It's easy to be inclusive
When she was a young girl, Louise Pearson’s brother encouraged her to do all she could not to stand out from the crowd. “I had to be like everyone else’s little sister.”
It left an enduring imprint, one driving her ethos as a social worker and guiding her through the myriad of challenges confronting someone who has never known the simple gift of sight.
It’s with her every time she and guide dog, Arthur, step through the doors of Watermarc, their local swimming pool in Greensborough, a northern suburb of Melbourne, and they are welcomed just like any other patron seeking to hit pause on their busy lives and enjoy the therapeutic escape of gliding from wall to wall between the lane ropes.
“I feel like I come in here and I am like everyone else – I wave to the reception staff, walk through minding my own business, get in the pool and off I go.”
At just 10 months of age, Louise was diagnosed with a rare cancer, retinoblastoma, forcing her eyes to be surgically removed. She considers herself lucky to have avoided a recurrence as an adult, but doesn’t waste time pondering what might be around the corner.
Working as a local area coordinator with the Brotherhood of St Laurence, helping to implement the NDIS, fills her days. A love of socialising, the arts and cooking packs her downtime too, but the water has always been her great love.
At blind school Louise took swimming lessons, and is an avowed patriot when it comes to Australia on the global sporting stage, especially at Olympic Games, and most passionately in the pool. “All of my dogs over the years have learnt they have to stand up when the national anthem plays.”
Through a swimmers’ with disability group she mastered freestyle, backstroke and crucially breathing, soon churning through 14 kilometres as part of a team in a 24-hour mega-swim. “I’m not a fast swimmer, but I’m a good distance swimmer.”
Her work is centred on getting people with disability into the NDIS, but she wanted to know what being a participant looked like. “I thought damn it. I’m going to find out.” So Louise used some of her NDIS funding to have someone accompany her to Watermarc, until she realised it was essentially an expensive child-minding exercise (or in this case, Arthur-minding).
Enter Emma Lowe, Watermarc’s Inclusion Co-ordinator. “Louise is very independent, just amazing, and she didn’t want to burden the reception staff by leaving Arthur there,” Emma says. “So we developed a plan.”
At 7am, a couple of mornings a week, Louise and Arthur board the bus near her Rosanna home, alight 20 minutes later, she drops her bag at the Brotherhood office and makes the short walk to Watermarc.
Arthur leads her to the Swim School office where he sits in quiet safety, while Louise swims. She feels her way along the wall to the adjacent all abilities change room, dons her swimmers, then uses a fold-up cane to cross the few metres of the pool deck to the water. “I leave the cane next to the ladder, drop into the pool and I’m away.”
Asked what people could learn from Watermarc’s willingness to help, Louise says it’s all about seeing the possibilities and asking the person what their limitations are. “If I’m a responsible person, an adult, a social worker, a woman of nearly 50, you can bet your bottom dollar I’ve thought of all the things that could happen. And I’m finding a way around them.”
Emma Lowe knows the benefits are mutual, not least in having found reasons herself not to go swimming, until she saw all the little extra things Louise overcomes without a second thought. “It motivated me to get in the water.”
Watermarc has regular customers living with a range of disabilities, and staff whose experiences with them have broadened their own horizons. “It brightens our day,” Emma says. “It really puts perspective on everything, and we’re progressively getting bigger and better at it.”
Louise thinks she’s lucky, there are so many more challenging disabilities than blindness. “I can do this by myself for starters.”
Emma came to work early when Louise first visited Watermarc. She was nervous but thought everything should go well. “I was a bit cautious, but straight away I watched her and thought, ‘She’s got this.’”
Which is just as inclusion should be.