Laura O’Reilly founded Fighting Chance, which helps people with disability access opportunities after finishing school, six months before the death of her youngest brother Shane who had cerebral palsy.
“Shane was three years younger than me. Growing up, we were all afforded equal opportunities, but when we approach the post-school period it became clear that society was not going to do the same”, Laura said.
“My other brother Jordan and I had all the opportunity in the world, however the same could not be said for Shane whose significant disability meant his only real option was a small number of recreationally-focused day programs”, she said.
World CP Day has found that this is an issue for people with cerebral palsy across the globe. Many members of our community aren’t able to make a contribution and live their lives to their full potential. It is perhaps the single greatest loss in the lives of people with cerebral palsy and, indeed, to the communities in which we live.
In Australia, Fighting Chance has addressed this need in a clever and enterprising way.
Laura said that while Shane enjoyed the recreational activities he undertook in his day programs, they did not offer him any form of vocational opportunity or chance to develop his skills and knowledge.
“Shane loved to use the computer and was very capable on it, yet there was no capacity for him to engage in this space in his day programs. We wanted something for him that combined the challenge, interest, computer-focus, purpose of work, with the supports of a day program”, Laura said.
So Fighting Chance started Avenue, which provides a vocationally focused, supported post-school option for people who are otherwise limited to recreational or day care activities. The organisation creates meaningful participation and economic inclusion for people with profound and severe disability.
They later set up another social enterprise, Jigsaw, in order to generate immediate employment at award wages and transitional pathways into mainstream work for people with more moderate disability.
“The two enterprises now live together on a spectrum, giving every single person the opportunity to find genuine economic participation opportunities at the right level for them”, Laura said.
Today Fighting Chance supports 140 people with disability through their programs, grounded firmly by its belief that every adult, without exception, has skills and abilities to contribute to society.
In addition to Jigsaw and Avenue, Fighting Chance offers a range of recreational activities, including a Saturday Lab Program, and a work experience program for school students.
“It is not acceptable that hundreds of thousands of adults with significant disability find their post-school choices limited to a handful of recreational options. The solution to all the challenges my family experienced through Shane’s life, and to the challenges facing people with disability more generally, is to create an environment, a culture, a philosophy in which every single person is given the opportunity to be their maximum selves”, Laura said.
When Laura first started Fighting Chance she intended to be a lawyer, and the work was meant to be something extra-curricular.
“In the last five years it has become my life and my plan for the future, so that has been a big transition for me. But I very much feel that I am where I should be”, Laura said.
“We believe in every person in our programs, we see their potential and their skills and we give them the opportunity to use all of that”, she said.
There is no doubt that Laura’s passion, vision and dedication has created real change and improvements in the lives of many people with disability, and indeed in the communities in which they live.