Earlier this year, Zel Iscel enthralled VisAbility staff with a recount of her past. A story filled with triumph, setbacks and overcoming hurdles which has lead Zel to be where she is today – a highly educated entrepreneur and disability advocate. Zel has also been blind since birth. This is her story.
Zel arrived in Australia in the 1980s, a migrant from Turkey and a part of a traditional Muslim family. Her family of six – including her eldest sister who is also blind – settled in Kalgoorlie. Besides her father, none of them could speak English. As a Year 1 student, Zel attended her first class in Kalgoorlie with no education, no English and living with blindness. It was a tough start to schooling.
Zel recalls the hard-time she faced being in a new place so young.
“There were no specialist services that helped those with vision impairment. I don’t remember anyone else in the class, I couldn’t speak to them and no one spoke to me. They gave me a piece of playdough to play with.”
However, the family moved to Perth and more services were available to help her and her sister. They attended Sutherland Special School and Zel recalls this time at school with fondness. “I loved Sutherland, I flourished there. I learnt English and they told me if you don’t know something – put your hand up. My hand was always up!” She laughs.
Zel’s eagerness to learn was blossoming, and school provided her the avenue to explore her interests. “My favourite story was The Hungry Caterpillar.” From Years 3-6 Zel enjoyed Sutherland, but was then transferred to the local mainstream school. While she had a best friend for a while there, they drifted apart. “High school is a very visual time. It was hard.”
By 1985, Zel was speaking fluent English, though her understanding of it was basic. Schooling did have some barriers, which were most obvious when it came to maths. Zel struggled with maths, but found the teachers didn’t quite grasp why. “The assumption was that I couldn’t see and therefore I couldn’t understand, but it was actually the language barrier that was making it hard to learn maths.”
Around this time, Zel became a client of VisAbility and has been part of the community ever since. This was invaluable for Zel, who recalls the excitement of going to Brownies (Girl-Guides) with her Occupational Therapist. Being young and unable to get there herself, this was a wonderful treat.
Zel speaks highly of the team at VisAbility. “All the occupational therapists took the time to chat with my mum and dad. They would sit down before we started or after we finished a session, they would drink coffee and sometimes eat something and chat with my family. In my parent’s eyes, this made them human and considerate.”
While Zel remembers the good things about her childhood, she admits that her cultural background placed her in a circumstance where she had to work hard. Zel speaks of the impact of being female, being blind and coming from an ethnic background.
“I came from a culture where everything seemed to be too hard for me. My mum would do everything for me. It is probably the worst thing you can do for a child, regardless of their ability. You think ‘maybe they know something that I don’t?’ You constantly doubt yourself.”
This mindset clouded Zel’s thoughts and she remarks that it translated into how she did things. “I never felt like I did a good job at anything, how I played, how I studied. Someone had to come in and finish the job I was doing. It meant that I never felt independent. It culminated in depression.”
However, being from a culturally diverse background had its unique points. Zel would attend Turkish School, a weekend study group for Turkish children. She laughs when she remembers back to when her Dad used to drive her and her siblings and some sheep in the back of the station wagon home after class. Her mother only ate Halal meat, so her father had to cut the sheep himself as there were no Halal butchers then.
It came time for Zel to graduate and venture to university. While it took her roughly 8 years to get through her degree, and with a lack of understanding careers counselling, she eventually found her way into studying politics and the non-for-profit sector. She is thankful to her parents for pushing her through.
“My parents did everything they could to help me, but we didn’t have an educational background. It wasn’t part of our culture!” Around the same time, Zel started organizing events through VisAbility (formerly the Association for the Blind of WA). She found a social community and went on river cruises and Eat and Sings – which involved a restaurant and karaoke.
While Zel found it difficult to get a job, and found it hard to find anything that really appealed to her, she didn’t give up. “Me being me (I’m a bit of a radical), I decided to join my friend who had a business. She was selling it and I wanted to buy it. However, when that fell through, I set up my own business, Inclusive World. We offer disability awareness training, audit policies for accessibility, and we work across government and private sectors.”
From humble and tough beginnings as a young migrant with no English, Zel has become an entrepreneur with a strong social conscience. Her business Inclusive World, works with a range of disabilities not just blindness and also culturally and linguistically diverse communities.
Her hope is to build a world where everyone counts, and we’d have to agree with that! Zel recounts that it was hard growing up being blind and between two cultures: she faced intersection – disability, gender and ethnicity – all combined into one. “While we usually talk about this as a disadvantage, I see it as an advantage. It is sometimes a problem, but it really can be advantageous as you get a much broader perspective of things.”
You can read more about the work Zel does here, at her website Inclusive World.