Year of Tolerance brings people together, having necessary conversations: Australian Paralympian

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By Nour Salman

ABU DHABI, 9th October, 2019 (WAM) -- Australian Paralympian Jessica Smith has said the Year of Tolerance gives her a "good feeling."

"Since arriving in the UAE, I’ve honestly been so pleasantly surprised with everything that is the Year of Tolerance," she told the Emirates News Agency, WAM, on the sidelines of an event hosted by the Australian Embassy on Tuesday.

Smith, who was born without her left hand and forearm, suffered a burns injury as a toddler, and developed anorexia in her teens, now speaks about journey from disability to self-acceptance. She represented Australia in the sport of swimming for seven years, culminating in her taking part at the 2004 Paralympic Games in Athens, Greece.

The now retired athlete, who was recently awarded the Order of Australia Medal, told WAM about her experience moving to the UAE earlier this year and what the Year of Tolerance means to her. "Certainly, as someone who identifies as a person of determination, someone living with a disability, it has been so refreshing to come into this community and this environment, and to feel welcomed," she added.

Smith went on to note that there is a genuine curiosity from everybody in the UAE, adding that individuals she encountered want to "learn and evolve more, and to understand one another [not only] on a community level, but also a global scale."

"To feel that people are willing to ask questions, and to understand and wanting to know more, and it’s a really nice feeling," she continued, adding, "It’s exciting because I know so many things are going to transpire because of this wonderful year, and I can see that in the way people are talking about tolerance and diversity, and inclusion."

Commenting on the impact sports can have on creating more inclusive societies, Smith said, "I think sport offers a wonderful platform in terms of bringing people together."

It’s a great conversation starter, and it enables people to see abilities, rather than I suppose, what people can’t do," she added.

The Paralympian further noted the importance of communication and language to effect change. "Communicating and having those conversations around diversity and people of determination, it’s going to help break down any more barriers that still exist," she affirmed.

A mother of two young children, and now expecting her third, Smith was also inspired to write a series of children's books about disability and acceptance. Her first self-published, sold-out book, 'Little Miss Jessica Goes to School', is about a young girl with one hand on her first day at school, where she learns that being 'different' is OK. Resources like Smith's book provides access to new conversations, engaging young and old on the journey towards a more inclusive society that covers not only disabilities but also mental health issues.

With World Mental Health Day coming up on October 10th, Smith spoke about the stigma surrounding mental health and mental illness.

She told WAM, "Unfortunately, there is still a lot of stigma around mental health and mental illness, and I think that comes from people’s fear of what they don’t know and what, perhaps, they haven’t experienced themselves. And so, it can always be a daunting journey to embark on when we’re wanting to understand something, but we’re not sure how to ask the right question."

Smith emphasised again the importance of communication to bring about effective change across social and policy oriented goals. "The first step is always communication, and including people who have lived experiences and inviting them to be part of the conversation to sit at our table and to be able to learn from one another about the best ways we can move forward, ensuring that people are empowered to use their voices, that they feel heard, that they feel seen and validated," she stressed.

"I think we owe it to ourselves, and one another to start having these really important conversations, and to start asking respectful questions, first and foremost, to be able to educate ourselves, and how best to approach situations moving forward," Smith added.

When asked about what she thought the message behind the use of "people of determination", Smith said, "It’s a beautiful concept."

"People of determination is a great way of changing our language when it comes to talking about these particular issues," she continued.

"In my experience," she explained, "it is about encouraging people to see beyond first appearances, and to look for what people are capable of doing, rather than perhaps focusing on what they aren’t able to achieve."

"So there’s so much optimism and hope, just in those few words, it’s a fantastic way for people of determination, people living with a disability, to feel as though the rest of society is starting to see them for who they are, rather than just their disability, or just their appearance," Smith said.

"I think we’re doing really, really well, here in the UAE, and I think people are open to learning from one another, and I think that’s always the first key, as its going to be crucial with how things evolve in the future."

Smith commented on the role of young individuals in bringing about change, adding that she would love the opportunity to work with the UAE’s young. When asked how she thinks this change can happen, the Paralympian said, "By helping to build resilience and understanding of what tolerance is all about - how we can accept one another’s differences and the benefit that that’s going to play in all of our lives."

Smith expressed her optimism about youth involvement in spreading awareness, tolerance, and inclusion to bring about change. "It’s exciting times," she enthused.


[Image Source: Viktoryia Vinnikava/Jessica Smith]

WAM/Nour Salman/Rasha Abubaker