Toodyay’s Bolshy Diva pulls no punches
By Ieva Tomsons
AS A LEADING disability advocate, Coondle resident Samantha Connor (52) criss-crosses the country every couple of weeks but tries to be back home on Thursdays to run scouting spin-off group Toodyay Troop.
This feisty redhead knows first-hand about living with a disability as she has the rare degenerative disease limb girdle muscular dystrophy and uses a wheel chair.
“I’m two years past my life expectancy already but I’m choosing to document myself as ‘slowly living’ as opposed to some others with the disease who blog about ‘slowly dying’,” jokes Samantha who rips into life at 100 miles an hour.
At a recent WA Parliament House rally opposing Voluntary Assisted Dying laws Samantha’s confrontational style made the regular news bulletins.
She regularly crosses swords while texting social commentator and euthanasia champion Andrew Denton and pulls no punches as a panellist on ABC TV’s The Drum.READ MORE
So what shapes a person who will rattle an over-size donation tin with ‘Send Me to a Swiss Suicide Clinic’ to highlight her concerns about the lack of legislative safeguards for vulnerable people in the assisted dying debate?
Samantha grew up in Thornlie and from an early age had an untenable relationship with her father who was a sexually abusive disciplinarian.
“I kept running away from home so when I was about 12 they shipped me off to Zimbabwe to go to a boarding school and live during the holidays with my godmother who was strictly religious.”
For Samantha the imposed exile was a bonus. “It didn’t faze me one bit; it was an adventure.”
Four years in Zimbabwe
During her four years in Zimbabwe the seeds of campaigning for social justice were planted as she observed her white boarding school class mates’ discriminatory attitudes towards black girls.
Samantha’s father died when she was 16 and she felt free to return to Perth.
Soon after, her mother sold everything except the house and took Samantha and her younger brother on a nine-month trip to Singapore, India, Holland, Switzerland and England.
On their return, Samantha completed Year 12 and immediately started working on a series of low-level clerical jobs before “falling in lust” with Peter Connor at 19 and having the first of their six children.
Samantha had been coming to Toodyay since she was a child to visit her naturalist aunt Dawn Atwell so the couple decided to buy a block in Coondle in 1988.
“We became members of the shed-dwelling community – no running water, a chemical toilet and a solar shower on the doorstep. It’s probably the start of me being a scout leader.
“It was a good community and we ran community sheep. Macca (David McCall) would shear, Chris Atkins was the slaught and old Stacey Braishaw would put them in her chiller.”
The Connor’s had three kids by the time they married in 1991 at St Philip’s in Culham and Samantha had landed a job as a real estate rep in Northam and started studying youth work externally.
During the 1990s Samantha covered a lot of ground.
She had three more kids, worked for C Y O’Connor TAFE in Northam helping disabled people to use computers before lecturing in computing and teaching youth at risk.
Samantha became more and more involved with disability issues but also started volunteering for The Toodyay Herald in 1998 and served as its editor from 2007-2010.
“We had the usual fractious relationship with the shire but we had a lot of fun,” she said.
Whistling turnip hoax
I’d always sneak in an April Fool’s Day article; one was The Whistling Turnip about a genetically modified turnip – a bit of a hoot.”
As a scout leader she encourages the troop to not only become good citizens but uses her artistic talents to also get them involved in the arts.
Her most recent project with Toodyay Troop was to chalk life-affirming messages on Newcastle Bridge for last month’s RUOK Day.
In 2009, Samantha and Julimar artist Bettina Scobie launched Vino, a flagship event for Arts Toodyay, which this month celebrates its 10th anniversary.
By 2010 Samantha was on the Ministerial Advisory Council on Disability, lobbying hard for WA to become part of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
“Overnight we put together 100 stories from disabled people and (then Premier) Colin Barnett changed his mind and jumped on a plane and signed up to NDIS.”
To increase the effectiveness of lobbying for disability rights Samantha was a founding member of the Bolshy Divas, disabled women who use left-of-centre social media and art to block reforms disabled people and their families don’t want.
No lipstick tattoo on bum
An honorary member of the Bolshy Divas is disabled WA Greens Senator Jordon Steele John who is in the thick of the current Royal Commission into People With Disabilities who, unlike the rest of the Divas, does not sport a lipstick tattoo on his bum.
“We (disabled groups) basically bullied them into having a Royal Commission; it was a huge win after years of fighting.”
Samantha, who also advised the Regional Advisory Forum about rural disabled people’s issues and was instrumental in lobbying for wheelchair access on buses, was nominated for West Australian of The Year in 2014.
Her CV includes an impressive number of advocacy roles but the one that takes The Herald’s fancy is “Cat Herder, NDIS Expert Committee”.
This is a woman who uses humour to address disadvantage and perhaps she said it best herself in her nomination for West Australian of the Year.
“The problem is not with disability but the attitudes of people towards disability, access and inclusion.
“I consider myself really lucky to live in a town where there is a real intent to include people with disability in everyday life. I want to work towards making discrimination a thing of the past.”