Peta Hooke is a game-changing disability advocate and podcaster based in Melbourne. She is also the creator of The I Can't Stand Podcast which is shifting the conversation around disability, bringing awareness to those who may not have a disability or know someone who does. She has worked with The City of Melbourne, Jam The Label, The PayPal Melbourne Fashion Festival and Care About. Her advocacy work has earned her well-deserved attention from major media outlets such as Studio 10, Ramala Magazine, MamaMia, ABC Radio National and Nova Entertainment. In this candid interview, Peta shares her experiences and insights about the 1 in 5 Australians living with a disability, whose stories are often overlooked or misrepresented.
Tell us about your career journey. What led you to become a podcaster?
I really wish I could have told my 18-year-old self when I left high school where I would be sitting now at almost 33. Because this certainly wasn't the plan and, as a motivated person, I've always been very career-driven. So I finished high school and got into Monash Uni where I did a Bachelor of Business in Commerce, followed by a Masters in Tourism.
I love travel and tourism, and that came from a trip I took at 15. My parents and I were on a ship and I was waiting for the lift, as you do as somebody with cerebral palsy in a wheelchair. The lift doors opened and there was another woman in a wheelchair, and a vision-impaired man with an assistant dog. A lightbulb went off in my head. I thought ‘how did they go about planning a trip like this, and where does the dog go to the toilet on the ship?’ Very basic questions that made me realise my passion for accessible tourism. So I did my thesis on exploring the market potential of that.
But when I finished my Masters, I could not get a job to save my life. I sent out my resume so many times – I did all sorts of versions, spoke to every HR expert that I could. The big question was ‘should I disclose that I have a disability or not?’ And that's a really personal question for a lot of people. I would get offended when people advised me not to say anything on my resume. Because to me, my disability has never been a negative. It's just who I am. So that was a really, really challenging time. Particularly because I'd almost done 10 years of study and I was still unemployed. I worried that people would never see 'past' my disability.
Now with the privilege of being employed, I very much want people to see my disability because it is a part of why I am proud of how I am.
But as I said it was a super, super challenging time. I ended up volunteering for an inclusive tourism organisation here in Melbourne that specialised in accessible destinations for people with disabilities. And I volunteered there for free consistently for 10 months and I loved it, but there was no job opportunity coming along after that time. So I thought ‘well, I can't work for free forever. That's just not sustainable.’
That's such an amazing skill set, and it's beyond frustrating that so many organisations can’t look past the potential barriers.
Yeah! My first job opportunity at that accessible tourism agency was a great experience. Because they were the ones that actually said ‘yes, we'll give you a go.’ And they really were consistent in their values, both internally and externally – very supportive. But they're a small business and they just didn't have the capacity to employ me. So I had no hard feelings toward them, but I just felt really lost again. I'd worked for a year and financially, I had nothing to show for it.
Again, I went back to the HR experts and got my resume rewritten; I tried to figure out how I could utilise my education. Through the recruiters, I found another volunteer role at YMCA Victoria which turned into a part-time paid role; I stayed for over 5 years. But as is the nature of non-for-profits, they didn't have the capability to promote me and I became less challenged over time. So I got itchy and frustrated, and just before the pandemic I thought ‘you know what? This isn't right. I'm almost 30. This can’t be it.
You needed something that made you want to get up in the morning. We can relate to that.
Absolutely. I actually had a new boss (taking on a maternity leave role) who helped me re-focus. And I think because she wasn't part of the furniture in that organisation, she was able to sit me in her office one day and say ‘Peta, what are you doing here? You say that you want to do all these amazing things and you’re clearly intelligent and passionate. But you've gotta use your voice more effectively.’
I thought – ‘right, okay!’ So I quit my job; but that was about three weeks before the pandemic.
I was going to go overseas for my 30th birthday and start a disability tourism travel podcast while I was on the trip. That didn't happen because of COVID-19. So, on my birthday I was in my childhood bedroom at my parents' place and I thought ‘okay, time to change tack. Let's take my ex-boss' advice and use my voice for disability advocacy. I'm going to do a course on podcasting.’ At the time, I had no followers on my Instagram – 200, maybe. So I was prepared for it to be just my parents and maybe my dog to be listening but I kept working hard and growing my work as much as I could. That hard work has led me to where I am now, still a long way to go but I am very grateful to be here.
I can relate to that a lot because I started Mavens during lockdown too. I was at this point in my career where I was looking around me and I wasn't really like enjoying the environment that I was in – the way it operated like a little bubble where the same people would always get the jobs. With the extra time I had, I started doing more research which just backed up all my worst fears about the lack of representation and inclusivity. The accessibility in the agencies that I've been to (and I've been to quite a lot of them) is usually non-existent.
I was always trying to find a job where I’d feel fully valued and challenged with my intelligence. But even if I didn't say I had a disability on my resume, when it came to a face-to-face interview, I couldn’t get around the fact that if the building had a step out front, it wouldn’t be accessible for me.
This was pre-covid too, and it felt like there was no such thing as working from home. No flexibility as far as accessibility goes. As a disabled person, I'd go into those interviews and watch them decide that I was just too hard. Great on paper – but the next person (who might not even be as good a fit) would just be less effort from the employer’s perspective.
It's such a disservice to the industry itself because when we have diversity and inclusion, it enriches the work that we do. So these businesses are probably making really mediocre work, because they're not creating the space for diverse talent to come in and thrive. What’s amazing though is how you've taken this adversity and used it to grow and become somebody that really lives their purpose every day.
Thank you for saying that. I've been reflecting a lot on the work I'm doing which is very body positive.
I would love to say to teenage Peta ‘just hang on, you'll get there.’ I have learned that determination and persistence are the two key elements that define my everyday.
I can be a very impatient person and I’d love to click my fingers and be further along down the road. But I think if you just keep getting up and saying ‘I've got to try today’, then only positive things are going to happen. I've only got one life so I'm not going to waste it. I'm very, very aware that every day is an opportunity for something amazing. So that's how I try to live my life.
I love that. Sometimes it's just that initial barrier of breaking through all your preconceptions and fears, and just putting one step forward.
Absolutely. And I think that's where I've always had very good self-belief. It's come from my parents – they've never considered that I wouldn't be successful; in some way it was just a given. But it’s super challenging when you go out into the big wide world and people don't think that you have that right, or they don't see the same thing for you. So I am constantly trying to prove to people that I deserve a seat at the table.
You’re already paving the way for others, I know it.
I'm always very aware of that, yes. However I want to make it clear that there's so many people behind me that have paved the way, that's allowed me to get to where I am both within my life and within the disability community as well.
That's amazing, and that confidence is like something I'm a little bit jealous of! Can you tell us more about the body positivity walk you did in 2022, and again this year?
I did the Walk of No Shame with my mate Heidi Anderson. She used to be on the radio over in Perth, and originally started her career as a Big Brother housemate. I connected with her through her PR course she was running. After I completed her course we became friends. So when Heidi was promoting her book Drunk on Confidence, she said ‘Oh Peta, I'm planning on coming to Melbourne – would you like to walk down Bourke Street in your underwear with me, to prove that all bodies are beautiful?’
Initially it was a ‘no, thank you. That's not my idea of a good day out!’ But then I thought more about it, and how I talk about the importance of representation all the time.
She got me to think about how it would feel to be that person representing what a disabled body can look like, and how amazing it would be if I’d seen something like that when I was younger.
So in November 2022 – and again this March – we did it and it was incredible. The public didn't know we were coming but they cheered and clapped anyway. It made me realise people don't care what you look like, it's all in our own heads. So that really helped with my confidence as well.
I remember saying to Heidi, this is the sort of stuff we'll remember when we're old.
We're not going to remember the average Tuesday sitting at our desk answering emails. We'll remember that time both of us walked down Bourke Street in our underwear and a security guard wanted his photo with us, and the police came down and cheered us on.
Image credit: Daze Photography
What an incredible feeling! So you did it all again this year?
For 2023 we were actually invited to do it as a flash mob for The PayPal Melbourne Fashion Festival – a group of female and non-binary people with positive messages written on us holding megaphones, shouting out all the things we like about ourselves and interacting with the crowd about why they think they're beautiful too.
I think it shows that the Australian fashion industry is starting to take a different perspective and really listen to what sort of clothes we want to wear and how we feel about our bodies. And I feel really privileged to be a part of it. I know I only reflect one disabled body but I'm really, really excited to be able to stand up (or sit down, in my case) in front of the fashion industry and be like ‘yep, I'm a consumer too!’
It’s exciting to hear the fashion industry heading that way. The communications industry needs to follow suit! On that, what do you think we should be doing to be more inclusive – both in workplaces and the ads and content we make?
Firstly, never assume what our access needs are – always ask. It's just common courtesy. ‘Nothing about us without us,’ as the saying goes.
Secondly, I would highly encourage anybody reading this article to take a look around their workplaces and ask themselves – how many disabled people are actually working in your organisation? If you can't see them around you, in a society where 1 in 5 Australians have a disability, you’re missing an important perspective.
You can’t communicate in a full and reflective way without representation.
And remember, those 1 in 5 have entire networks, family and friends who will also recognise and appreciate inclusion. It’s a huge market that’s not being addressed.
Peta is a speaker and host of The I Can't Stand Podcast in partnership with Nova Entertainment. Listen out every Tuesday to hear from talented guests and find out what it's like to live with a disability (available wherever you get your podcasts). Learn more about working with Peta here or follow along on Instagram here.
Interview words by Leah Morris.