It was 18 years ago that Louise Snowball first found herself walking the halls of VisAbility, known then as the Association for the Blind.
Having just been hired, it was with some trepidation she settled in to her new office, fully aware that she was the first child psychologist to work at VisAbility.
With a laugh, Louise recalls “I thought to myself ‘What am I going to do!’ It seemed like a bit of a new thing, my role, but very quickly I shook off any hesitations and came to love this positive place and its friendly staff.”
Reflecting on Louise’s time with VisAbility as she enters retirement this year, any trepidation she felt on how she could benefit our community, the children with vision impairment and their families, seems almost unbelievable.
Louise’s distinguished and meaningful career, which includes the 18 years she spent with VisAbility, has seen her leave a lasting legacy of advocacy for Western Australians living with disability.
Louise has always had a desire to make a difference. She left high school eager to start nursing but was not content on waiting the extra year to start university. So she enrolled into Psychology at UWA (link opens in new window). “After that I never left,” Louise says with a smile. “While I was a student I worked for two summer holidays at the main office in the Mental Deficiencies Department (which is now the Disability Services Commission). I just loved it! I went on to work there after my graduation.”
After many years working with children, Louise came to VisAbility with the desire to make a meaningful difference to the lives of those living with disability. Working with families closely to support their children learning to be independent, guiding them to adjust to their disability, and boost their confidence in their abilities and personal strengths, was where Louise’s care, dedication and compassion shined.
“Getting to know the families, and building really positive relationships made [my role] so rewarding. It has been amazing to see clients transition from little babies to strong, independent adults. It’s truly incredible experiencing that personal journey.”
Fostering independence has been a key driving point in Louise’s time spent at VisAbility. Louise has supported countless families and children to be their very best, through a combination of positive parenting, advocating for positive role roles, nurturing the client’s resilience and social skills development.
“I always say you must persist and keep doing things. You [children with disability] will be amazed at what you can do!” Louise says.
“It’s fantastic to have role models for the children within the VisAbility staff like Ryan Honschooten and Sinead Quinn. Ryan’s parents were not overprotective, but had a tough attitude in their expectations of Ryan. They let him get on with what he needed to do. In so many ways, Ryan proves that someone with vision impairment can get out there and do what they want.”
Louise believes supporting and working with the parents is an important step in fostering a child’s independence and self-confidence. “I see a lot more independence in children now, compared to when I first started. It was pretty bleak, children were just cared for as if they could do nothing. I believe, this certainly is not the case.”
“Nowadays there are these tough parents who are really happy to say, ‘you need to know how to do this’. They want their child to have a belief that ‘they can do it’, in every part of their life. This is the power of positive parenting.”
“It’s important to talk about the children’s strengths and skills.” Louise says. She has always encouraged the parents to be positive when discussing what the child can or can’t do and nurturing appropriate behaviour. “Don’t take the good behaviour for granted, acknowledge and reinforce the positive or good things a child does. It may be as simple as speaking gently and not being negative when talking to a child. For example, ‘I love it when you do this alternative behaviour,’ rather than scolding the child for acting a way you don’t want them to.”
Early into working with children with a disability, Louise realised there was a need for them to come together and share similar experiences. This simple concept saw the beginning of one of the most popular and meaningful events that has run ever since at VisAbility, the Social and Life Skills Activities (SALSA) Camp.
“It was very much ‘my little baby [project]’. When I first came to VisAbility, the social worker really wanted me to encourage the social skills of the children. It is hard for vision impaired teenagers to make friends. They can feel socially isolated if they struggle to relate to others because of their disability. For example, missing subtle visual cues such as a facial expression, gesture, or body position could prevent the sharing of a joke with their class peers.”
SALSA Camp quickly became popular with the children. They learnt life skills and were encouraged to step outside their comfort zone, which didn’t always happen at home. For years, Louise has been incredibly passionate about the difference these camps can make. “I remember early on even coming in [to work] on Saturdays. We’d run classes on life skills – like eating, shopping, cooking, or dining in restaurants. I wanted the kids to come together and have fun. To not feel like it was another thing they had to learn, but just have the opportunity to spend time with their vision impaired peers.”
“I had a child say to me once, ‘If I have a break and go and sit down with others, and knock my plate of food on a table and it spills everyone’s coffee, my sighted friends mostly make a negative comment or say something mean. But if I did that with my vision impaired friends they’d understand. They’d maybe say, Oh don’t worry – I do that too.’ That’s always stayed with me.”
“I had another student come up to me and say, ‘this camp is the highlight of my year, I am so lonely’. This made me think, yes, SALSA is significant. Technology is often be the way kids keep in touch outside the camp. They consider the others on SALSA camp their friends who they really only see 3-4 times a year. These kids may go long stretches without real-life practice of socialising, and that’s why SALSA is so important.”
It’s not hard to imagine the many families that have felt the impact of Louise’s dedication and passion. We feel privileged to have been able to support Louise’s mission to make a difference in the lives of Western Australians. She embodies VisAbility’s values of empathy, belonging, greatness, opportunity and visibility in the most honest and compassionate way. Her presence will be missed as she enters retirement.
When asked what’s next on the horizon, Louise replies “I’ll try to slow down. I’ll probably travel and go and see my children who live all around the world.”
It sounds like the perfect start to a retirement, a celebration of the 18 years of meaningful work of which Louise should be immensely proud.