Woman Vincent, Kelly

Actor, Playwright and Politician

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Kelly Vincent was elected to the South Australian parliament at the 2010 state election as a candidate for the Dignity for Disability Party. Winning the eleventh (and last) seat for an eight-year term in the 22-member South Australian Legislative Council, Vincent's victory was unexpected and came about as a result of the redirection of votes that flowed to her after the the party's lead candidate, Dr Paul Collier, died during the election campaign. At the time of her election, she was the youngest woman ever to be elected to an Australian Parliament and the first South Australian parliamentarian to use a wheelchair.

Born in 1988, three months premature and 'the size of a box of tissues', Vincent has spastic cerebral palsy, a condition that has affected both legs and her left arm. A determined and generally cheerful person, Vincent grew up at a time when people with disabilities were able to attend mainstream schools, and she enjoyed her school years. Her maiden speech, nevertheless, alluded to the fact that it wasn't easy being the girl at school with a disability. 'I was an advocate every time I came home in tears because a student made fun of the way I walked' (Sunday Mail, 23 May 2010). But her very presence was an important form of advocacy as the following anecdote suggests:

I remember one time in high school when we were having a group assembly, one of the teachers said, 'Can everybody just move out of the way while we get the wheelchair out?' And about three students simultaneously said, 'Her name isn't wheelchair, her name is Kelly' (The One Hundred Leaders Project).
Vincent completed school and threw her energy into the theatre. A skilled writer and performer (she was a member of the 'No Strings Attached Theatre of Disability') Vincent has always been confronting physical challenges because of her disability, but didn't see how it defined her in other people's eyes until recently. 'Even though I used the label "having a disability" I don't think I really identified as being disabled until I was about 18, because I had all of those normal experiences,' she says (The 100 Leaders Project). If there was a pivotal moment, it happened in a theatre workshop, where someone told her she needed to work a lot harder at being a good performer because of her disability. The comment upset her, not so much because it implied she wasn't any good, but because it assumed her disability would hold her back. 'Up until then', she says, 'it had never been a problem for me' (The 100 Leaders Project). With time, she has learned to accept her disability, saying that if she did not have to use a wheelchair, 'I probably wouldn't be the same writer, the same advocate, the same learner, the same person I am today' (Sunday Mail, 23 May 2010).

Writing has been a large part of Vincent's life. In 2007 she won a State Theatre Company playwriting competition of her play Gravity and prior to the election she has just received funding to develop a new one. Although she uses whatever spare time she has outside parliament to write, she did not think she could do either job justice by doing both, so has put that project on hold for the time being.

Given her love of writing, it required another writer to convince her to find time for advocacy as well. When the leader of the Dignity for Disability party, author and historian Dr Paul Collier, asked her to put her name on the Dignity for Disability ticket at the 2010 election, she only agreed because she seriously thought there wasn't a chance that she would get in, let alone his number two. When fate conspired to bring her victory, she wasn't ready and felt overwhelmed. She broke down on her first day in the chamber, after being sworn in, reminding herself that she was there because of the death of a dear friend. But after a shaky start she started to believe that she had been granted an important opportunity to make a difference for South Australians living with disabilities. Her mother, Colleen Hunt, observed that even though becoming a parliamentarian wasn't necessarily a conscious decision, it's 'a choice she's decided to go with … she's going to put her heart and soul into it' (Sunday Mail, 23 May 2010).

Although representing what, on the face of it, appears to be a single issue party, Vincent warns critics against writing her off as a 'one issue wonder'. No one, she says, 'can tell me that disability is a single issue. Because disability issues cross over housing, accommodation, transport, access, just to name a few.' And for those who question her ability to perform in parliament, based on her youth and inexperience, she offers the following response, 'I've got 21 years of life experience with a disability which, let me tell you is 21 years more than anyone else in this building' (The Rise of Kelly Vincent). Vincent may well have been the 'quintessential accidental politician' but as she says, 'I've been writing my maiden speech all my life' (Sunday Mail, 23 May 2010).

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