‘It’s okay to be different’: Nicky Panagiotou on raising a child with a disability

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Twenty-two years ago, Nicky Panagiotou and her husband Michael became parents for a second time with the birth of their daughter Doria. 

Nicky tells The Greek Herald that Doria was born with an intellectual disability “and had physical barriers that meant she reached her milestones a bit later.” 

In 2018, the Australian Bureau of Statistics recorded there were 4.4 million Australians or 17.7 per cent of the population with a disability. Intellectual and developmental disorders accounted for 6.5 per cent of all people with disability. 

After receiving her daughter’s diagnosis, Nicky was left in despair and shrouded in shame as she tried to navigate the unknown. 

“I was in complete despair and I just didn’t know what to expect: was she going to walk? Was she going to talk? All these unanswered questions and nobody could tell me anything,” Nicky recalls.

“There was a lot of therapy: physical therapy, occupational therapy, speech therapy. We also took her to an early intervention program for almost two years which was a great foundation in setting her up.

“But it was a difficult and very lonely journey because we kept it to ourselves. We struggled to accept that she wasn’t going to be the same as her sister and we didn’t want a lot of people knowing at the time, which was to our detriment.” 

[L to R] Desi, Michael, Nicky and Doria Panagiotou. Photo: Supplied to TGH.

As a child, Doria’s differences became increasingly pronounced and Nicky decided to begin opening up and actively advocating for her daughter. However, when Doria was 11 years old, her father passed away. 

“It affected her tremendously, more than all of us because she didn’t have the comprehension. Six months later she was like ‘okay that’s enough baba can come back now’,” Nicky says. 

“It was a tough time… I was a secondary teacher working with disengaged students, students with learning difficulties, disabilities and mental health issues. 

“I knew if I kept busy with work and had the support from my family I would be okay. That’s what I did and here we are today.”

Today, the mother-of-two finds herself working at the disability and support organisation, The Bridge Inc, which partners with like-minded communities and organisations that promote advocacy, diversity and connectedness.

As a service coordinator in their youth employment arm, Nicky is also the latest spokesperson for an all-abilities playground in Melbourne’s southeast. 

WATCH Nicky speak with the Victoria State Government about the Ross Reserve All Abilities Playground at Noble Park in Melbourne.

The $2.5 million playground is a collaboration between the Greater Dandenong Council and the Victorian Government with the aim of offering an inclusive experience for all.

“They’ve got everything: swings, flying foxes, in-ground trampolines, as well as sensory equipment like the xylophone and the sandpit – all these different pockets for different ages and abilities,” Nicky says proudly. 

“You don’t have to have a physical or intellectual disability to attend. It’s for everybody from young families to grandparents.” 

‘It’s all about inclusiveness’

When asked how Noble Park differs from the parks Nicky would take her daughter to when she was younger, she says: “We were confined to little fenced-off areas in big parks where Doria could only use one or two things with assistance.”

“Whereas at Ross Reserve it’s all designed to make it achievable for participants. As a parent or carer, you can sit back and watch them play without fear and without needing to assist them or hold them back.

“That way they can connect with others and feel a part of the community. It’s all about inclusiveness and them feeling that they can achieve something just like the others, all whilst having fun.”

‘Shining her own light’

Today, Doria is 22 years old and also works at The Bridge Inc two days a week as part of the ‘Bridge Works’ supported employment program. 

“She is shining her own light!” Nicky beams. 

“She works, volunteers one day a week and then fills her time with her dance classes, Zumba classes, swimming and gym. 

“Doria is living a fulfilled life and I couldn’t be happier. She socialises, she feels worthy all while gaining skills and opening herself up to new experiences.” 

Doria and Nicky Panagiotou. Photo: Supplied to TGH.

For Nicky, Doria is living proof that inclusive approaches to people with disabilities work and for her, the message is simple. 

“There’s always an alternative and we have to continue to seek them out because we want all members of our community to feel that they belong and are valued,” she says.

As for what advice she would offer her younger self, Nicky says: “Open your heart, ask for help and don’t be ashamed because you did nothing wrong. Accept Doria for who she is and don’t compare her to anyone.”

“It’s okay to be different, we’re not all the same and thank God we’re not,” she concludes.

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