A conversation with Fiona Donaldson

At the ripe old age of 19, Fiona Donaldson had to deal with being misunderstood and misdiagnosed when she was struck very suddenly with the symptoms of what was finally diagnosed as Transverse Myelitis.

After rehabilitation, and in the process of adjusting to her “new” world, Fiona was able to put her talents to work in a company willing to see a person with potential, not just a person with disability and this changed her life.  Statistics tell us that the unemployment rate for people with disability is 10%, nearly double that for people without disability.

Employment was just one of the building blocks that gave Fiona a platform to rebuild her life, and the confidence and reassurance that she was able to face the world head on no matter what crazy and unexpected things it might throw at her.

This Inspired story is a showcase of how life can change in an instant. It also demonstrates the impact that support from friends, family and an opportunity to contribute in a meaningful way, can have on building a bright, positive and fabulously “ordinary” life.

Meet Fiona, and learn more about how an early return to a regular life that included employment, was the platform for her to become many things;     a wife, a mother, a businesswoman and most of all a fabulous role model for others.  I hope you enjoy meeting her as much as I did.

Tell us about yourself

Hi – my name is Fiona and I live just north of Brisbane in sunny Queensland, Australia. I’m 47 years of age, a wife, a Mum of two boys aged 13 and 10.  I run my own travel business which specialises in accessible travel.

What has been your journey of disability?

I was diagnosed with Transverse Myelitis at the ripe old age of 19 which affected by spinal cord at levels C8/T1. Transverse Myelitis causes inflammation of the spinal cord, specifically the myelin sheath. There is no real known cause or cure.
My condition resulted in full paralysis of my legs and trunk, plus one hand has also been slightly affected. It happened extremely quickly. The night before I was at the gym dancing and doing weights, fast forward 24hrs and I was paralysed from the neck down.
Unfortunately, I was also sent home from hospital with a doctor saying, “it would come back as quick as it came on” and telling my parents that “it is all in her mind – she needs to go and see a psychiatrist”.
This misdiagnosis led to me missing out on vital doses of steroids which needed to be administered within 6-8 hours of onset of injury. The steroid treatment could have brought down some of the inflammation and possibly I could have made a better recovery.

Are there things about you that people misunderstand because of your disability?

Probably that I’m just like everybody else! I do the school run, take my boys to sport, make meals, laugh, cry, work hard, enjoy a wine, and letting my hair down on the dance floor!

Who inspires you? Where do you get inspiration from?

I get my inspiration from other women in my situation who are kicking goals all over the place! The women that I follow on social media such as Sophie Morgan for example. She lives in London and is a television presenter in the UK. She also advocates for people with disabilities and she gets s**t done!

Which three words would you use to describe yourself?

Stubborn, driven and capable.

What is one thing, experience or person you have had that completely changed your life?

Being employed by Qantas when I had just turned 22. I had only been in my chair for 2.5 years and all of a sudden, I had this amazing job which amongst many other things gave me my confidence back. I was extremely proud and honored to be a part of such an iconic Australian company. Not long after I started, my partner and I built our first home, and over the years we were fortunate enough to travel the world. We’re still together today and have 2 sons plus I’ve now been in the travel industry for 25 years and am running my own business. So yes, Qantas changed my life.

Who or what has been the most significant influences on who you are today?

I would have to say my Mum. She gave me the confidence to move forward with my life after such crazy and unexpected turn of events.

What’s one thing about you that surprises people?

I would say the fact that I’ve now been in the chair for 28 years. Recently I went for my yearly specialist’s checkup, and it was music to my ears when my doctor said to me that I don’t present as a person who’s been in a chair for 28 years. That made me feel pretty good – I must be doing something right!

For what are you most grateful today?

Today, I’m most grateful for the love and support from my family and friends who have been with me from the beginning. The ones who knew me before my disability, then when I was in the “trenches” of my disability (i.e. hospital, rehab, then the slap in the face reality when you leave to re-enter the real world), and the ones who are still in my corner cheering me on – there’s only a handful but boy are they priceless!

Knowing what you know now, what advice would you give your 18-year-old self?

Shortly, your whole world is about to be flipped upside down and the rug pulled out underneath you just for good measure. It will all be OK. You will rebuild your spirit and personality, and will you come out the other end stronger than ever. You will amaze and inspire the people you meet, and those around you. Incredible opportunities will come your way, but most importantly, you will make yourself very, very proud.

Do you have a funny story involving or relating to having your disability you can share?

I have many, but one that immediately come to mind is when my mum and I went to Hong Kong for a holiday and booked to stay in an accessible room at one of the better-known hotels in Kowloon. Unfortunately, their accessible room wasn’t exactly as described and found we needed a plastic chair for me to shower in. We tried so hard to explain to the staff exactly what I needed, but clearly we didn’t do too well as they came knocking on our door an hour later with a plastic chair which was actually a tiny red foot stool!

Is there something that you would like people to know about you or about people with disability that they might not know?

I hate feeling “less than”. I hate it when I have to use an accessible public toilet which is also a unisex toilet. Please have one for men with disabilities, and one for women with disabilities. Able-bodied people have separate toilets so why can’t we? When you are building a beautiful new hotel or apartment, please make sure your accessible rooms also have amazing views, and not one that’s looking over a carpark – or an ally full of garbage bins (true story!). Depending on the mood I’m in, if I start to feel less than, I will either retreat back in my shell (and want to get the hell away), or I’ll be looking for the manager to offer some “friendly” advice.

Is there some piece of information or advice that you would like to share with other women with disabilities?

I honestly can’t say that I do. Everything I learnt was largely self-taught and I’m happy with the way things have turned out. I’ve always had the belief that you can either sink or swim – and I chose to swim.


  1. Another great and inspirational story and role model for all women! Thank you.

  2. Belinda Yull

    Wow what an amazing woman. The strength, stubbornness and courage Fiona has is amazing. Not only is she an inspiration to individuals with a disability but such an inspiration to all.
    Thanks Chrissy for also being and inspiration to all and sharing others stories.

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