This month, we were lucky enough to sit down with disability advocate and special education teacher, Emma Di Bernardo!
Emma is a disability and LGBTQ+ advocate who has been featured in the book, ‘Growing Up Disabled in Australia’ and started her own podcast ‘Have you tried yoga?’ which speaks to her personal challenges of living with her chronic pain condition with the goal of spreading awareness and unity to those in similar situations.
Watch the full interview here or read the transcript below!
Can you tell us a bit about your story and what you do?
I really come into the disability field in two ways; I’m a special education or inclusion teacher and I also have chronic pain myself. My chronic pain came first and then I became a teacher.
It’s certainly interesting to be someone who helps and advocates for people with disabilities, while at the same time having some lived experience of it. I do have some students with chronic pain, though I mostly teach students with autism or intellectual impairments. Even though our disabilities don’t necessarily always crossover, there’s often some common ground, which is interesting to experience.
How did you come to be doing what you’re doing now?
When I was studying to be a teacher, I had a prac at a special school. I wasn’t studying to be a special ed teacher at that point, but I fell in love with the students and the work that was being done in that environment. I immediately was like, ‘Okay, I want to go down that path’.
I didn’t actually graduate with a degree in special education initially, instead I went back and did a grad cert in special education to kind of bump up my skills like a lot of teachers do. We don’t always necessarily start off in specialities, but we find ourselves there at later stages. Many of my colleagues started out as Drama or Art teachers; I think generally those are the types of teachers who are drawn to specialist education.
What is your experience with disability?
I’m the queen of, ‘Oh, we think we’ve got it figured out, but we’re not quite sure. So we’re just gonna give you a bit of a vague diagnosis.’…
I have chronic nerve pain, and it’s all centred around my pelvic area and bladder, things like that. We can’t quite find the origin point but really, it is that I probably had painful periods. I might have adenomyosis, which is similar to endometriosis, but it’s not clear. We know what I don’t have but we don’t exactly know what I do have.
So basically, I have lots of chronic pain around those pelvic areas and a few other kind of weird inflammation issues that don’t really come to a proper conclusion. But nerve pain is probably the biggest thing.
How did the podcast, “Have you tried yoga?” come about?
I like to deflect bad things with humour a lot. And I like to poke fun at myself. I think sometimes if you can’t inject some dark humour in things, having a disability or chronic illness and the way the society treats you can be pretty dark. So it’s good to put some humour into it.
A couple of years ago, a friend and I created a podcast to talk about our chronic pain and illnesses experience and we called it ‘Have you tried yoga?‘ Not because we hate yoga, but because that is often a really common response that people with pain or illnesses will get. People who mean well might not know what to say once they find out that you have an illness or disability, and they want to help so they say something like, “Oh, well, you know, my cousin’s aunt’s donkey tried yoga, and it really cured her pain. Have you tried yoga?”
Obviously, because my issue is pelvic pain, I get the yoga suggestion a lot. I have tried yoga, and it did not cure me.
So, the podcast is a bit of a tongue-in-cheek way of looking at some of the sillier suggestions that people with disability may get. Most people mean well or like I said, they don’t know quite what to say when they hear a story of someone experiencing a disability or chronic illness. Some people think, “Oh, you’re so brave, I could never do that” and they just immediately want to help. But often it can be very tiring to have to deal with people’s sometimes naive suggestions.
Believe it or not, I’ve been told a few times that if I just had a baby, things would get better, which is most glib. Imagine. Just pop out a kid that’ll be fine. There’ll be no consequences for that at all!
What is something you wish you could change?
I think being a part of ‘Growing up Disabled in Australia’ has been a really exciting moment where we can see that people are listening to people with disabilities. The book went into reprint after, I think six weeks, which is pretty remarkable. A lot of books don’t even get a second print. It has been really popular.
I think that has been really gratifying for a lot of activists and people within the disability community to see that our voices are being heard, or read in whatever way possible. I think if I could change one thing, it would be simply that people approach other people with more empathy, which I know is a very vague kind of statement. But I think often we judge people by their covers, (and I do judge books by their covers, so I can’t actually fully say that).
But when it comes to people, I really think that people sometimes get stuck with a label, or they get preconceived ideas of what a person with disability or illness and pain is like. Often they don’t just give someone a chance or give someone a go. And it could be anything from thinking, “Oh, I can’t help that kid, I don’t have the proper skills as a teacher” to thinking, “Oh, well, I can’t employ that person, they might have x y, or z happen”.
Often people with disabilities end up surprising people because we have such low expectations set upon us. So I think having high expectations and empathy for other people is really what I would change.
What’s next for you – personally and as a disability advocate?
Well, I probably have to say now that being published in Growing up Disabled in Australia replaces being published in a Buffy academic!
For me, it will be more writing and more teaching. I don’t see myself as someone who will leave teaching one day to be a fabulous writer. I see teaching as my main career and writing is I guess, my creative hobby and my other dream that works in tandem. So, I’ll just be continuing to work and writing when I can.