Emily Cullen likes to do things for herself. A single parent with serious health issues to deal with, Emily admits to facing some struggles. But, as our latest International Women’s Day profile reveals, this Tasmanian is fiercely independent and is looking forward, not back. And she’s all set to help others do that too.
‘A lot of people say, “are you comfortable talking about that?” ‘
There’s not a lot Emily feels uncomfortable talking about in our conversation, starting with her disability.
Now 40, Emily explained that at the age of 10, her body showed signs of change.
‘Teachers at school noticed I was dragging my feet and tripping over, and they became concerned. By the time I was in Grade 8 I was having trouble running.’
During those years, Emily saw many doctors, including Neurologists and was eventually diagnosed with Hereditary Spastic Paraplegia.
‘It’s like a cousin to Motor Neuron Disease’, Emily explained.
‘But it just affects the lower body and has a slower progression.’
Emily (pictured below) now uses a wheelchair to get around, but she’s quick to point out that doesn’t stop her doing much.
‘I have been independent for a long time. I like my space and doing my own thing.
‘It’s quicker to do things by myself than to explain to someone else how to do it,’ Emily said of her decision to do without lots of support.
With two teenage children (Emily’s been a single parent for the past 15 years) there’s heaps of running around to do, so, she drives a car with hand controls and loves being out and about.
One of the biggest challenges Emily has faced is dating.
‘The guys I have dated have assumed I need help. When they realise how independent I am, they often feel like I don’t need them. I don’t want a relationship with someone so they can do things for me, I want to do things with them.
‘In the end I found it better not to have a photo of me in a wheelchair (on dating sites) because some people saw it as a chance to earn money as a carer. But I don’t let it get to me now and I’ve found a supportive partner.’
Supporting others is now on Emily’s radar. She’s a volunteer for ParaQuad Tasmania’s Propel Peer Coaching program, which provides an opportunity for an individual with lived experience of Spinal Cord Injury or physical disability to connect with another person going through the same, or similar, experience.
‘I’ve had a lot of experiences in my life and been through so much. I have dealt with domestic violence and the passing of a partner. And more recently it’s been health problems – but I feel like I have my health back now which is fantastic.’
‘I’m easy to talk to and approachable and am fine talking about disability. If I can’t help with something, I know how to find information to help someone.’
Emily brings joy to her own life through gardening and music, finding both help to clear her mind. Staying active is important as well – she’s back playing wheelchair sports regularly with ParaQuad Tasmania.
She’s looking forward to a new experience, going to a music festival with her son in Melbourne.
‘I’m scared and excited,’ Emily admits.
‘I’ve always wanted to go to a music festival. I am really nervous because I’ve never been in such a big crowd, but I’m going to do it!’.
Emily is confident and comfortable being herself and one of her messages this International Women’s Day is aligned with the theme for this year, which is Embrace Equity.
‘I am a person like everyone else, I just get around a bit differently – accept everyone as they are.’