Making people laugh while breaking down social barriers

By Jamie Lowe

Former Deniliquin woman Laura Campbell is on the rise in the Australian stand-up comedy scene, and she’s hopeful of using her career to promote more talk about people living with disabilities.

The 25 year-old has overcome more than most at her age, living with congenital hip dysplasia and suffering from lupus since the age of 17.

But taking it all in her stride Laura, who is the daughter of Deniliquin’s Dr Robert and Brenda Campbell, has been committed to removing the taboo around young people with disabilities.

‘‘I still find it weird because we all grew up with that country attitude of stoicism built into us,’’ she said.

‘‘I had an advantage that because I was young it’s all I knew ... it was my normal.

‘‘After I started walking my parents noticed a significant limp, and after years of trying to get a diagnosis, I was finally diagnosed with hip dysplasia by Doctor Ian Torode, a top orthopedic surgeon in Melbourne.

‘‘I had an operation at six which fixed my hip, but my legs were still very uneven.

‘‘The advantage of living in Deni at the time was that everyone knew exactly what was wrong.

‘‘In primary school everyone would see the braces, the walking frame, the wheelchair and it wasn’t that strange to them.

‘‘I had been told that I was most likely going to have a hip replacement in my twenties which I actually had done six months ago.’’

Laura didn’t let her disability get in the way of completing her schooling, finishing Year 12 with the goal of studying law and psychology at university.

Fresh after finishing high school, however, her health took a turn for the worse.

‘‘I went off to ‘schoolies’ and was really sick and tired through it, but thought that was pretty normal after Year 12,’’ she said.

‘‘Over time I started to display flu-like symptoms and because I had been bitten by mozzies during summer, my family and I thought it could’ve been Ross River (virus).

‘‘Early January in 2011 I started to lose ability to use my limbs and my breathing was getting really hard, so I was admitted into hospital with suspected pneumonia, where they pumped me full of antibiotics and fluids. But because I actually had undiagnosed lupus, all of the antibiotics and fluids were going straight to my lungs and I was internally drowning.’’

Laura was transported to the Royal Melbourne Hospital where she was finally diagnosed with the autoimmune disease lupus and put into the Intensive Care Unit.

She was given just 48 hours to live if something wasn’t done about her condition.

‘‘I was pumped full of steroids, put on a CPAP machine and had large amounts of fluid taken out of my body,’’ she said.

‘‘Because mine was statistically a very rare condition, I was lucky enough to have the head of renal, head of respiratory and pretty much the head of each health department in relation to my condition.

‘‘About 24 hours later I had picked up a bit, but everything was still really touch and go.

‘‘It took about eight or nine days before the doctors thought that I was out of the woods medically speaking, but for almost two months I couldn’t eat or walk properly and I was still on oxygen to help me breathe.

‘‘After I was discharged from hospital I recovered in Deni for a year before I started university.

‘‘I had as normal experience at uni as anyone with lupus can. But I got intermittently really sick throughout my study and it started to affect the way I saw myself.

‘‘I’ve always been a person that had a five, 10 and 15 year plan, and when I got lupus, I lost this old version of myself, and had to think about my life in a completely new way.

‘‘I was beaten down and had no idea of how I was going to put lupus and study together and how I was going to be a new version of myself.’’

It was in her second year of university that Laura started to see a light at the end of the tunnel, looking into the world of disability advocacy.

During her time as an Australian National University psychology and law student, Laura was involved in a range of programs and associations for disability advocacy, including being the ANUSA Disabilities Officer and later the Executive ANUSA Education Officer.

‘‘I did a lot of advocacy to make sure that other students with disabilities had the best chance at studying and finishing their degrees,’’ she said.

‘‘I moved up the ranks and have had a lot of involvement with disability activism to try and make the academic world more accessible and readily available to those with disabilities.

‘‘I prescribe to the social model of disability, where I want people to not see themselves disabled by their own body, rather by society’s unwillingness to make things more accessible to them.

‘‘I simply want to see more places cater for people with disabilities.’’

In 2016, Laura took the large leap into the world of stand-up comedy after her house mate at the time, Codie Bell, booked her in to perform as part of a comedy show.

From being named runner-up in Triple J’s RAW state finals last year to performing at the Canberra Comedy Festival and Melbourne International Comedy Festival, Laura has been sharing her experience as someone with a disability through comedy.

‘‘It’s tough to get people to laugh at disability but I have my ways to get around that,’’ she said.

‘‘The way I dress where I wear sequins and do my make-up is trying to let everyone know that I’m confident with who I am.

‘‘I’m so lucky that I do a lot of paid gigs, and I have had successful runs at Canberra and Melbourne comedy festivals with comedy groups, and last year even hosted the ACT Chief Minister Inclusion Awards.

‘‘Next year I’ll be entering my last years of study for law and psychology while also aiming to have my own solo comedy show at the Canberra Comedy Festival.

‘‘I’m currently holding down a part time job as a medical receptionist but my main goal is to do disability advocacy law.

‘‘We need a lot of legal activism in the National Disability Insurance Scheme. It’s an amazing concept of social change but needs a lot of work, and I want to be a part of that process.

‘‘I’m also currently doing my TAFE certificates in Auslan with the aim to interpret mine and other comedy shows into sign language to make more comedy more accessible to the deaf community. Also it’s just a brilliant language!’’

While her own mental toughness has helped Laura get to where she is today, she admitted that she didn’t do it all on her own.

‘‘Family was so important to get me through everything,’’ she said.

‘‘My mum and dad have definitely been my rock throughout all of this.

‘‘My family has just been so brilliant, because they have grown with me through all of my experiences and have done their own growing in the process.

‘‘I couldn’t have been luckier with the family I have.

‘‘To also have an anchor like Deni with lifelong friends has also been huge for me. This is my home town, it has grounded me my whole life and made me understand the importance of family and community.’’