People with Disabilities, Education, Advocacy and Family
People with disabilities have abilities too and that is what this course is all about – making sure those abilities blossom and shine so that all the dreams you have can come true.
– Mary McAleese
My family had always lived on the south side of Cairns. When on occasion I did travel away, I usually became depressed after a week of two. 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. I recounted how I had never lived anywhere that I couldn’t walk outside and see the Walsh’s Pyramid (Djarragun).
Our new house in the suburb of Bentley Park was finished by the summer of 1992. We moved in immediately. I was accepted to study at James Cook University (JCU). As the first quadriplegic to be enrolled at the Cairns Campus, I looked forward to the challenge.
Struggle and Support for People with Disabilities
For Jenny and I, the first two years following our return to Cairns were the hardest of our marriage. 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. This frequently resulted in broken glass or anything else I could reach, as I pushed items to the floor with my paralysed hands.
We solved my biggest issue by gaining access to a Centacare program that provided support workers. This gave me the understanding of how support work is crucial to enabling people with severe disabilities to lead fulfilling lives.
During my time in hospital, and after my return home, I saw little reason for optimism about my future. People held limited expectations of me, and I could find few role models with physical disabilities – certainly none who had gone on to live the sort of life that I had dreamed of before my accident.
Fortunately, the time Jenny and I spent in Bentley Park saw us make important decisions that would turn things around for me.
Books of Influence
Some books can change your life. During 1993, I had more free time to read than ever before. History and political biographies were some of my 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.
Set in the United States during the Great Depression, “The Grapes of Wrath” examines the hardships confronting the Joad family. It certainly put my problems into perspective.
The Joad family lost their farm and home to the bank, and decided to set out west to California for a better life. On their way they confronted a ragged man from their hometown, 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!”
The Promise of Tom Joad
Shaken by the comments, as his hungry family continued to California, Tom Joad turned to his friend, the Preacher Casey. He asked, “Is that guy telling the truth?” Casey replied, “The truth for him maybe, the truth for us, we’ll see!” In the end, Tom Joad saw the need to fight for justice for ‘the people’. He said as he bade farewell to his mother:
“I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be there in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be there in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready. And when people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they built – I’ll be there, too.”
Joad’s lines delivered by Henry Fonda in the movie adaptation:
A Fresh State of Mind
This book 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.
However, deciding exactly what I wanted to do had been my main dilemma since my return from the spinal unit. I had so many different ideas, but so few were of any substance.
University Firms as Future
Unfortunately, the University was about to relocate to Smithfield, north of the city. It would be too far for me to travel there often, so what would I do? After much thought, Jenny and I decided we would move to Kewarra Beach.
We sold our home in Bentley Park and started building a new house at Kewarra Beach. It was a difficult financial decision, but in every other way, the move opened up a world of opportunities. Our house was finished a few weeks before the opening of the University. A fresh start at last!
Fighting for People With Disabilities
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 that many people with disabilities were living in institutions, including a high number of people with disabilities living in aged care. A major goal of the disability movement at this time was to have all people with disabilities living in the community, rather than isolated in institutions.
Things were not right! I was very passionate about people with disabilities being included in the community. On 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, determined to address the injustice and discrimination I saw. Support work is crucial to enable people with disabilities to experience the quality of life 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 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 volunteered (in various capacities) to serve on a number of organisations committed to speaking out for inclusion.
For example, I served as the Queensland Network Officer of the Australian Quadriplegic Association (AQA). For several years I reported on disability related issues and concerns in Queensland. This position with AQA involved lobbying Government to improve funding and the quality of service provision. In 1998 I was elected as a Director of AQA, becoming the first person outside of NSW to sit on the Board. AQA later became Spinal Cord Injuries Australia (SCIA).
Prior to 1997, all accommodation support in the Cairns area had been administered either by church-run organisations or the Endeavour Foundation. A quadriplegic friend, Gail Harris, and I decided we wanted a local grass-roots provider that gave us agency. We adopted 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 formed. We recruited a local woman, Julie Fry, to be the 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. FNQILSA was an exciting initiative in creating a consumer-driven organisation that gave people with disabilities more control over their lives.
Transport Access for People With Disabilities
Transport is crucial to the lives of people with a disability. There is no point in having an inclusive community if you find yourself a prisoner in your own home. During the 1990’s, many people with disabilities had contacted the local bus service, Sunbus, requesting wheelchair access. Not one bus in Cairns provided access.
Gail Harris and I contacted the Cairns Community Legal Centre (CCLC). We took an anti-discrimination action against the owner of Sunbus, Transit Australia. At CCLC we secured 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 I took this matter all the way to a hearing. While we lost the case, 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 of years, I also served on the Physical Disability Council of Queensland, and was a representative on the Physical Disability Council of Australia. These were peak bodies responsible for advancing issues relevant to people with physical disabilities.
Other friends and activists for people with 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. Proper advocacy was so important to enable these 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 the body known as ‘Rights in Action’ (RIA).
FNQ Regional Disability Council
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 friends during my time on our local disability council, including Suzy O’Reilly and Doug Robbins. I also worked with Elsie Butler, the wife of Bill Butler, my former colleague at the Public Trustee. They were both great advocates as well as parents of a child with Down Syndrome.
Many of the activists in the struggle for the rights of people with disabilities had exceptional qualities. This was a virtue resulting from their difference and the richness of their life experience. This often included overcoming numerous obstacles (both physical and attitudinal).
Doug and Suzy
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 using 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 embraced the arts, and was the creative mind behind numerous theatrical presentations.
Suzy O’Reilly (now Suzy Jackson) became another good friend. 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.
Real History and Radical Politics
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 employment opportunities. I had long been interested in politics and public policy, and in 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.”
Enjoying our new home
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 Road, it allowed me to get out and push down nearby streets, even with just 50 per-cent arm function.
My daily outings with Tia were a joy, as we investigated our new surroundings. At first, I could barely get 50 metres before my arms would wear out. After a while, I could make it 200 metres, and was looking for newer streets to challenge myself. These outings became a regular part of my life. I enjoyed getting out of the house and venturing down the street.
Intellectual Growth – History and Politics
University was more stimulating in the new environment as well. For the first time, JCU had a dedicated campus in Cairns.
My studies initially focussed on history and industrial relations. I found both subjects fulfilling and engaged in wide reading on these topics.
Dr. Dawn May and Dr. Doug Hunt were my lecturers. They were lovely people, and always had their doors open to students.
Dawn was very down to earth for an academic. 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 1950s ALP split. Study became a passion.
The History of the Oppressed
I started learning history from new perspectives. It was immediately evident to me that the history I had previously known was 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 that I became a passionate advocate for the rights of indigenous Australians. I learned the stories of great Aboriginal warriors who bravely defended their homelands before losing their lives, such as Pemulwuy and Jandamarra, two of the most notable leaders to resist the white invaders. I was shocked to learn 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 new insights into Australian history. I also became a great fan of one of the greatest minds the world of broadcasting has produced, Phillip Adams, with whom I struck up a correspondence .
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 Student Association & Union Life
The President of the Student 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 campaigned to protect the hill-slopes around the university from development
This campaign attracted strong community support, and we all lobbied Council (not hard when my Dad was the Mayor). It was great news when we heard our campaign had been successful, with Council determining that the land would not be developed! We had saved the natural surrounds. The university would later become known for its specialty of tropical environmental studies.
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 and I argued for my vision for student services.
I placed my nomination on the notice board as soon as they opened. When nominations closed, mine was the only one received. I was elected unopposed!
For the first time since my accident, I had a full-time position, President of the Cairns Campus Student Association. This would 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!
Austerity under the LNP Howard Government
During the year that I was President, I faced many challenges. It was a challenging year for students, with the ultra-conservative Howard Government’s attacks on higher education.
Education Minister Amanda Vanstone announced Government plans which included the introduction of full fee-paying requirements for undergraduate degrees. The Student Association responded with several 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 a delegate of our Labor Club to the National Organisation of Labor Students (NOLS) meeting. I was impressed by the professionalism of the campaigns run by the larger Student Unions against the Howard Government’s changes to higher education.
Unions and The ALP
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 new left faction forming in the ALP. It looked interesting to some of us students at the university, so I re-joined the ALP, becoming a member of the Northern Beaches branch. I held no leadership positions within the branch and had no idea I would later represent the party at the state level.
Law and a Job Opportunity
After one year, my term as President of the Students Association concluded. 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 degree that offered the requisite skills needed to access more workplaces.
Studying law involved significant amounts of reading. I was not quick to grasp the application of legal theory to every new set of facts. Fortunately, some subjects were fascinating, and made time fly by, even though others were a chore to complete.
Disability and Des Butler
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 2000s, 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! His name was 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 person with a disability I knew what he had overcome and just how great his achievements were.
I went on to complete my law degree and while I was happy with my results, I was not destined to be a legal genius. 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.
In July 1997, an advertisement appeared for a Regional Disability Liaison Officer (RDLO) for the higher education sector. Upon reviewing 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, my year as President of a student union, and my B.A. were 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 friend of mine, Louise Yates, a paraplegic living in Townsville, had also applied for the position. Louise was quite talented. During the early 80s, she played a role in a highly successful Australian television drama, Cop Shop. Some may remember her as “Sarge’s daughter”. Louise and I were both granted interviews for the position, which was advertised in Townsville as well as Cairns.
Joy and Disappointment
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 held by Teleconference. As an experienced public speaker, I knew when I had performed well and when I had not. 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 been rejected. The successful applicant was an able-bodied woman from Townsville, who I was informed had more experience working with people with disabilities. I could not contain my anger, thinking of how many hours I had given 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 had carried a heavy workload 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 for me, while also 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.
IVF with Queensland Fertility Group
An IVF specialist in Brisbane had 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 Petri 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). The best of the eggs were inserted into Jenny in the hope she would, over coming weeks, become pregnant.
I had already 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. These drugs were first prescribed for me during one of my angry outbursts, borne from my frustration at my incapacity to perform routine physical tasks. I found they also helped with muscle spasm and stomach cramps.
They were wonderfully effective for short periods of grief or distress. However, I strongly caution against long-term use of Benzodiazepines, such as Valium and Serepax.
After long term usage, these drugs no longer have the same effect in terms of euphoria and pain relief. In effect, you are taking them to remain normal. What is worse, when you stop taking them, you find yourself in a worse position than when you first started taking the drug. In my case 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 this habit, which had affected me for the better part of a decade. This was no small matter, and I regard it among my list of greatest personal achievements.
Mount Sheridan and Disabilities Job Revisited
As 1997 progressed, several 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 my job at the Student Association was 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 a mum to be, 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. Jenny’s mother and Jenny’s 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. The official suburb name was White Rock, but this was later changed to Mount Sheridan.
Back on the Southside
Moving to Mount Sheridan would be my final move. More importantly, our new home would be the birthplace of our only child, our pride and joy, Katherine Louise Pyne (Kate).
While I had enjoyed my time at Kewarra Beach, 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 were, and where my heart had always been.
Jenny was heavily pregnant as we moved into our new home. Local builder Peter Langtree built what was our third new house. We had ironed out a number of small impediments to access. Our new house was much easier for me to get around. I did not have to put up with any of those annoying little barriers that are the bane of the lives of people with disabilities.
Our Bundle of Joy Arrives
On 24 January, 1998, 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 sad 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, 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 wonderful period of my life. It was a beautiful time full of joy and good memories. Jenny and I will always cherish that time 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 been helped by many support workers. Some of these people have not only been a tremendous help, but have 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.
A Caring Heart
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.
Maleny Folk Tragedy
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. Caroline is remembered with great fondness.
A huge eagle flew 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. Caroline would have loved the thought of her spirit being released and soaring on the wings of an eagle.
Family Ties and Finding Work in Disability
In 2000, dad finished his final 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. Since Jenny’s mother Dianne and brother Tony also lived on the Southside, Kate spent her early years with family all around.
Jenny’s parents Andy and Dianne had divorced in 1996, and Andy then married his second wife Samantha, who gave birth to their daughter, Casey in 1997. Andy was in 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 2000s, 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. As an unknown author once observed, “A daughter may outgrow your lap, but she will never outgrow your heart.”
I think, as a father, you will never ever relive the joy of having a daughter who is three or four years old. During those years I would go with my motorised wheelchair all around Forest Gardens with little Katie sitting on my lap. She would hold 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.
Finding a Kindred Spirit
After Caroline’s death, I met a young man named Simon Perry, who became my support worker. He had an interest in folk music and was a card-carrying member of the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW). We had a lot in common.
Simon moved to Cairns 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 named Liz with whom he would spend the rest of his life.
Regional Disability Liaison Officer
Ironically, soon after Jenny and I moved back to the south-side, the RDLO position was re-advertised. I applied again and was granted an interview. This time I was successful!
The Australian Government had established the RDLO position to 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. I worked to help students with disabilities who had the ability to undertake tertiary study.
‘Options’ for people with disabilities
I took on the challenge with enthusiasm. Working with students one on one and in groups, I encouraged them to consider study at university or TAFE.
Each semester I held an ‘options’ event, inviting a number of students with disabilities from local high schools and hosting them at JCU or TAFE. Students attended a lecture, had lunch in the refectory, learnt about library services, and were individually advised what other support services were available.
These options events helped to address the perception by students that higher education was ‘out of reach’. The remedy was exposing them to university or TAFE first-hand. This way, students could see higher education as a normal prospect.
What I loved about the job was that I had discretion to focus my efforts into areas that I thought appropriate. I spent much of my time 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 there to be more open and easier to talk to.
At the end of 2007 another institution in another city won the tender for the RDLO position. I finished in the role at the end of that year. I collected my long-service pay and other entitlements, and started to plan for my own tilt at entering local politics in 2008.