Finding My Wheels on Home Soil
I had always lived on the south side of Cairns. When on occasion I had to travel away, I usually became depressed after more than a couple of days. Becoming severely disabled and being stuck in Brisbane for 9 months was almost unbearable.
I remember talking to Cairns businessman Peter Cominos when he visited me in hospital and reflecting on how I had never lived anywhere that I couldn’t wake up in the morning, walk outside and see the Pyramid.
By the summer of 1992 our new house in Bentley Park was finished and we moved in immediately. Six months later I was accepted to study at James Cook University (JCU). I was the first quadriplegic enrolled in Cairns, and I looked forward to the challenge. At this time lectures were delivered out of TAFE, in a building known as U Block.
For Jenny and I the first two years following our return to Cairns were the hardest of our married life. Fights were commonplace. The reasons normally sprang from frustration on my part. I would drop something or want something I could not reach and “JENNY’ I would yell, normally with an expletive. Any delay would lead to impatience and anger on my part. Further delays often led to uncontrollable rage and frequently resulted in broken glass or anything else I could reach, pushing items to the floor with my paralysed hands.
These problems were partly solved by gaining access to an attendant care program run by Centacare. My experiences with support work (where a worker is employed to provide assistance) gave me the lifelong understanding that provision of this service is crucial in enabling people with severe disabilities to lead useful and fulfilling lives.
In all my time in hospital, and since my return home, I saw little reason for optimism about my future. Other people had little expectations of me, and I could find few role models in the form of other people with severe physical disabilities, certainly none who had gone on to live the sort of life I had dreamed of before my accident.
Fortunately, the period of time we spent at Bentley Park saw us make important decisions that would turn things around for me.
Some books can change your life. During 1993 I had more free time to read than ever before. History and political biographies were favourites but I also enjoyed novels by Dickens, Chekov and George Orwell. However, the book that influenced me the most was “The Grapes of Wrath” by John Steinbeck.
The “Grapes of Wrath” is set in the United States during the Great Depression. The book examines the hardships confronting the Joad family. It certainly put my problems into perspective. Having lost their farm and home which were repossessed by the bank, the Joad family, like so many others in that time, decided to set out west to California for a better life. On their way they confronted a ragged man from their home town, who had tried life in California and was returning home to die. Devastated by his experience of California, he said to Tom Joad:
“Somethin it took me a year to find out. Took two kids dead, took my wife dead to show me. But I can’t tell you. I should of knew that. Nobody couldn’t tell me, neither. I can’t tell ya about them little fellas layin’ in the tent with their bellies puffed out an’ jus’ skin on their bones, an’ shiverin’ an’ whinin’ like pups, an’ me runnin’ aroun’ tryin’ to get work—not for money, not for wages!” he shouted.
Shaken by the comments, as his hungry family headed to California, Tom Joad turned to his friend the Preacher and said, “Is that guy telling the truth?” The Preacher replied, “The truth for him maybe, the truth for us, we’ll see!”
It made me realise there was no point in worrying about the future or judging your own life by the experiences of others. I knew Spinal Cord Injury had ruined many people’s lives, but would that be the truth for me? I decided to have a go at everything and, together with Jenny, see what the truth would be for us.
Exactly what I wanted to do had been my problem since my return from the spinal unit. So many different plans and ideas, but so few of any substance. My only experience of any real value was the small amount of time I spent at University. Unfortunately, the University was about to relocate to Smithfield, north of the city. It would be too far for me to travel to and from often, so what would I do? After much thought, Jenny and I decided we would move to Kewarra Beach.
We put our home in Bentley Park on the market. Before long, our house was sold and we started building a new house at Kewarra Beach. It was probably not the best financial decision, but in every other way it opened up a world of opportunities. Our House was finished a few weeks before the opening of the University. A fresh start at last!
The Disability Struggle
It became apparent to me that the only reason I could live independently in the community was because I had Jenny caring for me. I asked myself, “What about other people with disabilities?” I was shocked to learn how many people with disabilities were living in institutions. This included a high number of people with disabilities who were living in age care. A major driver of the disability movement at this time was to have all people living in the community.
Clearly things were not right, and I was very passionate about people with disabilities being included in the community. At a personal level I was also frustrated with so many of us being denied access to shops and businesses, by simply not being able to get in. This was not good enough.
I became an advocate for other people with disabilities, to address the injustice and discrimination taking place. The funding of support workers was crucial to enable people with disabilities to experience a quality of life, as close as possible to that enjoyed by other members of the community. People with disabilities should have the same human rights as other people.
The very concept of community should have diversity at its heart. Healthy communities should include young people and old people, white people and black people, gay people and straight people, and I was damn sure a community should include people with disabilities! I served in a number of capacities with various organisations to speak out for inclusion.
I was the Queensland Network Officer of the Australian Quadriplegic Association (AQA), for a number of years, reporting on issues and concerns in Queensland. In this position with AQA I was involved in lobbying Government to improve funding and the quality of service provision across a range of services. I was elected as a Director of AQA in 1998, becoming the first person outside of NSW to sit on the Board. AQA later became Spinal Cord Injuries Australia (SCIA) and has gone from strength to strength.
Prior to 8 July 1997 all government funded accommodation support in the Cairns area had been administered either by church run organisations or by the Endeavour Foundation. Gail Harris and I decided we wanted a local grass-roots provider that gave us agency, consistent with the mantra ‘nothing about us without us’. Following extensive discussions with the Department of Families, Youth and Community Care, service providers and consumers, Far North Queensland Independent Living Support Association (FNQILSA) was established. We recruited Julie Fry to be manager.
FNQILSA was officially launched on 8 July 1997 to provide accommodation support for people with disabilities. Importantly, it had a Management Committee comprised of several people with disabilities, their carers and family members. It was an exciting initiative in creating a consumer driven organisation that gave people with disabilities more control over their lives.
Transport was another area that which was crucial to the lives of people with a disability there is no point in being part of the community if you find yourself a prisoner in your own house. By the middle of the 1990’s many people with disabilities had contacted the operators of the local bus service Sunbus, requesting wheelchair access, yet not one bus in Cairns provided access.
A local woman with quadriplegia, Gail Harris and myself contacted the Cairns Community Legal Centre (CCLC) to take an anti-discrimination action against the owner of Sunbus, Transit Australia. At CCLC we found the assistance of a lawyer and disability advocacy champion, Julie Fry. Julie agreed to act for Gail and I against Sunbus.
With Julie’s help, Gail and myself took this matter all the way to a hearing. While we lost the case, I’m convinced it was as a result of our actions and those of other people with disabilities across Australia that new accessible transport standards were adopted. Today in Cairns every bus has wheelchair access.
For a couple years I also served on the Physical Disability Council of Queensland and as the Queensland representative on the Physical Disability Council of Australia. It was a peak body responsible for advancing issues relevant to people with physical disabilities.
Through my friendship with local woman and disability advocate Lyn Coyle, I became involved with the Cairns based advocacy organisation Outright Independence. As a member of Outright and Queensland Advocacy Incorporated, I developed an understanding of the needs of people with intellectual disabilities, as well as the role of advocacy, to enable people to chart their own destiny. When a lack of funding caused Outright to close, many of us got together to ensure people with disabilities had an advocacy organisation here in Cairns. This was the genesis of what became known as ‘Rights in Action (RIA)’.
I was appointed as the chair of the FNQ Regional Disability Council, making me also a member of the Disability Council of Queensland (DCQ). Appointed by then Minister Warren Pitt, I met many great people during my time on our local disability council. I came to be friends with many, including Suzy O’Reilly and Doug Robbins.
Many of the activists in the struggle for the rights of people with disabilities have had exceptional qualities, often by virtue of their difference and the richness of their life experience. Suzy O’Reilly (now Suzy Jackson) is one such person. Suzy and her sister Karen were the children of deaf adults. Their mother Carol O’Reilly authored the book Australian Deaf Story. Suzy went on to complete a psychology degree at JCU and has been a powerful advocate for social justice.
Doug Robbins was born with the Duchenne Muscular Dystrophy gene. Over his childhood years his parents watched him decline from an able-bodied toddler to a wheelchair dependant teenager. They realised he would not live to be an old man Doug was a school captain at Smithfield and was much loved by his fellow students. He came to embrace the arts and was a creative mind behind numerous theatrical presentations.
Much of the activism and progress in the disability sector was driven by the principle that the decency and worth of any society, is best judged by the manner in which it provides for its most disadvantaged and marginalised citizens.
Real History and Radical Politics
James Cook University did not have a campus in Cairns when I completed high school. My poor grades would not have given me access to university in any event. For me, as for many others, the opening of James Cook University in Cairns in 1996 represented a great opportunity.
I hoped that a degree would expand my opportunities to gain employment. I was fascinated with politics and public policy and their capacity to make the world a better place. In the words of Nelson Mandela, “Education is the most powerful weapon which you can use to change the world.”
Our new home in Kewarra Beach was much more suited to the needs of a wheelchair user. Located in a flat sub-division off Poolwood Close, it allowed me to get out and push down nearby streets, even with just 50 per-cent arm function. I enjoyed my daily outings with Tia as we investigated our new surroundings. At first, I could barely get 50 metres before my arms would wear out. After not too long I could make it 200. metres and was looking for newer streets to challenge. I really valued my daily outings and they became a regular part of my life. I enjoyed getting out of the house and venturing down the street.
University was more stimulating in the new environment as well. For the first time JCU had a dedicated campus in Cairns. There was a new atmosphere, and for the first time a real academic environment existed.
My studies initially focussed on history and industrial relations. I found both subjects fulfilling enough to engage in wide reading and study. Dr. Dawn May and Dr. Doug Hunt were lecturers. They were lovely people and always had their door open to students. Dawn was so down to earth for an academic and her supportive attitude was crucial for me and countless other new students. Both Dawn and Doug became friends who Jenny and I will always hold in high regard.
I developed a detailed knowledge of labour history and the evolution of the trade union movement from the turn of the Century through to the infamous ALP split of the 1950’s. Study became a passion.
I started learning history from new perspectives. It was evident to me that the history I had previously known had all been the history written by ‘winners’, those in positions of power who were able to have their voices heard.
For the first time I was learning a different history, a history from the perspective of women and from the perspective of Aboriginal people. It was during this time I became a passionate advocate for the rights of indigenous Australians, learning the stories of great aboriginal warriors who bravely defended their homelands before losing their lives. Pamulway and Jundamara being two of the most notable leaders to resist the white invaders. I was shocked when I learnt that more Aboriginal people had died in defence of Tasmania than the total Australians killed in the Gallipoli campaign.
Progressive historians such as Henry Reynolds offered me new insights into our history. I also became a great fan of one of the greatest minds the world of broadcasting has produced, Phillip Adams, who I struck up a correspondence with. Adams articles and his programme Late Night Live on Radio National provided me with inspiration and an intellectual alternative to the hegemony of the mass media, with its infotainment masquerading as current affairs and its moronic American sitcoms.
Cairns Campus Students Association and Union Life
The President of the Students Association in 1995 was a woman with the theatrical name of Michelle Hollywood. Michelle was in the now defunct Socialist Left faction of the ALP. During her time as President, Michelle’s main campaign was to protect the hill-slopes around the university from development. When the state government originally provided funding towards the University, it was on the understanding that the foothills surrounding the campus would be developed and money from the sale of the land would be used to pay back the government.
The campaign attracted strong community support and we all lobbied Council (not hard when my Dad was the Mayor). It was great news when we head this campaign had been successful, with council determining that the land would not be developed! I don’t think the state government was too worried and more importantly, the natural surrounds were kept for James Cook University. The university that would become known for its specialty of study in areas of tropical environment.
Towards the end of the year I was approached by Michelle to run for President of the Student Association. I decided to throw my hat in the ring. I outlined why I was nominating and what I wanted to achieve.
My nomination was placed on the notice board as soon as nominations opened. When the day of the close of nominations came around with mine was the only one received. I was elected unopposed! For the first time since my accident I had a full-time position as President of the Cairns Campus Student Association. This was to take a year out of my life but also provide me with opportunities that I had not experienced to date.
When I took over the President’s office, there was a string of photographs at the bottom of the noticeboard, showing all the hills surrounding the campus. I made sure I left them there and put the words Hollywood Hills above them. I did this to provide a reminder that when we are fighting for the people against those in power, every now and then, just once in a while, we have a win!
During the year that I was President I faced many challenges. It was a red-letter year for students, with the ultra-conservative Howard Government making many regressive changes to higher education. The education Minister Amanda Vanstone announced Government plans which included for the first time ever the introduction of full fee-paying places for undergraduate degrees at Australian Universities. The Student Association responded with many interesting campaigns during the year, including rallies, sausage sizzles and media events.
In June I went to Perth as a James Cook University representative at the National Education Conference. I was also as a delegate of our Labor Club to the media meeting of the National Organisation of Labor Students (NOLS). I was impressed by the professional nature many of the larger Student Unions conducted campaigning against the Howard Government changes to higher education.
As President of the Student Association I reached out to the wider trade union movement and took an active role. During the year I met the local organiser for the Nurses Union, a woman named Pat Nicholls. Pat was the president of the Cairns Council of Unions which meant she had the role of organising Labour day. She was keen to have me involved and let me have a speaking role. Pat had diabetes and had her leg removed so we both had a disability as well. Unfortunately, diabetes would result in Pat dying far too young.
At this time there was a left faction being formed in the ALP. It looked interesting to some of us students at the university, so I re-joined the ALP. I became a member of the Northern Beaches branch of the ALP and as I held no representative positions within the party, I was not required to be involved with the Cairns branch which was controlled by the right and quite removed from the things I believed in.
Law and Missing Out
At the end of 1996 my one-year term as President of the Students Association reached its conclusion. By this time, I had completed my Bachelor of Arts degree. While I was happy with my B.A., I was still conscious that it might not give me the equalising factor I needed to access the workplace. The truth is, when the choice is between an able-bodied person or a quadriplegic, the able-bodied person will get the job.
I felt I would continue to miss out, unless I could point to something that gave me an edge over the competition. With this in mind I enrolled to study law (externally) through QUT. It seemed to me that a law degree had replaced what an arts degree used to provide in the employment market. It had become a multipurpose degree that could help me get access to more workplaces.
Studying law involved significant amounts of reading. I don’t believe I have a legal brain, so I was not quick to interpret the legal theory of a case and apply it to a new set of facts. Fortunately, some subjects were fascinating and made time fly by, even though others were a chore to complete.
The truth is, having a disability like quadriplegia makes everything harder. I have not been afraid of asking for special consideration to level the playing field or create a bit of equity. This was the case in the early naughties when I was battling my way through law and had to visit Brisbane for an assessment on contract law.
I asked for extra time and assistance to complete my contract law assessment. While I had no doubt that upon my arrival any lecturer would have sympathy and make consideration for the fact I was in a wheelchair and no longer had use of my hands, imagine my surprise when I arrived at QUT to find the lecturer was also a quadriplegic! A man named Des Butler.
I remember Des Butler as a man of great intellect and a razor-sharp mind who, despite his disability contributed greatly to the law
faculty of QUT. As a student he had my respect and as a person with a disability I knew what he had to overcome barriers and just how great his achievements were.
I went on to complete my law degree and while I was happy with my grades, I was clearly not a great legal intellect. I did not believe I would excel as a legal practitioner, not to mention the practical difficulty of having someone take me on to complete my articles given my lack of mobility and hand function.
Towards the end of 1997 I began to look for employment. With Jenny about to give up work, and a baby on the way, all my instincts told me that I must work to provide for my family. In July an advertisement appeared for a Regional Disability Liaison Officer (RDLO) for the TAFE and higher education sectors. Upon receiving the selection criteria, I felt confident that I could prepare one hell of an application for the position. My wealth of experience with disability groups and my year as President of a student union, combined with my Bachelor of Arts degree, was bound to give me a good chance at the position, worth $40 000 a year (quite a good salary for the time).
I sent my resume off with high hopes. A good friend of mine, Louise Yates, a paraplegic living in Townsville had also applied for the position. Louise was quite a talented woman, who during the early 80’s played a role in a highly successful Australian television drama, “Cop Shop”. Some may remember her as “Sarge’s daughter”. Not surprisingly, Louise and I were granted interviews for the position, which was advertised in Townsville as well as Cairns.
When I drove to the interview at James Cook University, I was more nervous than I had been in years. I was wearing a long sleeve shirt for the first time that I could remember. The interview was by Teleconference. I arrived early and was well positioned in front of the monitor prior to the start. Being experienced in public speaking, both in political situations where one wrong word can cause you a great deal of damage, I could tell whether I performed well, and in this case, I felt sure I had blitzed the opposition. Jenny arrived early and heard the last part of the interview. The head of the selection panel thanked me for putting forward my case in such an “articulate and intelligent manner”. As Jenny and I left the building for lunch I could not have felt more in control of life.
When I heard that I had missed out on the job it was quite a blow. I rang Louise who told me she had also missed out. The successful applicant was an able-bodied woman from Townsville, who I was advised had more experience working with people with disabilities than I had been able to demonstrate. I could not contain my anger, thinking of how many hours I had given of myself on a voluntary basis to serve other people with disabilities. I felt none of this work had been recognized.
Jenny and IVF and My Addiction
Jenny made an amazing contribution during our time at Kewarra Beach. She successfully applied for a job at the Redlynch Day Care Centre where she looked after babies and toddlers. Caring and looking after me, while working was an amazing achievement. To add more stress to Jenny’s life, it was at this time that we decided to enter the IVF program. Jenny wanted children and so did I. There was an IVF specialist in Wickham Terrace in Brisbane who had some good results working with people with paralysis, so we engaged his services.
The IVF program was an emotional roller-coaster, feeding your hopes of having a child only to have them dashed. Three times we participated and felt the excitement only to have our hopes dashed. We decided to have one final attempt.
During the process sperm was extracted from me and some eggs were taken from Jenny. The eggs were fertilised in vitro (or in a Petrie dish) and the resulting fertilised eggs were put into frozen storage. At the appropriate time in Jenny’s cycle, we visited the surgery at Queensland Fertility Group (QFG) and the best of the eggs were inserted into Jenny in the hope she would, over coming weeks become pregnant.
I had already had developed my own political beliefs regarding issues around human life. It was clear to me that a fertilised embryo kept in the fridge was not a human being. Additionally, while the loss of a fertilised egg was disappointing it certainly did not constitute the loss of a baby, it simply meant the possibility of Jenny becoming pregnant and actually moving forward to having a child was not going to happen, which was of course disappointing.
During the 90s I developed a strong addiction to Benzodiazepines. First prescribed for me during one of my frustrated angry outbursts, borne from my frustration at my incapacity to perform routine tasks due to my disability. I found they also helped with muscle spasm and stomach cramps.
A wonderfully effective drug for short periods of grief or distress I strongly caution against long time use of Benzodiazepines such as valium and serepax. The biggest reason for my addiction being unaddressed was my failure to admit I had a problem.
After long term usage the drugs no longer have the same effect in terms of euphoria and pain relief. In affect you are taking them to remain normal. What is worse is when you stop taking them you find yourself in a worse position than when you first started taking the drug. All of the original problems returned combined with increased anxiety.
With help from the Alcohol Tobacco and Other Drugs Service (ATODS) I managed to kick the habit which had affected me for the best part of a decade. This was no small matter and I regard it among my list of greatest personal achievements.
Mount Sheridan and RDLO Revisited
As 1997 progressed a number of factors were pulling Jenny and I toward a decision to yet again move and build our third house in less than eight years. It was my final year of study and with my job at the Student Association also finishing at the end of the year, I felt my connection to JCU was ending.
Around mid-year all our dreams came true when Jenny’s last pregnancy test came back positive. Jenny was pregnant. Being married to a quadriplegic was a hell of a commitment so with Jenny now to become a mum as well, I figured being close to family support was really important.
My mum and dad lived on the south side of Cairns and I wanted to spend more time with them and Jenny’s mother and her brother Tony were also there so it was an easy decision to move back to the area.
Jenny and I purchased a block of land for our last home in an area the property developer referred to as Forest Gardens (for marketing purposes). The official suburb name was White Rock, but this was later changed to Mount Sheridan. This name for our southside suburb was taken from the mountain of the same name, located to the west of us, in Lamb Range. Moving to Mount Sheridan would be my final move. More importantly it would be the birthplace of our only child, our pride and joy, Katherine Louise Pyne (Kate). As an unknown author once observed, “A daughter may outgrow your lap, but she will never outgrow your heart.”
There was only problem with living at Kewarra Beach. I could not wake up and see the Pyramid. While I did enjoy my time on the northern beaches, moving into our new home in Mount Sheridan felt great. It was fantastic to once again be on the south side of Cairns where my parents and my extended family where and were my heart was.
Jenny was heavily pregnant as we moved back to the southside at the start of 1998. Local builder Peter Langtree built what was our third new house. Financially, selling our house and building a new one had not been a great idea, but we had ironed our every little access impediment, so this house was perfect for me. I did not have to put up with any of those little annoying barriers that are so often a bane in the lives of so many people with disabilities.
The world’s first IVF child was born in 1978 and on 29 April 1998. Almost 20 years later to the day, Jenny gave birth to our daughter Kate. While Kate was not the first IVF child born in Cairns, she did join a select group. As usual, we had taken the path less travelled, but we could not have been prouder parents.
When Jenny first brought Katie home from hospital, I remember feeling some sadness that I would not be able to throw a ball to her or play some of the games able bodied fathers could. It hurt to see other people pick her up knowing I could not pick up for fear of dropping her. Nevertheless, it was not long before I was making her laugh and enjoying the pleasures of being a father.
The time after Katie’s birth was a great period of my life. It was a wonderful beautiful family time full of warmth and good memories. Jenny and living in our new home in Mount Sheridan with our beautiful young daughter Katie and our old dog Tia.
As a consequence of my disability I have had many people help me as support workers. Some of these people have not only been a tremendous help but also become close friends. It has been a privilege to have some special human beings help me. One such person was a young woman from French-Canada, Caroline Brault.
Caroline had a truly loving soul and was an amazing person. When Jenny was in hospital giving birth to Kate, Caroline agreed to support me at home and provide personal care. It was confronting to have a young woman helping me in the bath and cleaning me, but Caroline made it easy.
During the weeks after Jenny gave birth, Caroline was able to share this very special time in our lives. Caroline had a passion for caring for others and for the environment. I learnt from Caroline how to properly sing Frere Jacques to my new born baby. I sang it to Kate over and over again:
Frère Jacques, Frère Jacques,
Sonnez les matines! Sonnez les matines!
Ding, dang, dong. Ding, dang, dong.
Caroline was a kind and gentle woman, providing just the support we needed. She loved nature, the environment and music and was a proud French Canadian.
On 2nd January 1999 Caroline travelled to Maleny to attend the Maleny Folk Festival. She loved music and was looking forward to attending the festival for the first time. When returning from Maleny, the vehicle in which Caroline was travelling left the road and went down a gully. Caroline died on impact.
Caroline’s friends organised a moving service at Crystal Cascades, among the trees with Freshwater Creek flowing nearby. At the service, Caroline was remembered with great fondness. I can still recall a huge eagle flying overhead as Caroline was being remembered by one of her close friends. I am not saying her spirit was on the wings of that eagle, but I’m not saying it wasn’t either. I know she would have loved the thought of her spirit being released and soaring on the wings of an eagle.
Family Ties and Finding Work
In 2000 Dad finished his term as Mayor and decided to retire from politics. It was great to have more time to spend with him after he had retired. Dad simply adored Kate and he and mum were doting grandparents. Jenny’s mother Dianne and brother Tony also lived on the Southside, so Kate spent her early years with family all around.
Jenny’s parents Andy and Dianne had divorced in 1996 and Andy married his second wife Samantha, who gave birth to their only child, a daughter, Casey in 1997. Andy was an unusual situation when he arrived at hospital after Jenny gave birth to Katie. Unusual in that he had his one-year-old daughter in one arm, and his newly born granddaughter in the other. It made for a great picture.
In the early 2000’s our part of Mount Sheridan was known as Forest Gardens. The area was absolutely beautiful as the developer was still investing in the gardens and infrastructure (to sell more houses). It was a joy to travel around on the footpath with Katie on my lap.
I think as a father you will never ever relive the joy of having a daughter who is three and four years old. During those years I would go with my motorised wheelchair all around Forest Gardens with little Katie sitting on my lap, holding onto my shirt with her small hand, so that she wouldn’t fall off the wheelchair if I stopped suddenly. It was just an adorable experience.
Ironically, at the same time as we moved back to the southside of Cairns, the RDLO position was re-advertised. Again I applied and was granted an interview. This time I was successful.
After Caroline’s death I met a young man named Simon Perry who became my support worker. Simon had been involved in the hard core punk music scene in Sydney, had an interest in folk music and was a card-carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW), so we were bound to have a bit in common.
Simon moved here from Sydney to get away from drugs and negative factors in his own life. We would often meet at JCU where he would help me with tasks of a physical nature and help me access my own medication. One day he was helping me at JCU and he met a young Melbournian woman of Australian-Maltese heritage who he would spend the rest of his life with.
The RDLO position was established by the Australian Government to try and address the appallingly low transition rate of people with disabilities from school to higher education. My role was to assist people with disabilities in that transition from school to the higher education sector. It was about working to ensure that students with disabilities who had the ability to undertake tertiary study were given the opportunity to do so.
I took on the challenge with great enthusiasm by working with students both one on one and in groups, to encourage them to consider the opportunities available at university or TAFE.
Each semester I would hold an ‘options’ event, which involved inviting a number of students with disabilities from local high schools and hosting them at JCU or TAFE. During the two-day event, students got to attend a lecture, have lunch in the refectory, learn about library services and get personally informed on what other support services were available.
These options events helped to address the perception by students that higher education was ‘out of reach’, by exposing them to university or TAFE so they could see them just as normal places they could attend, just like anybody else.
What I loved about the job was that I had discretion to focus my efforts into areas that I thought appropriate. I spent a great amount of time on breaking down barriers and educating people regarding disability and disability issues.
One part of the job I really enjoyed was visiting primary schools and talking to children about disability. I especially enjoyed visiting children in country schools. It was challenging for me to head out west and into the gulf region, but I found children to be more open and easier to talk to.
My position was advertised for funding every few years, but at the end of 2007 another institution in another city won the contract for the position. I was disappointed to be finishing in the role at the end of 2007, but I thought I had made a difference even though some aspects of the job were becoming repetitive. I collected my long service pay and other entitlements and started to plan for 2008.