Perth-based Esme Bowen FAICD is under no illusions about how lucky she was in the aftermath of a horrific car crash 36 years ago which set her on the path of a new advocacy career.
“I'm one of the one in 10 people who can walk after the injuries I had,” says veteran road safety and disability advocate Esme Bowen FAICD, recently named the 2023 winner of AICD’s Director Award for Excellence in the Western Australian not-for-profit sector.
Bowen’s greatest fortune was that she’d had almost 10 years training as a nurse and specialised in spinal injuries and orthopaedics.
I was able to say to the first responders, ‘Don’t move me. We’ll need the spinal team, and you’ll need to ring [world-renowned WA spinal surgeon] Sir George Bedbrook’,” she recounts.
After surgery, six weeks in the spinal unit, 12 months in a brace and 18 months rehabilitating, Bowen made a stunning recovery, a result she acknowledges was aided by the expertise she’d brought to the crash scene on how to manage her injury. “The statistics show that if people are handled correctly in that first golden hour, there’s a higher possibility they’ll walk again, rather than wheel,” she says. “But that doesn’t always happen.”
This life-changing experience and her desire to improve first aid spinal care practices changed the course of Bowen’s career — along with input from her great mentor, the late Sir George Bedbrook OBE. Alongside his pioneering orthopaedic surgical work, Bedbrook instigated the Australian Paralympics and Commonwealth Paraplegic Games, and founded wheelchair sports and the Paraplegic Benefit Fund in Australia.
“I was still in my plaster brace when Sir George came and said, ‘As part of your rehab, you're coming to a spinal injury prevention committee meeting with me’,” says Bowen. “He soon had me doing rounds of speaking engagements, talking about my experience and how to prevent and handle spinal cord injuries.”
Disability Royal Commission
That was the first in a series of committee and board roles that have seen Bowen devote the lion’s share of the past 30 years to promoting the interests of people with disability and tackling road safety.
Carers save our economy $77 billion dollars per year, according to a Deloitte report from 2020, says Bowen.
While she says the final report of the Disability Royal Commission has set out the issues in the sector, she adds that there is a long way to go.
“I want to see more recognition for the hidden, invisible workforce of families, carers and supporters behind those in our communities who live with a disability that makes them unable to have their own choice and control. They should be recognised and respected for the support and care they provide and they are an integral part of the disability ecosystem.
“People with intellectual and cognitive disabilities and severe complex disabilities whose aging parents and carers (who are navigating the often complex systems) are sometimes managing a 24/7 role. They try to ensure the care and the lives of their loved ones is the best it can be, often at the detriment of their own health, well-being , financial status and ( now restricted ) lifestyle.”
Those who live with disabilities in Australia just want what people who live in Australia want ..belonging and connection , to be consulted and included in a life well lived .
“In the words of Sir George Bedbrook …” if a life is worth saving then that life must be well lived”. He also used to say …it’s not the person in the hospital bed with the illness of the injury ..the family around them also lives it. “
Advice for NFP directors
Her current roles include director of the Paraplegic Benefit Fund and Volunteering Australia, chair of the WA Minister’s Carers Advisory Council and Volunteering Community Reference Group, member of Disability Assembly WA, and deputy chair of the Chamber of Commerce and Industry WA.
She was formerly the president of Wheelchair Sport Australia and Wheelchair Sports WA (now Rebound WA), director of the Australian Automobile Association and president of WA RAC, among others. She has also been highly engaged in community volunteering and has worked as a community road safety advocate for many years.
“I stepped into a world that’s given me opportunities I would never have otherwise had, to mix with advocates all over the world in disability sports and road safety — I’ve had great privileges and I’ve tried to make the most of them,” she says.
Bowen has seen strides of progress during her three-decade career, but says there’s “still a long way to go” and admits that despite entering her sixties, she can’t imagine ever stopping her advocacy. She’s also keen for more executives to consider board roles in the NFP sector to help drive action.
“We need a blend of people, with lived-experience and other skills, so you have a team that brings different opinions to come to the right conclusions for the organisation,” she says. “It can be a tough gig and there can be some challenges that are breathtaking, but I actually think you learn so much more as an NFP director because you have to roll your sleeves up and you’re surrounded by people who are passionate, have a purpose and love what they do.”
Bowen was a company director of and remains very involved in her family’s Perth based surf retail business. She has also been involved in tourism and hospitality ventures in the Kimberley region.
She has some simple advice for those considering joining an NFP board.
“First, find out the time commitment and decide whether you can realistically meet it,” she counsels. “If you're going to be on the bus, you want to be a part of driving it, not a passenger, because you’ll be taking up space someone else could fill.
“Second, do your due diligence. Before you say yes, look at the organisation’s annual reports, ask for the last three sets of board papers with full financials and really go through them. Have coffees with a couple of the other directors and ask what are the joys and challenges — and how is their relationship with the CEO.
“Finally, decide if it’s where your passion, interests and skills lie. You need to absolutely love it and be able to contribute your experience and energies. If you can tick those boxes, step forward and have a go, because the sector needs more people like you and you’ll get back from it just as much as you give. For me, it’s just a joy.”
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