Seeing my disability as my strength, as beautiful, and as me.

By Robbie Francis

Ever since she was small, Robbie Francis has had a passion for social justice. After volunteering at an orphanage in rural Fiji when she was 16, she embarked on her own personal journey as a young disabled woman, advocate and leader.

After returning from Fiji, was a time in my life that I like to describe as my “coming out” as a disabled person. I was born with a condition called phocomelia, which meant the bones in the lower half of my body didn’t develop properly before birth. Born without a left leg and most of the bones missing in my right leg, I learned to walk on an artificial limb that became commonly known as Lucy Leg, because what toddler can say pros-the-sis or art-i-fi-cial limb!

As a child, I had always felt comfortable with my body. My parents made sure I had the same opportunities as everyone else. But I didn’t always feel comfortable or confident. It wasn’t until after my first major surgery when I was 12, that I suddenly became aware of my imperfections. Lucy Leg, which had always been a natural part of me, suddenly began to stick out and I hated it. Instead of bare feet I started wearing sneakers and baggy pants instead of shorts. 

Lucy became impossible to hide and I despised her because of it. Lucy, my trustworthy, ever faithful leg, had become the single thing I hated most. As my attitude declined, so did my choice in friends. I found it hard to believe I deserved better.  Who would want to be friends with a girl like me? What boy would ever want to date a girl with a Lucy Leg? 

I don’t remember the exact moment I decided to change, but it was marked by the decision to stop hiding what truly made me unique. To not be ashamed, but to be proud of me. So, I did the craziest thing I could think of – I came out as a disabled person anpainted Lucy Leg fluoro pink.  

This was one of the best decisions I ever made. Instead of thinking of my disability as a weakness, I started to see it as my strength. It was my way of saying to myself and to the world: This is beautiful. This is me. This is wholly me – I can’t separate it from me, so let’s celebrate itEveryone is on their own journey, but coming to terms with one’s disability identity is such an important part of it. But it was not the end of the journey. Not at all. 

After studying world religion at university, I won a Rotary Ambassadorial Scholarship to study International Conflict Resolution and Mediation in Israel and Palestine. However, it wasn’t until I started my Master’s thesis at the University of Otago National Centre for Peace and Conflict Studies, that I met Donna-Rose, a disability rights advocate, who like me, had lived experience of disability. One day she said to me: “You know, it’s really great you are studying peace and conflict but have you ever thought about what happens to people like us during war?” Her question made me sit back and think. What was my responsibility to people like “us” people living with disability? 

So, I decided to commit the next three years of my life to finding out more, by doing a PhD on the experiences of people with disabilities during war and displacement. However, before embarking on my PhD research journey I found myself heading to Mexico for an internship, which involved documenting human rights abuses in psychiatric institutions.  

As I learned about the horrific treatment of people with disabilities around the world, I realised it could have been me. I too am one of a billion people worldwide who identify as disabled - the largest minority in the world. A minority that has higher unemployment rates, lower levels of education and less access to adequate healthcare than any other sector of society. Even here in Aotearoa, New Zealand. It’s called disablism: “Discriminatory, oppressive or abusive behaviour arising from the belief that disabled people are inferior to others”. 

There’s a song by Brooke Fraser. She sings: “Now that I have seen, I am responsible.” I am a 28-year-old woman, with an education. I am disabled. I’ve seen how people like me are treated and it’s my responsibility to respond to the injustice. 

As I spoke to disability communities around the world, I kept hearing a narrative that I’d also heard back here in Aotearoa New Zealand: if only society would give me a chance to work, I would. If I could work, then I could pay rent, have a roof over my head, which means I’m warm, which means I’m healthier and not going to the doctors as much.  

So, I came to back to Aotearoa New Zealand and started chatting with my friendsWe started to think – how can we lead by example? How can we co-design a solution that works for everyone? How can we celebrate human rights through business? This is how The Lucy Foundation was born (named after Lucy Leg!). 

Having just returned from Mexico, it made sense to focus on coffee. Cafes in New Zealand had become so popular, coffee culture and specialty coffee was already a big thing here. It’s funny but I think my generation often spends more time in cafés than we do in bars! 

So, my friends and I brought all these ideas together and developed a model we thought might work. We sent an email around the world, asking if there were any organisations out there who wanted to work with us and within a few weeks we’d received an email telling us of some people with disabilities in a coffee farming community called Pluma Hidalgo, an isolated village high in the mountains of Southern Mexico.  

So, after several years of planning, research and fundraising, in 2016 we set up a team on the ground in Pluma Hidalgo, Mexico. The aim of the Pluma coffee project is to transform the global coffee industry and the way we do business by developing a sustainable value chain of coffee that is not only good for the environment, the community and the economy, but is also inclusive of disabled people, from seed to cup. 

To do this, we work with indigenous coffee-farming families, all affected by disability, to help them increase the quality and quantity of their coffee. We also help disabled family members to become trained and employed within the local coffee industry through beekeeping, barista coffee training, coffee tours, coffee harvest and agricultural workshops that help local farmers learn how to revitalise their soil so they can grow strong and healthy coffee plants. In one short year we have: 

  • Held more than 30 inclusive and accessible agricultural workshops with coffee-farming families and the wider community;  

  • Created 6,000 litres of organic bio-fertiliser and 600 litres of organic insect and disease treatment made for the crops;  

  • Helped develop a local barista training program for unemployed young people, disabled people and the wider community (also delivered in sign language);  

  • Set up beehives to increase coffee quality through pollination and as additional income for the families; 

  • Supported three disabled people into paid, part-time contract work;  

  • Produced enough coffee to bring home to New Zealand, which quickly sold out.  

Here in Aotearoa New Zealand, The Lucy Foundation partners with organisations, such as Coffee Educators and Able. Coffee Collaborative, who actively support disabled Kiwis into training and employment within the New Zealand coffee industry. As a result, Pluma coffee is being used as a catalyst for change, promoting inclusive and accessible business both in Aotearoa New Zealand and around the world from the time it is planted, to the time it is drunk. 

It is hard work. It is slow work. And working towards ethical, equal and sustainable partnerships through direct and empowering trade within a capitalist and neo-liberal system can sometimes feel like an impossible task. But we also know that our model works.  

My dream is that someone, even just one person, will see what I’m doing both professionally and academically and become inspired to pursue diversity and inclusion within their own space, communities, schools, research, practice, business or in their own industry. For me, this will make the impossible possible, and the hard work worth it.  

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