Brianna is a disability activist, freelance writer, speaker, educator, and facilitator. She's also an ambulatory wheelchair user, and the handler of Kirby the Assistance Dog.
After an exceptional Vice-Principle for Academics worked with Brianna and her family to make it possible to graduate high school on schedule with the grades she needed, Brianna started her Arts/Law degree at the University of Queensland and...continued to get sicker. As it turned out, university was not quite as adaptable as it had seemed, but the challenges posed by pervasive academic ableism did provide the impetus to search for answers for deteriorating health and mobility.
With a partial load of subjects at uni, Brianna found she was able to pursue roles in uni clubs and socs, as well as working with UN Youth Australia developing skills in facilitation, educational content creation, and public speaking, and eventually become the Chief Executive Officer of UN Youth and sitting on the UN Association of Australia's Board of Directors. In 2017, she worked as the UQU Disability Officer, which gave her an opportunity to practice her advocacy skills, convincing the university to hire an architect specialising in accessible design to conduct a comprehensive audit of physical accessibility by the end of the year and develop a plan for necessary and urgent retrofits.
So what was all this medical stuff? Brianna has a genetic disorder called Ehlers Danlos Syndrome, and a number of associated secondary conditions. All of those mean that she has chronic pain, chronic fatigue, dodgy joints, and a temperamental ticker. That's why you'll frequently see her out and about in her wheelchair, or using crutches or a cane.
Although she's had EDS her whole life, it didn't become disabling (requiring adaptions to her schooling and everyday life) until she was 15 and contracted a mosquito virus which resulted in other exacerbating conditions. Even so, she didn't learn that it wasn't 'normal' for people to walk without experiencing pain until she was 19. That year she got her first walking stick, and her first Smart Crutches, before getting her first wheelchair at 20. Shortly after, she finally received her official diagnosis from a geneticist. A couple of months later she spent two weeks in hospital before being released in time for a night at the rugby, only for her home to burn down while out with the family. A couple of years of struggling to find physically accessible rental accommodation brought a new learning curve, as did realising the financial impossibility of her family rebuilding a wheelchair accessible house on the site that burnt down.
So she's 23, she's in Brisbane, and she's got some experience to share.
Kirby is an Assistance Dog, and if you're interested in learning more about Assistance Dogs in general, this article Brianna wrote is a good place to start. Kirby's unique looks come about because he's a quarter Shih Tzu and 100% mutt, and was actually originally adopted as a pet from the RSPCA before he showed a remarkable aptitude for training.
Kirby is fully qualified under the Guide, Hearing, and Assistance Dog Act that applies in Queensland. While many teams interstate, ands some in Queensland, operate under the Disability Discrimination Act (Cth), Brianna chose to train under GHAD because it provides her and Kirby with extra legal protections when they come up against public access issues. Basically, it means that when someone discriminates against her because of Kirby's presence, they can be fined. Part of training to meet GHAD requirements was that although Kirby was trained by Brianna, they worked under the guidance of, and with regular assessment by, Canine Helpers.
So what does all that training mean? Basically, Kirby meets the standards of training and hygiene required in order for them to have public access rights, and he is trained in tasks to help alleviate Brianna's disability. If the questions from strangers on the street are any indication though, what you probably want to know is exactly what it is that he does to help. The short answer is lots of stuff (and please never ask a handler this)!
Some of his tasks and skills include:
- Alerting to an increase in Brianna's heart rate,
- Deep Pressure Therapy to manage Brianna's pain (this looks like pet cuddles, but is much more specific),
- "Blocking" people from getting too close or bumping Brianna to minimise injuries,
- Medication time reminders,
- Passing objects to Brianna,
- Turning and hopping as required to untangle himself from his lead,
- Jumping into Brianna's arms (whether she is seated or standing),
- The list goes on!