012 and is MWP's deputy editor. Writing, reading and travel are her greatest passions.

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