Zhila Hasanloo was a teenager in Iran when she was diagnosed with a rare illness and advised that she would lose her eyesight within a few years. Today, she is the head of Ability Beyond Boundaries, an organisation geared at making life easier for disabled people in Australia.
She was 19 years old and studying a Bachelor of Economy in Shiraz when she received the diagnosis.
While she had grown up with a visual impairment, Dr Hasanloo tells SBS Persian she had always tried to hide her disability.
But by the third year of her university degree, her eyesight had deteriorated to the extent that she decided to drop out.
Instead of giving up hope, though, she says this turning point only made her more committed to learning and educating others.
- Zhila Hasanloo is a disability advocate and founder of Ability Beyond Boundaries
- At age 19, Dr Hasanloo was diagnosed with a rare progressive illness that resulted in her losing her eyesight
- She came to Australia 12 years ago to undertake her PhD in education at the University of Sydney
A new career path emerged as over the next few years she completed a Bachelor of Music Performance at the University of Tehran, followed by a Master of Educational Psychology at the same university.
“After meeting some blind people, I realised that some of them were musically talented. I started working with a lady who was a music instructor, and I sat a test to get enrolled in a Bachelor of Music Performance,” she says.
Dr Hasanloo says that as a legally blind student she was able to learn the skills and techniques that today help her to help others.
'Diversity is beautiful'
Twelve years ago, she migrated to Australia on a student visa to study her PhD in education at the University of Sydney. After completing the course, she established the not-for-profit organisation Ability Beyond Boundaries.
Dr Hasanloo says the initial aim of the organisation was to increase awareness about disabled people and their rights among the Persian community of Australia.
As a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) provider, the organisation makes referrals for disabled people to access support services and runs projects that allow participants to build the skills to actively participate in their community.
The goal of Ability Beyond Boundaries has always been to build a community which is welcoming to all people, regardless of their abilities, because everybody has their own abilities, and this diversity is beautiful.
“Our society can only thrive when it has a high level of tolerance and welcomes all people,” she says.
The Iranian-born advocate is also working as a disability and inclusion project officer at NSW Department of Education.
World Braille Day
World Braille Day is marked on 4 January to raise awareness about the challenges that blind and visually impaired people face in their everyday life.
Established by the UN General Assembly in December 2018, the date also marks the birth anniversary of Louis Braille, who at the age of 15, invented the tactile system for reading and writing.
According to World Health Organization, around 2.2 billion people across the world have a vision impairment.
Dr Hasanloo says she wants to use the occasion to increase awareness about the everyday challenges faced by blind and visually impaired people.
Vision 2020 Australia, the national body which works to prevent avoidable blindness and improve vison care, estimates there are over over 575,000 blind or visually impaired people living in Australia.
Dr Hasanloo says that during the coronavirus pandemic, social distancing measures and lockdowns have further isolated many people with disabilities.
Drawing on her firsthand experiences, she highlights the importance of radio and podcasts for providing accessible information across many languages.
“Radio and podcasts are considered the medium of the blind, as they are fully accessible for them.
“For this reason, I think SBS has been a very good initiative by the Australian government, along with other initiatives like NDIS. It is amazing, as it values diversity, practically not verbally. It means recognising all people, their rights and their cultures,” Dr Hasanloo says.
Respecting differences is very important. It is not only about employing disabled people, but also about respecting their special needs and differences, and showing flexibility towards them, otherwise their employment will be worthless.