My journey as a disability advocate

Isabella Kila

This International Women’s Day, Isabella Kila tells us how she chose to challenge a lack of accessibility in Papua New Guinea and advocate for disabled people. 

Isabella Kila sitting in a wheelchair

Isabella was one of the participants in Leonard Cheshire’s youth leadership programme, Young Voices. Isabella is the first disabled person to graduate with a Bachelor’s Degree in Law from her university in Papua New Guinea. 

My name’s Isabella. I’m 26 and come from Papua New Guinea, where I am the third born in a family of five children to our wonderful parents. I am an amputee and wheelchair user.

Working with Leonard Cheshire

When I was younger, Cheshire Disability Services Papua New Guinea – a Leonard Cheshire Global Alliance member – supported me with physical, emotional, and educational training. This helped me attend and excel at mainstream schools, from primary right through to high school and secondary. This eventually led to my enrolment at the University of Papua New Guinea.

But before I started university, I was introduced to Leonard Cheshire’s Young Voices programme through my involvement with Cheshire Disability Services. Young Voices was a project that linked young disabled people across the globe. We shared stories and experiences about barriers and stigmas about disability in our own countries. Together we spoke out about the importance of rights for disabled people.

I absolutely loved being part of the project. It really shaped me into being the best version of myself that I am today. It helped me gain confidence. Having the opportunity to speak to different people at different events really made me want to be a youth advocate. Most importantly, it opened my eyes even more to the importance of the rights and responsibilities of people with disabilities. It made me want to challenge injustices and fight for a more accessible society.

How the project helped me

The highlight for me was when I was selected to attend a Regional Conference in Kenya. It was a mind-blowing experience for me. I got to learn more about the challenges and barriers faced by disabled people in Africa. I learnt so much and was able to meet such a great network of people.

As well as my personal development, the project also opened up opportunities for me back home in Papua New Guinea. Young Voices gave me the confidence to speak out and advocate for the rights of people with special needs. And the more I spoke out, the more I stood out. People started to support me and listen to what I had to say.

And it created a significant opportunity for me when the RH Foundation offered to support me financially for four years while I attended the University of Papua New Guinea. A huge and exciting opportunity!

My university experience

My time was university was, honestly, very hectic and fun. Attending lectures and trying to meet deadlines for assessments was stressful. At some points, I felt like giving up. But I kept pushing myself and making sure that I met deadlines. Thankfully, I had a very strong support system which helped me along the way. I had great friends who stood by me and lecturers who understood me and were lenient. And most importantly, I had my parents who made sure that I was well taken care of and had everything I needed to achieve my goals.

I was very proud to be the first disabled person to gain a law degree from my university. In the past, people with disabilities were hidden from the community in Papua New Guinea. They were deprived of their rights to education, employment and access to services. And while that has gradually changed over time, there are still changes that need to be made. This is especially true when it comes to accessibility and inclusion for disabled people.

Speaking out to improve accessibility

I had the opportunity to speak out about some of the things I thought should be addressed at my university. I told them that accessibility and assistive technology were two really important things that they needed to think about. Otherwise, they cannot be inclusive. Since then, the university has worked with AusAID to build lecture theatres that have elevators and ramps for wheelchair users. This is a great start! And I believe more of these positive changes will come.

After graduating with my Bachelor’s Degree in Law in November 2020, I was chosen to join the Legal Training Institute (LTI) as a trainee lawyer. I graduated in January 2021 and was admitted to the Bar as a certified lawyer on January 29th.

As well as pursuing my career in law, I will also be focusing on my foundation. The Isabel Kila Foundation was set up as a gift from the National Gaming Control Board (NGCB). The General Manager at the NCGB set it up to assist me financially in my educational journey. I am looking forward to using my foundation to help other people too.

What the future looks like

My experience with the Young Voices project showed me the importance of advocacy. I’m pleased to see other projects like Leonard Cheshire’s 2030 and Counting project providing more opportunities for young disabled people to become youth advocates.

My goal now is to become a human rights lawyer so that I can advocate more for disabled people. I want to be someone people can come to for help. Someone they can fully depend on. Disabled people are smart and talented. And it’s important they can access support so they can achieve their dreams and fulfil the vision they have for themselves.