Janelle McMillan OAM is an artist and author living in Hobart, and she’s got more warmth and charm than a basketful of puppies.
What started as a Facebook friendship around six months ago, after she messaged me about an episode she’d liked of my Home Truths podcast on PodcastOne Australia, has blossomed into a fascination on my part of “what the hell is Janelle is up to next?”
She’s just so balls-first positive; thinking about Janelle makes me kick my COVID-19 worries into the corner and get out of bed every morning with a swagger and an ability to seize the day.
Janelle has Cerebral Palsy, which means she gets from A to B in a wheelchair.
She’s one of the most vibrant people I’ve come across in a good while. Janelle is non-verbal, which means that rather than speaking, she communicates via the written word and through her art, and her voice is joyously fun, take-no-prisoners honest, and fresher than the air on the top of Cradle Mountain.
She embraces every opportunity that life throws at her and technology has provided many of them.
Operating a computer with a joystick instead of a mouse, Janelle has done hundreds of artworks over the years, raising thousands for charities by selling her Ken Done style T-shirts, calendars and cards through Redbubble to her global fan base.
Social media has liberated Janelle to interact with insight on the topics she’s passionate about and she tweets and messages on how to increase inclusivity and community, especially for those with or caring for people with disabilities. She has helped me to minimise the dominance of a wheelchair or other disability to see people as they really are.
Like truly creative and positive people do, she’s not just getting a load of recognition like the 2020 Order of Australia she received for fundraising, she’s also building a fan base among the students she’s visited while discussing new book Rafting, A Wheelchair Won’t Stop Us!
Janelle wrote the children’s book after going white water rafting and then deciding to use her experience to show that people with disabilities can be included in similar adventures as able-bodied people.
Keen for a few insights on how to remain positive, I asked Janelle a few questions:
You write that being able-bodied doesn’t necessarily mean that you are happy in life. What do you mean?
Some people are never happy with what they have in life, and some people have mental health issues. But you have a body that works fine, so what more do you want in life? Non-verbal people are no less of a person just because they have difficulties with communication, and we can offer verbal friends great support when they are going through tough times. Never underestimate what a smile or cheeky grin can do to make someone’s day.
How important is being an artist and writer to you?
It gives me a reason to stay as healthy as I can be to continue to do artwork and write. And I can help other people by fundraising through my artwork and writing. My fundraising has made me a better person because it is important to me to give back, and it has given me something else to focus on rather than myself.
Just to understand, how you write backwards, is that word by word, like for you the word “word” would be “drow” before you move onto the next word?
Yes, you are right. I write the whole sentence backwards. People can read my handwriting like anyone else.
Will you continue to write?
Yes, I want to publish my biography.
What is the most frustrating thing about living with a disability?
Bloody small-minded good-doers who think that they know better.
What is the most liberating thing about living with a disability?
Knowing that I can help other people to be better people by teaching them to see life differently. I couldn’t care less about what people like me or not.
What is your next goal/desire for your life?
My next goal is to go into classrooms and talk to students about non-verbal people.
How do you communicate with students face to face?
I write out what I wanted to say. And then I get my support worker to read it out, or I con the teacher to do the reading!
What do you tell teachers about how to include kids with varying abilities in sport?
It would be awesome to see kids who are not as great as other kids at running being encouraged by teachers to push kids in wheelchairs on sports days. It would make all the kids feel good about themselves.
What would you like to say to people scared about self-isolating with the current COVID 19 pandemic?
I’d like them to take the time to think about people with disabilities or people with compromised immune systems whose normal life is being stuck in their homes for weeks on end because they don’t have the appropriate funding for a support worker or can’t afford to pay for taxicabs.
The feelings and limitations around self-isolation is regular life for a lot of Australians with disabilities, and it doesn’t have an end date. I ask people to be brave but to also understand they are getting just a taste of our everyday life.
And finally, what makes you happy?
I love a challenge, and I have great pleasure in proving to people that I can do things. And also, being me and making people smile.
To watch a short film on Janelle by Small World Documentaries
Or to buy her artwork