We are so excited about our latest interview with Robyn Lambird aka @robynlambird. This 19-year-old professional wheelchair athlete talks about the power of the media, becoming an athlete and the importance of investing in a community.
Laura Jane: Robyn, can you tell me a little bit more about yourself?
Robyn: I’m 19-years-old. I have a disability. I want to not only raise awareness for disabilities but also shift the negative attitudes and create a cultural change in attitude towards disability.
LJ: What was your body image like growing up?
R: I’ve always had a pretty positive self-body image, in as much as I’ve never really had an issue with the way that I look. I’ve never looked in the mirror and been ashamed or disappointed with what I saw. When I was in high school though, there was a lot of frustration with how people would see me because of the body I have. It’s a feeling of diminished ownership of your own body and having people prod and poke you and you feel like you belong to a group of people or a system. You don’t feel like you have control over your own body. I didn’t think that people had a problem with the way that I looked necessarily but I felt like what people saw didn’t match how I saw myself.
LJ: How did you become an athlete?
R: I started playing wheelchair basketball, as a way to get active and social after a major surgery, then I moved on to wheelchair rugby because it was suited for people with disabilities in all four limbs. I was the first women to play in the national league. I went on to do track, doing sprinting distances, as there is a lot of opportunity to travel.
Disability sports were my first entrance into the disability community and socializing with disabled people that gave me insight into my own disability. My dad is an athlete, a professional fighter, and runs a gym. When I was younger I was inspired by my dad, so rather than focusing on what I looked like, I was focused on being strong. Now that I’m training full time for athletics, I documented most of my progress on Instagram. It’s been great to see my body develop and to see my muscles come out. I’ve always been super thin with no muscle tone, so seeing that was pretty cool. Other people started to see me as an athlete and respect me for that. At first, sport at school was rubbish because people didn’t know how to include me but then I started using my wheelchair and my athletic talent shone through. It gave me a lot of confidence and in the end I graduated with the highest mark in physical education which I chose as an elective.
My dad owns a gym; he’s a personal trainer. Being able to work out with him and for him to train me, that’s a really awesome experience. Growing up with a disability, I always wanted to train with my dad but I wondered how that would benefit me. To be known as a disabled woman who is doing something really physical is awesome. I’ve always been one to want to prove people wrong. When people told me that I couldn’t do something in sports, I wanted to prove them wrong.
LJ: You have such a sense of style. Tell me more about how you developed that and how it’s a part of your identity.
R: I use fashion as a tool to challenge people’s perception of disability, to show people you can’t put us in a box. I’ve always had a pretty eclectic sense of style. Growing up, my parents encouraged me to dress up in costume. I was the kid dressed up as a fairy or a pirate. I think that’s carried through slightly into my adult life, I tend to dress in themes and pull inspiration from all over the place. Fashion and style to me is about having fun and expressing what people don’t always consider when they see my chair.
I have a pretty an androgynous style I would say. Growing up with a disability, being a tomboy was just more practical. Moving around, wearing shorts and pants was easier and that has carried into my adult life. I sort of embraced my masculinity early on but it hasn’t always been as easy for me to express my feminine side. I think as women we are often stripped of our sexuality and femininity because of society’s perceptions of disability, and the way in which our bodies might not fit into it’s strict gender constructs. So in my head my body didn’t align with what I thought it meant to be a women. As I’ve gotten older however, I’ve realized there shouldn’t be any rules assigned to gender. I’ve gotten more comfortable with my feminine side and embraced it more.
As I got older, I realized that people would stare at me. Fashion and style is something that I can control and give them a different reason to look at me besides my disability and challenge them as they are looking. Growing up, I always had long brown, straight hair. I was drawn to people who were kooky or a bit different. Coloring my hair was my first step. I get bored easily so it was an easy way to change up my look.
I think you can have all the awareness campaigns in the world. People know disability is a thing. I want to normalize it. I want to get to a point where it’s just another part of someone’s identity instead of being all of it.
LJ: How has being on social media been a part of this for you? Has your experience been challenging, or positive or somewhere in the middle?
R: I’ve been really lucky that it’s been pretty much all positive. I try to educate people and enlighten people. To have a community of disabled people on social media, that is just awesome. We can show people what we want them to see. We bounce a lot of ideas off each other. I discuss a lot of things that you don’t usually see. My parents and friends are super supportive, but some aspects disability are so complex; you have to have lived that experience to fully understand. Social media is a great way to unite as a community and mobilize.
LJ: You’ve mentioned that you want to create awareness for people with disabilities. What in particular would you like to change?
R: I think you can have all the awareness campaigns in the world. People know disability is a thing. What I really want to do is normalize it. I want to get to a point where it’s just another part of someone’s identity, like their race or sexuality. That doesn’t wholly define them but is still considered to be an integral part of who they are.
The media is a really powerful socializing agent. People learn from the world around them and from television, movies, and the Internet. People with disabilities are the largest minority in the world. One in five people will experience a disability in their lifetime and you wouldn’t think that looking at the media. We need to get the representation equal to the size of the community.
I’m part of a non-profit called Starting with Julius and its whole aim is to get people with disabilities in advertisements because ads are everywhere. I recently got a modeling job with Target in Australia and that was the first national campaign to feature an adult with a disability for a major retail chain. It was a fun experience but best thing was the reaction to the campaign and to have kids with disabilities feel so much validation from see someone with a disability in a magazine; that was really awesome.
Humans are multifaceted and I don’t think anyone wants to be known for any one thing. Claiming your disability and owning that and showing people what it means to you is really empowering. Coming together with a community where everyone is doing that is definitely empowering.
LJ: What advice would you give to women who are trying to maintain or develop positive body image?
R: I think investing in a community is really important. When I started traveling for sport and connecting with people, I could see how diverse the disability community was and how different people are owning it. There was something really attractive and amazing—they have a confidence in themselves. Everyone worries about what he or she looks like. I have a pretty positive body image, but I still worry about some things. Investing in a community and talking about these things is so important. I’m lucky that my community talks about things like body image. Hearing other people’s stories is really empowering.