If you think being born without a left hand and forearm has affected the life of Annabelle Williams OAM, you’d be right. But not in the way you think. Her disability has given her a determination, perspective and ultimately, a life, that many people will only dream about. This is a woman who dreams big and lives her life with purpose...
In her twenties, Annabelle trained six days a week as captain of the Australian Paralympic swim team while simultaneously building a professional legal career, including stints in Paris at the Australian Trade Commission and Washington D.C. as a representative for an NFL/NBA player agency. In 2012, her dream came true when she won a gold medal at the London Paralympics. Since then, she has continued with sports as a commentator, General Counsel for the Australian Olympic Committee, and Vice President of Paralympics Australia.
Annabelle is a passionate diversity advocate. She was awarded the Medal of the Order of Australia in 2013. She has worked as a stunt double for Charlize Theron. And she completed an executive MBA at Stanford. We told you she dreams big. Annabelle is also a mother to daughter Josie.
Here, in collaboration with iconic Australian footwear brand Wittner who are putting the spotlight on incredible women for the month of March, Annabelle opens up about the topics most important to her. She also shares how she walks tall and, gives us a peek at the beautiful new winter Wittner collection. Say hello dreamy boots in all kinds of shades, sparkling stilettos and comfy sneakers that are as functional as they are fashion-forward.
How would you describe your personal style?
I would say that my style is quite traditional and classic. I like clothes that are timeless, paired with understated accessories. My work on boards and as a consultant requires me to dress professionally, while my outfits for keynote speeches are polished but tend to be a little bit more fun! As a mum of a toddler I also like to be comfortable and practical, so I try and buy clothes that I can dress up and also wear casually. I like to be able to match and coordinate looks, so I tend to wear neutral colours rather than bold patterns. Looking at my wardrobe now I definitely don’t need anymore white linen shirts or navy and white striped T-shirts!
You used to work at a large law firm and the whole time you were there, you never saw another person with a physical, visible disability and it made you feel like you really stood out (1 in 5 people have a disability - not all are visible). Yet you have said that you are so often told that people wish they had more diversity in their team, but they can’t seem to find diverse talent. What do you say when you hear this?
In the same way that gender equality has to improve at senior levels of organisations, all forms of diversity have to improve because, if you can’t see yourself represented in an organisation, your immediate feeling is, “I don’t fit in there. I’m not the kind of person they want.” I used to think that they saw me as a diversity quota who was female. They may well not have thought that, but that’s how it makes you feel. You feel like you’re ticking a box or filling a need that they don’t genuinely really care that much about.
In order to have genuine inclusion, it has to start from the top. You have to have a CEO, or at law firms it’s a partnership, and the partners have to genuinely understand the benefits of inclusion. There has been a lot of talk over this past year in response to the Black Lives Matter Movement and the tragic death of George Floyd. There has been a lot of talk about increasing diversity and inclusion. Vernā Myers is the Vice President of Inclusion Strategy at Netflix and she describes diversity as: “Diversity is being invited to the party and inclusion is about being asked to dance.” It’s not enough for organisations to just think, “Okay. Well, Black Lives Matter happened. This is becoming an important issue for people so let’s just get a lot of diverse talent and we’ll put them in the organisation.” You actually have to nurture that. In order for it to be nurtured and genuine throughout the organisation, it has to be a personal mission of the CEO or the partnership for that to occur.
If you want to look at a gold standard in diversity and inclusion and their policies, Channel 4 in the UK is it. Every kind of diversity group is represented on TV, in their boardroom, in senior management. When you see it happen genuinely, you realise that a lot of the issues that we all struggle with in the workplace can be resolved if there is genuine diversity and inclusion.
To people who say, and this happens all the time, “We really want diverse talent,” or, “We really want more people with a disability, but they just don’t apply for jobs,” that is really just not trying hard enough and that is putting the blame and the entire impetus on the person with the disability and that’s unfair. If you want to build a diverse team, one thing that’s really important is language. So in job advertisements, most people don’t even realise that the language they’re using is biased towards a particular group or there’s unconscious bias in the language. So using words like, “We want someone who will challenge or dominate,” those words can be read as masculine and so that is off putting to female candidates.
You also have to make sure that there’s a lot of diversity on your interview panels because homogeneous panels struggle to recruit a diverse team. As I said before, if a candidate can’t see anyone like them reflected in the workplace or on the selection panel, then they’ll probably conclude that the organisation isn’t really for people like them.
A lot of people have experienced anxiety over the last year, can you share a technique that a sports psychologist taught you to help calm your nerves before races?
I used to work with sports psychologists. To start off with, I’m generally an anxious person. At school, I would always be incredibly anxious in the lead up to an exam. Every time I had a race, no matter how important or unimportant the race was, I would be a bundle of nerves. I’d often be physically unwell before races. So, I had to develop some techniques that would help me in those moments. I think that a degree of adrenaline is important in moments where you want to perform, but you have to temperate it or moderate it and make sure that it’s working for you rather than working against you. For a long time, it really worked against me because I’d be so anxious.
When I was swimming, we used to have to go to the marshalling area 20 minutes before a race and that was where I was my most anxious. I realised that what I would do is I would go over the race, over, and over, in my head. When I got out onto the blocks to start the race, I was almost exhausted by the fact that I felt like I’d already swum the race so many times.
I realised that I needed to almost forget. I mean, swimming is not overly strategic. I’ve done those races a million times. You just have to execute. I know when you dive in, it’s not like I’m going to sink to the bottom of the pool. I realised the more I could forget about the race until I was a couple of minutes beforehand, the better. The only way I could do that was to distract myself. I used to do this on my own in the marshaling area and I used to think of three things that I could see, three things that I could hear, and three things that I could touch.
Everyone handles situations differently and that might not work for everyone, but one thing I wish I had learned more about when I was swimming was the power of breath. There’s a guy called Andrew Huberman. He is at Stanford, actually. He’s in the medical department, but he has a lab called the Huberman Lab. He’s a neuroscientist and he’s done all this research into the actual chemical changes that occur when you meditate and when you do breathing techniques.
Annabelle wears Wittner Xena Red Anaconda Leather Block Heel Ankle Boot, $290. Oroton Button Detail Cardi, $299. Oroton Knit Fringe Skirt, $349.
You have also been asked many times over the years if you could rewind the clock and be born with two arms, would you? What is your answer to this question?
My answer is no. I don’t ever remember wishing I had two arms. Even when I was little and people would say mean comments or I’d struggle to do something, I had to learn a different way, I never remember thinking, “Oh, I wish I had two arms.” I was always surrounded by family and friends who were the opposite of any kind of cruelty that could happen. I had so much support so that helped me a lot.
As I got older, I realised that I had so many opportunities because of the fact that I had one arm. I wouldn’t have gone to Paralympics. Perhaps I would’ve gone to an Olympics, but I think that that’s very different to Paralympic games. I’ve probably developed skills that I otherwise wouldn’t have. I’m maybe more empathetic. Ultimately, I was born with one arm and born into a loving family. I was very lucky to have a great education and a lot of support, but I’ve met people who have been through horrific things. People who grew up in orphanages because their parents didn’t want them because they had a disability. I have a friend who was left in a shoebox on the side of the road as a baby because his parents were like, “I don’t want him. He’s got no legs.” Yet they go on to achieve these incredible things. You do see the best and the worst of people because some people are so wonderful to me and then also some people have been so unkind to me. Seeing the full gambit of, the human existence, you have more of an appreciation to potentially how you want to be, as a person. You really know who your good friends and allies are.
You have recently posted guides to talking about disability on your social channels – what are some of the biggest messages you shared?
I’ll start by saying that a lot of people find talking about disability quite awkward. That’s understandable because they don’t necessarily know lots of people with disability and they don’t know how to approach it. The awkwardness surrounding the conversation is doing a disservice to everyone. It’s the reason why people with disabilities aren’t getting employed, it’s the reason why we don’t talk about it more generally. I always feel like there’s a lot of people talking about gender inclusion, LGBTQ, racial diversity, but still disability inclusion is not well-represented. I think it’s because able-bodied people don’t know how to talk to disabled people about it or the language to use or whatever.
The word disability is not perfect, but a lot of able-bodied people think, “Oh, I don’t think I should use the word disability or disabled.” So they try to use a different word, but all of those words end up being more offensive. Some people in wheelchairs are called crippled. Some people talk about your defect or your deformity and that language is negative.
Disability is not a negative thing. I tend to say, “a person with a disability,” rather than, “a disabled person,” because having a disability is just part of what I have. It doesn’t define me. One other thing, and there’s lots of information on my Instagram account, is allowing children to ask questions. A lot of parents think, “Oh, no, no. Stop asking,” or if they ask, a lot of times, a child will come up and say, “Why have you only got one arm?” And the parent will say, “No, don’t ask that. That’s rude.” Of course, the child is curious, but when you’re the person with the disability, the parent is saying, “This is a very awkward, uncomfortable thing that you’re doing. It’s not okay to talk about disability.” Allowing people with disability to explain to children in the way they want to is important.
Talk to me about the power of community and what role sisterhood plays in your life?
I’m very fortunate. One thing I think that’s important to say is I grew up with incredibly supportive parents and friends and family and I understand that a lot of people don’t. The relationships between women is just so powerful, but you don’t have to be born into it and you don’t have to have childhood friends to have community and that sense of belonging. You can find your community anywhere. All you actually need is one person. You just need one person who’s got your back.
My mum and my grandma, who are both called Josephine (and my daughter’s now called Josephine), are the most amazing role models. My mum and my grandma were very, very different people and so they both taught me different things, but they have really shaped I am and taught me about the kind of person I want to be.
My grandma used to say: “In order to feel happy, you only need three things. You need someone to love, something to do, and something to look forward to.” I used to write those things down when I was feeling sad because you realise you always have someone to love, you always something to do, even if it’s having a cup of coffee on the balcony or a walk in the afternoon.
On the topic of shoes, heels or flats?
Can I say both? I love wearing flats during the day when I can – usually a white sneaker, but for work and anything after 5pm, I love wearing heels! More often than not I’m wearing a nude stiletto pump.
Finally, as a mother of a little girl, what kind of future do you want for her?
As a parent, I feel like my job is to give her the space and support to figure out who exactly she is and guide her to her authentic self and always teach her that there is always a safe place at home. No matter what goes on in that wide open world when she goes to school and lots of other things happen to her, she can always come home and we will always be a safety net and a support for her. But I don’t want her to think, “I’ve got to be this because I have to prove it to people or because that’s what mum and dad would want.”
As a mother with a disability, hope she will value difference. As an able-bodied person, I hope she’ll be an ally to people who have a disability and she’ll be a fierce fighter, but also hope that the world is going to become a place where she won’t have to battle if she wants to be in a senior leadership role.