Making a strong case to challenge assumptions | UniSC | University of the Sunshine Coast, Queensland, Australia

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Making a strong case to challenge assumptions

As a schoolgirl, Breanna Medcalfe dreamed of choosing senior subjects in something “super exciting” like marine biology, but, being a wheelchair user, it just wasn't practical. Instead, she found her path in legal studies, a perfect way to combine a law career with disability advocacy.

Born with a high-level spinal cord injury, Breanna has limited movement from the neck down and uses an electric wheelchair for mobility.

“I realised marine biology wasn’t really a practical option for me,” she says.

“It was hard at first and I was a bit disappointed, but I decided to find another open door and run with it.”

The open door turned out to be a legal studies subject at school, which Breanna quickly fell in love with.

“At school, my team and I entered some mooting competitions, like legal debating, and I absolutely loved it,” she says.

“I went into legal studies with an open mind, which really helped me accept a different path. And I'm so glad it’s worked out this way, because I think a career in law is going to see me so much further.”

Bachelor of Laws

Lawyers help people who need legal advice, supporting and working with individuals, businesses, firms, corporations, or not-for-profit organisations to solve complex legal problems. This program is designed to produce law graduates with a practical focus, covering academic courses required for admission as a legal practitioner in Australia.

Now, at 21 years old, Breanna is four years in – halfway through – a Bachelor of Laws degree at the University of the Sunshine Coast (UniSC). She studies part-time due to her disability which makes most day-to-day tasks challenging, from cutting up her food to picking up her phone, or scribing and typing up uni assignments, which she gets help with from support workers.

But it’s the desire to inspire others, and to create positive systematic change, that drives Breanna to finish her law degree, despite the challenges.

“I've become very involved in advocacy for disability in the community, sharing my own experiences and challenges to help create change… which fits in really well with a law career, so I’m hoping I'll be able to intertwine them," she says.

Breanna on campus with fellow students

Breanna says she was fortunate to have the support of her loving parents, with her mum always at the forefront advocating for physical support in school and in the health system.

“When I turned 16, I suddenly had to transition out of the paediatric health system into adult health services, so I quickly learned how to be my own advocate,” she says.

“Growing up, I watched how mum advocated for me, so she gave me a lot of the skills I needed to do it for myself.”

Recognising that not everyone has a champion in their corner the way she did, Breanna decided she wanted to help others in a similar way, making it her life mission to advocate for people with disability and complex health needs.

“I find great joy in sharing my story, hoping others see they can follow their dreams because wherever the challenges are, there's usually a way to overcome them.”

Breanna’s achievements to date are nothing short of inspiring.

At the age of ten, she helped raise $33,500 for a customised ‘standing’ wheelchair which greatly improved her independence and quality of life. She’s also supported multiple charities, include Make-a-Wish for whom she’s helped raise over $160,000 and as a volunteer for Wishlist. In high school, she became a school ambassador, an experience she says led her towards “a career in advocacy,” and gave her confidence in public speaking. In 2023, she won the 7News Qld Young Achiever Award for volunteering and received an Emerging Leadership Award at the Sunshine Coast Community Gala.

None of these achievements came without challenges, because many “small, everyday things” take her longer than most people, and require assistance.

“We face challenges every day in small little tasks, like getting up and ready for the day takes me two hours – not because of a beauty routine but because I have stretches I need to do, and all these little steps I need to take before I can leave the house… and that is the case for so many people with disability.”

Able-bodied people can show support by “knowing, respecting, understanding and having empathy” for the challenges faced by those with disabilities, says Breanna.

“But, alongside this empathy is knowing we aren't that different from anyone else, that we can do anything anyone else does, not seeing us as different. Respecting our challenges but seeing us as equal members in society. Everyone has their challenges, and we just have slightly different ones.”

For Breanna, interacting with strangers is often an exercise is assumption-busting.

“I feel like many people jump to assumptions about what we, as people living with disability, can and can’t do, and it’s not until they start interacting with us that those walls begin to break down and they realise who we are beyond our disability.

“I feel proud to be able to show people that the disabled community has so much to give to society, and to showcase how amazing this university is for inclusivity. I've had nothing but support from my tutors and the different support services at UniSC.”

Flexibility of class times, and the option of online coursework, have been key for Breanna as well as the smaller class sizes.

“I’ve found this to be a big part of my success, I know I can go to my tutors and tell them what's going on in my life and they will do whatever they can to help me succeed.”

Deputy Vice-Chancellor (Academic) Professor Mike Wilmore said UniSC’s AccessAbility team were passionate about providing an equitable learning environment so every student can fully participate in university life.

“We recognise that disability may be visible, invisible, permanent, temporary or variable – it can take on many forms,” Professor Wilmore said.

“Our staff work hard to tailor support to suit each student’s individual needs, whenever they need it, in a confidential and respectful way.”

Disability and accessibility

AccessAbility Services ensure equal access to all aspects of university life. If your studies are affected by a disability, learning disorder, injury or illness, they can can provide advocacy, assistance and reasonable academic adjustments.

Breanna admits she is a bit nervous about her future career since law is “a very fast paced industry” and accessibility at courtrooms can sometimes be challenging.

“It's a bit scary for someone living with a disability, I’m nervous of whether I'm going to be able to keep up, but I know there's so much technology out there now I need to learn how to use,” she says.

“Inclusivity is getting better as disability becomes more talked about in society, but I think there's a long way for the legal profession to go."

Thankfully, she’s found local law firms to be super inclusive and “willing to help” during her work experience placements.

“I do know a few lawyers with disabilities who have been really successful, so it’s great to be able to network with them and hear their success stories and learn from them.”

"A big thing people with disability face is they're not quite sure what their future holds, it’s uncertain. So, seeing success stories of people in similar situations can be really helpful.”

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