Sector Champion Keran Howe

Keran Howe is a disability advocate and the former Executive Director of Women with Disabilities Victoria.

Long before becoming Executive Director at Women with Disabilities Victoria (WDV), Keran Howe was interested in how systems affect people, particularly in relation to women’s and community health.

She trained as a nurse, before a spinal cord injury led her to further studies – politics, psychology and social work – and ultimately into becoming one of Victoria’s leading figures in disability advocacy.

Over her 12 years with WDV, Keran raised awareness of the particular issues faced by women with disabilities. She says, ‘The challenge has been to balance maintaining a strong representation of the issues for women with disabilities while developing the internal systems of a growing organisation.’

Before this, Keran’s 40-year career in the sector has spanned many stages of challenge and growth.

‘Forty years ago disability was seen as an individual problem and most services were provided by charity organisations that raised funds in ways that were very demeaning to people with disability,’ she says. ‘Institutional care kept people out of community life.’

Change has been gradual and hard fought. ‘Thirty years ago we began dismantling institutions and started to talk about social barriers (as we still are!) such as lack of access to transport, housing, the built environment.

‘A little over 20 years ago we saw the first disability discrimination act which gave us rights to community life and to be free from abuse and discrimination.

‘In the last 10 years we have come to recognise the intersectional disadvantage, the layers of identity that contribute to marginalisation – as people from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds, as Indigenous Australians, as women and LGBTIQ people with disabilities. We have also witnessed the growth of social media, which has given people with disability a voice when the mainstream media has kept us invisible or not challenged negative stereotypical views of people with a disability.’

Keran says Australia today has a much stronger perspective on the rights of people with a disability. ‘I think the community sector has become more sophisticated in its analysis of structural disadvantage. There is a greater emphasis on advocacy across the board. The concept of rights is much better understood and organisations are interested in the consumer perspective. Government consults more on what service-users have to say; for example, with regard to violence against women with disabilities there is greater opportunity to contribute.’

But there’s still a long way to go to achieve structural justice and equality for all Victorians with disability.

‘The NDIS is still not adequately meeting the objectives it was established to meet. People with disability still don’t have the choice and control over services that they anticipated would come from the NDIS.’

Workforce issues are also a major concern in the sector. ‘With a far greater demand than can currently be met and with a low recognition of the value of disability support, the workforce is still underpaid and undertrained.

‘Employment discrimination remains a major challenge for people with disability and women with disabilities in particular. The Victorian Government is seeking to improve rates of public service employment of people with disability but these rates are abysmally low.’

Keran believes ‘a nation’s culture is reflected in its media’, and objects that people with disability are still under-represented in television, film and across mainstream media.

‘This representation is critical to changing community attitudes,’ she says.

Having just retired from WDV, Keran plans to take a holiday and reflect on what the next stage of life might bring.

‘I am proud to have been a part of the growth of Women with Disabilities Victoria over the past 12 years. I have deeply valued the opportunity to work with other women with disabilities and the organisation’s partners to bring violence against women to light.’

Down time
What I’m reading now

White Houses by Amy Bloom.

My favourite dessert

Mmm, that would be lemon tart with vanilla ice cream.

What I do to relax

Getting out into the country is really important to me.

On a sunny morning I love going down to have a coffee by the bay and catching up with friends. In the winter it’s going to films.

My favourite season

Autumn is my favourite time with gorgeous clear days and cool nights but I also love summer. Any day that isn’t cold suits me!

A movie or TV show I love

I have just finished watching Mystery Road on iview which I thought was an excellent production. I am now enjoying The Split – I think Nicola Walker is great.