When Thea Keane noticed a gap in the counselling and therapeutic services that cater to the disabled community, she recognised a golden opportunity to bring her lived experience with cerebral palsy into the equation.
Thea has been working and providing different forms of therapy for over 27 years, but it has been a gradual journey that began slowly after she became a mother. It’s a vocation she takes great pride in. “It’s the most sacred position you can have”, says Thea. “When people trust you enough to tell you whatever it is they need to say, it’s very humbling.”.
“I started counselling when my babies were still quite little, and I became a breastfeeding counsellor to other parents.” Before this, she had worked administrative jobs but was yearning for something more, “I did know that I was quite empathetic,” she explains.
For a while, further education was not part of Thea’s life trajectory, something she partially attributes to her self-esteem struggles as a teenager with a disability.
Thea dropped out of school at 16, after what she describes as ‘relentless bullying’ – a familiar scenario for many people with disabilities.
“There were a lot of poor choices I made for myself at the time. I put that down to not believing in myself, not believing in aspirations of who I was because I had self-loathing – I really did not like myself,” says Keane.
Thea adds that she recognises this self-loathing in her clients sometimes. Working across the span of children, teenagers, and adults with disabilities, she explains there is a “want to be recognised.”
“We do see a lot of success stories in the media and sport, but we don’t see enough success stories in everyday life,” she adds.
Thea attended counselling services during her younger years to overcome her self-esteem and body image issues. It was an extremely gradual process that didn’t happen overnight. While she did have some excellent help along the way, her therapists’ inability to fully appreciate the experiences that came with her CP was a source of frustration.
By the early 2000s, Thea earned a Diploma of Relationship Counselling, simultaneously gaining experience at Lifeline and working as a counsellor and manager at a counselling service for several years. In 2015, she received a Graduate Diploma of Relationship Counselling and a Bachelor of Counselling.
However, it was her own experiences with having a disability that she credits as a critical tool in shaping her as a person, “I don’t think that I could have that personal conviction and understanding if I didn’t go through what I had to go through by having cerebral palsy.”
Now, Thea is running her counselling service, working with children, teenagers, adults, and families and placing a vital spotlight on the trauma and conflict that can come with having a disability.
“I’ve had lots of parents say, ‘can you fix my kid? 'I always say, ‘our kids reflect what’s happening at home.”
Keane encourages families to come together when they work on issues. “There’s no point doing it isolation …. we need to have mum and dad on board,” Thea explains.
She observes that some parents tend to overpraise, but Thea believes it’s important to let children with disabilities have bad and good days, “a child needs to have every feeling and be acknowledged for those feelings.”
In her adult clients, there are high rates of anxiety and depression. Thea’s work focuses on setting goals, self-empowerment and creating a sense of belonging in their community.
In the coming months, she hopes to grow her service and create online group counselling sessions for her clients, focusing on different topics and creating a space for people to talk about what their disability means to them.
Want to know more about Thea or her service? This March, CPSN will be hosting a Mental Health Webinar. You can also check out her website.