From the train to Townsville to CEO with an MBA: Interview with Julie-Ann Lambourne

 In Disability Awareness, Disability Policy

I sat down late last year with Julie-Ann Lambourne, CEO of enVizion group in Cairns for what we planned to be a short filmed chat about adult learning vs. school in the context of disability and health.

The conversation flowed straight through morning tea – spanning adult learning, disability in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander context, managing mental health, growing up with health conditions, and the very meaning of success.  The conversation broadened my thinking, and so the time was well invested.

We began with a discussion about the good old statistic – one in five Australians live with disability; but many of these individuals don’t share this information with their employer or with education providers due to fear of discrimination or misunderstanding.   For young children in school, a poorly applied label can be detrimental.

A photo of two people in an office. On the left, David, laughs while talking with Julie-Ann on the right.

David & Julie-Ann having a conversation in Cairns.

Julie-Ann is a Torres Strait Island woman – mother’s father is from Mabuiag Island – Western Torres Strait, and her mother’s mother is from Darnley Island in the Eastern Torres Strait.  A very passionate advocate for the success of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island people, Julie-Ann also has an interest in the advancement of people with disability.

My learning began as we moved to the topic of Julie-Ann’s childhood. I wanted to build an understanding of how she got from the little girl with the troubled look in her eyes pictured below to the well-respected business person sitting across the table that day.  Can you pick which one she is?

School photo of Julie-Ann's class. Pictured, top right a small blonde girl with sad eyes.

Julie-Ann at about aged 7, pictured top right. I couldn’t pick it, but the lack of a smile is telling.

If you’ve met Julie-Ann you’ll already know she’s not timid.   She launched right into the tough stuff first.

“We really kind of had to bring ourselves up… I was subjected to every type of abuse.  I became the silent child I guess, to a certain point, because I didn’t want any attention.

I remember once in school, a nurse came and I was suit-cased up and shipped off by train to the Bush Children’s Health Scheme in Townsville because I had sight issues.” 

I knew of the scheme, and the old Townsville General Hospital.  My mind started to create a picture of the train rattling down the track, a young child looking apprehensively out the window.  Was there somebody there with her?

Julie-Ann continued – “I was very young, maybe six or seven.  I remember being alone, and not really knowing where I was going.”

‘Where did you stay? What happened when you got there?’ I asked.

“I can still picture it.  I was taken to hospital in Townsville for surgery on my eye.  I was in a ward with a lot of older ladies, and their families would feel sorry for me and they would visit with me as nobody came to visit me. That was nice.  I remember the nurse would come and get me and take me back to the ward, and I just felt very alone.  I remember waking up, as a little child, and walking down the hallway crying, not knowing where I was.” 

I pictured what the hospital might feel like at night time, the sounds, the smell.  Later, I searched for the image I saw in my mind – used below.

A dark hospital hallway - very eery.

“I was shipped twice to Townsville…”

I could only try to imagine the fear & loneliness of being in a different city, all alone at six years old.

Where was your family?

“I grew up very impoverished.  Very disadvantaged.  My mother was an alcoholic, and my dad was away working a lot.  As an example, I remember when I was young I fell off a car we were playing on and ripped out half my leg.  Mum was too drunk to take me to the hospital.  The lady up the back of the flats had to patch me up and off I went.  We never really often sought out medical attention.”

Silence, my end.  When I was twelve, I had ripped my leg to shreds by hitting a fence at high speed (don’t ask) and my dad drove me to hospital.  The trip ruined the front seat of their car with blood but the immediate medical attention saved most of my leg muscle.

And now you’re a CEO and have completed a MBA? Julie-Ann understood what I was asking.

“Well David, it’s not that simple.”  The discussion from childhood to Julie-Ann’s current position was lengthy – and covered a teenage and young adult experience involving ups and downs with mental health diagnosis, addiction and recovery from this and success – a building of a career and the challenges life can throw at you along the way.  Perhaps a tale to tell another day (time permitting).

Our conversation covered vision impairment, learning, segregation in classrooms, choice and control (lack thereof) and the steady efforts Julie-Ann has taken to elevate herself through these experiences, bringing as many as possible along for the journey.

We were discussing disability, but within the context of the structure provided in childhood both in the form of growing up Indigenous on Murray Street in Cairns, healthcare being ‘applied’, feeling like a failure through school due to learning style differences, and reconciling this with her own strengths and competence later in life.  The common theme was about building resilience and self-belief in the face of assumptions people make about you regardless of illness, injury, disability and disadvantage.

Julie-Ann looks out over Cairns waterfront.

Julie-Ann overlooks a peaceful scene from the Wharf in Cairns, after this conversation.

“When I did my first Masters subject, I had to go through this whole process of telling myself I could do it, because you always have this little voice telling you you’re not smart enough.”

So, what made the difference for you?

“I guess it was knowing that I could achieve regardless of what had happened to me or what I was experiencing.  I learned how to believe in myself and my abilities that I have – because everybody has abilities – we focus too much on the things we can’t do, not on the things that we can do.”

I understand.  What drove you to do an MBA after leaving school at age 14 to start work?

When I was appointed CEO, I thought – I’ve got to structure my learning process again.  I found a place-based Masters in Business Administration with the Australian Institute of Business, simply because it was all about implementing what you were learning into your business straight away.” 

I nodded.

“As it turns out, with my learning ability, this works for me.  If I can implement the information practically, I retain it.  Learning that way completely changed the way I viewed the business.”

What’s your message for people who feel like they just can’t do it? Perhaps they were told in school they weren’t going to be successful?

“Regardless of what you’re going through, there’s always a solution and there’s always an opportunity to move forward.  

Thinking all those years ago – would I ever have thought I would have started an organisation like this and be appointed as a Chief Executive Officer? No.  But here I am today.   Success is whatever you want it to be…”

A group of people standing together at an awards night. Julie-Ann Holds an award.

Cairns Business Women’s Club Awards – Indigenous Women in Business Award.  Photo with sponsors Department of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Partnerships and Julie-Ann Lambourne.

I left the conversation having learned plenty more about how policy driven structures have potential to disable people and what it takes to push forward in the pursuit of your own success – however you wish to define it.   Julie-Ann isn’t a fan of labels, and is a fan of looking at people for their unique skills and for what they can contribute – I understand why.

Are you considering further study in Queensland but are unsure what types of supports are available for people with health conditions, disability injury or illness? Learn more by exploring our new website, https://www.stepsndco.com.au/study/ 

Our thanks to Julie-Ann Lambourne for agreeing to share some of her life in the hopes that it inspires others to take the leap into further education.  You can learn more about what enVizion does at their website, http://www.envizion.org.au  

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