In conversation with… disability advocate, Eva Sifis

What’s it like to live and work with an acquired brain injury? Eva Sifis, Small Business Ministerial Council member, gives us an insight.

In 1999, 23-year-old Eva Sifis – a cabaret dancer who had successfully built a career both locally and in Japan – was crossing Melbourne’s Nepean Highway when she was hit by a car.

In seconds, her world changed forever.

“People are not disabled by their bodies but by attitudes and by an inaccessible built environment.”
Eva Sifis

Two months later, Eva woke from a coma at Richmond’s Epworth Hospital and spent several years in rehab learning to talk and walk again.

A new life unfolded involving reduced coordination, balance and memory: further compounded ten years later, when Eva was diagnosed with Hodgkin’s Lymphoma and underwent six months of chemotherapy.

Today, Eva has her own business, By Accident; Australia’s first and only peer initiated, developed and led training for those with acquired brain injuries.

She also sits on the Victorian Government’s Small Business Ministerial Council (SMBC), a 14-member council representing regional, metropolitan, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, disabled and LGBTIQ business operators advising the Minister for Small Business on issues affecting the sector.

On top of those roles, Eva also works at Arts Access Victoria and Voice At The Table, and consults with both Women with Disabilities Victoria, and the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations.

Q&A: Eva Sifis

How can workplaces become more inclusive for those with a disability?

It’s easy. Hire them! And adjust your workplace to accommodate them (for example, offer physical access and flexibility in hours worked or the timing of deadlines). Ensure they face no discrimination from rostering or from fellow employees by investing in a disability access/awareness presentation for the whole organisation to attend.

How far has society come in making that happen?

Almost 20% of Australia’s population are disabled and yet we still suffer blatant discrimination, especially when it comes to employment. People are not disabled by their bodies but by attitudes and by an inaccessible built environment.

What does being an SMBC member mean to you?

It’s an honour not taken lightly. My perspective is important as one not usually considered in the Australian workplace – that of a business owner disabled by our ways of working and by prevailing attitudes. I hope to make a dent in the perceptions of others by showing it’s possible to be successful in entrepreneurship at the same time as being disabled. I believe every disabled person is an entrepreneur as soon as they get out of bed in the morning. Countless adjustments have to be made each day in our ablest society.

What key learnings do you share with others who have acquired brain injuries?

The importance of eternally investigating the world around you. Also, to not take dire ‘medical-model’ summations of the quality and worth of a disabled life to heart. It really is a type of rebirth – into a new reality with new perspectives.

How does ‘By Accident’ help people get back into work?

By Accident focuses on the building of ‘a new you’ after brain injury. I share the way I returned to the working world. It took a very long time with hardly anything in terms of a wage however I‘ve finally reached a point where I’ve begun to feel satisfactorily recognised. I’ve developed a business that continues to grow in sectors that have always been my passion – the arts and advocacy.

You speak of skiing at Falls Creek after your accident and how it’s a great metaphor for life: learning to trust. Is this the message that you impart through ‘By Accident’?

Yes. I’ve found a majority of participants are in fact grateful for their injuries. I, wholeheartedly, am one of this number. An acquired or traumatic brain injury can be seen as a giant ‘reset’ button. Metaphors abound with examples being found in everyday life that reflect our unique experiences. A favourite idiom I’m forever using is ‘onwards and upwards’.

Work wise, where do you see yourself in 10 years’ time?

I see myself travelling, sought after to share my perspectives and discoveries as an advocate for the experience of the head injured. Empowering others through my business and actions, ripples will be far felt and my influence meaningful.

Best advice for living life to the full?

Remain eternally curious and keep exploring.