On International Women’s Day, Robyn Lambird’s message is simple: pursue your dreams

By Peter Hanlon

Robyn, a woman with electric blue hair wearing bright leans on a large malamute dog

News of Robyn Lambird featuring in an advertising campaign for Target Australia ahead of last year's Paralympics went global. A retail giant using a model with cerebral palsy (CP) to hawk its wares proved an irresistible story for media outlets from the BBC in the UK to Marie Claire in Hungary to Elle in Italy.

It also illuminated the vision Catia Malaquias had when she founded Starting With Julius, a not for profit committed to bringing people with disability – one fifth of Australia's population – a commensurate presence in media and advertising. Here was the attention a compelling cause yearned for. The end game, reaching a place where it's not considered newsworthy at all.

In terms of at least drawing attention, of people commenting in media and social media, what it (the interest) does is signal to brands that the community wants to see more diversity," Malaquias says. "What we're all aspiring to is the time when disability representation in mainstream advertising is unremarkable. We are a long way from that.

Jenny Prior, whose nine-year-old daughter Emily enjoys a cherished friendship with Lambird and has followed her 20-year-old mentor's modelling lead, agrees. She underscored the goal in a recent conversation with the Target official who facilitated Emily's shoot.

I said to him, 'Do you know when you can look back and know your job is done? Prior recalls. When you put a kid with a disability in your catalogue and your ads and we don't talk about it, because it's normal.' When we get to that point we'll know the job of inclusion and diversity is done.

When we get there, Robyn Lambird will have played her part. Her relationship with the Priors began when Jenny reached out after seeing the engaging, funky video blogs Lambird regularly posts on social media about life as a young person with CP, her determination not to be defined by disability, but also her zeal to embrace her difference and wear it as a badge.

Sat cross-legged on her bed and filmed with a nod to the stop-motion movies she started making with friends in primary school, Lambird tackles topics ranging from transitioning to adulthood to dating with a disability to choosing a wheelchair. Her infectious enthusiasm is encapsulated by her trademark sign-off message to her followers: Stay shiny, `coz I luv ya!

A post on finishing school struck Jenny Prior as must-have information for her daughter's future. I just thought, 'I've got to get to know this person, I need someone who's in the next phase, who can tell me what it's going to be like.' Discovering they both live in Perth, and that Robyn and Emily use the same physiotherapist, sealed her resolve to connect.

I struggled as a mother – I found a lot of people a bit negative about disability, (feeling that) it was the worst thing that could happen, says Prior, who was overjoyed to find Lambird exactly as she is in her videos. I didn't want to be in that life. When I found that, 'Oh my god, there's someone who thinks like me who actually has a disability', I thought, 'this is the type of person I need my daughter to be around'.

Less than a year after meeting, Jenny Prior is touched to have made "two amazing friendships" – with Robyn, and her mother Sue. Even more uplifting is Robyn and Emily's bond, one that transcends age and enriches both parties. Emily and I are so similar it's scary really, Lambird says, noting that their disability and how it impacts on the way they function is very similar.

Jenny Prior knows she has a great relationship with her daughter, but is also aware that Emily – who has had a sleepover at Robyn's and joins her for movie nights – gleans things from her friend that are beyond her own ken. There's that connection that I can't have, even as her Mum, because I don't have a disability. That's so incredibly important.

Mentoring is just one string to Lambird's bow. Her online presence – under the guise of "My T-Rex Life" in appreciation of the dinosaur's stilted gait – and enchanting manner have made her an advocate, earned an ambassadorial role with Starting With Julius and opened a door to modelling that dovetails with her love of colourful, quirky fashion. All are presently taking a back seat to a six-days-a-week training regimen in a bid to qualify for World Para Athletics Championships in London in July.

Her full life embodies her parents' mantra when she was a child in Darlington, northern England, where her condition was initially diagnosed as Syringomyelia, which presents similarly to CP. Mum and Dad were young parents, 18 and 19 when they had me, and disability was new to them. But they just brought me up as they would bring up any other kid. We were a very physical family, did a lot of camping, very family-oriented stuff. They always pushed me to try new things, see where it went, rather than having ideas of what's normal.

When Robyn was nine they moved to Perth where scans revealed she had cerebral palsy. She's grateful for "that whole Aussie attitude of giving everything a go", and felt acceptance from day one in her adopted home. She feels lucky her late diagnosis meant most of the surgery a child with CP sometimes needs was performed in one hit; she now has six-monthly Botox treatments to relax and stretch leg muscles that her brain is constantly telling to contract.

She didn't envision an advocacy path, but each video she posted prompted so many questions she found herself making another to answer them. She's not sure she'd call herself "political", but senses that one upside to the time of Trump is that more people are talking – and listening. It feels like we have a bigger voice. Personally, I feel like I'm a lot more aware, a lot more invested in the disability community, the culture around that. I feel like I've got a lot more to say.

Some of what she says is deliberately provocative, like her embrace of the #cripplepunk movement that began on Tumblr as a means of people with disability reclaiming a word that has historically been used as a slur against them. It's really empowering to be able to claim something that's been seen as a person's downfall, to reclaim that as part of who you are, part of your identity, part of what makes you.

For a time Lambird walked with the aid of a cane "pretty much all the time", but with adulthood she's found greater independence using a wheelchair. It's also easier for people to be aware that I have a disability.

Not that she doesn't stand out anyway. Her mother dyes her hair, which until recently was electric blue, and she describes her style as "super-eclectic, changing from day to day … fun and colourful". She admits her wardrobe is "exploding", enjoys exploring masculine and feminine styles, and loves the notion of using fashion as a weapon.

Fashion means a lot to me. As I got older and realised people would pay extra attention to me when I was out and about – because I was in a wheelchair – fashion became a way to challenge their perceptions. And also present to them what I wanted them to see, over just a wheelchair.

Being an athlete has brought empowerment of a more tangible kind. Her father, Steve, was a professional boxer in his youth, as was an uncle. Their strength and appetite for a fight has been handed down; Lambird remembers wrestling her Dad as a child, challenging herself to better her personal best number of push-ups, constantly working to be stronger of body and mind.

Now, the prospect of pushing for gold in the 100 and 400-metre sprints in the country of her birth drives her harder still. Getting older and stronger, seeing my body develop, being visually a bit stronger, that's so empowering as a disabled person. Just showing people, 'I am physical, I can do things you might not expect', that's super-important to me.

She plans to spend four months in Europe anchored around the world championships before going back to university to recommence her studies in media, an area of fascination she knows can help shape a future in which ableism no longer blocks out the light.

Malaquias first met Lambird early in 2016 and in December they spoke about representation in media and advertising at an international disability event. She was struck by her generosity in trying to make a difference, her will to positively influence the lives of others. I think she's a really great person to help share the message about what visibility and representation actually mean, why they're important, and how they're connected to human rights, Malaquias says. As a young person with a disability, she's the right person to be speaking up about these issues.

With an eye to International Women's Day, Lambird's message for all women is simple: pursue your dreams. People are going to tell you that you should do something else, that you should be more realistic. But there comes a time when you've just got to do what you're passionate about.

I've seen myself that I've been able to empower other people, to inspire and to motivate. If you're doing what you love, if you're lucky enough to do that, you're going to help a lot of other people too.