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Don't Call Me 'Brave'! Breaking down images of disability

Disability Disability Rights


Don't Call Me 'Brave'! Breaking down
images of disability

International
Day of People with Disabilities 1999
Friday
3 December 1999
Pascoe Vale Girls' Secondary College

Susan
Halliday
Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner
& Sex Discrimination Commissioner

Susan Halliday

Today
is International Day of People with Disabilities. It is a day for acknowledging
those among us whose daily lives include the realities of a disability.

For
Elizabeth Hastings, whose work we are commemorating today, the realities
of her life involved a level of dependence on others that she dreamt of
being free from.

The
theme of this year's International Day of People with Disabilities is
ACCESSABILITY, a concept that goes hand in hand with independence.

Let
me first tell you a little bit about Elizabeth. She was born in England,
and at the age of 6 months contracted polio or 'infantile paralysis'.
Initially she lost all power of movement and the doctors doubted whether
she would survive. Her temperature then dropped and a degree of movement
returned to her small body. Elizabeth's legs however were almost completely
paralysed, the muscles in her trunk were badly affected, and she was left
with a weak shoulder, a weak arm and a paralysed hand. Despite her perseverance
with remedies and several operations, Elizabeth needed to use a wheelchair
to get around.

When
Elizabeth returned home to her family from hospital at the age of 2-years-old,
her parents built a bedroom and bathroom downstairs as she would be soon
too heavy to carry. Her father also made her a 'gadabout' to move around
- it had a wheel at the front and two at the back and was steered by a
tiller. By the time Elizabeth was 4 she could take herself down to the
local kindergarten. The home made gadabout made the kindergarten
accessible, so Elizabeth could get herself to the kindergarten without
relying on others.

Elizabeth
was a sociable, bright child. She spent her 8th birthday on
the ship to Australia and won a fancy dress competition as a jack-in-the
box. She later said wheelchairs came in very handy for hanging props on!

At
the age of 15, after 6 years at a special school and some tedious operations
with long recovery times, Elizabeth started at a girls' school.

    "For
    the first time in my life I mixed freely and as an equal with ordinary,
    non-disabled people. It was wonderful! I was able to study chemistry,
    physics, biology.I loved the doingness of science.I joined in wherever
    possible, singing in the choir, holding watches while the others went
    swimming, planning the 'socials'."

Elizabeth
wanted access to the same activities as 'ordinary' people. She said

"My
family always treated me as ordinary, and took my academic capacity for
granted. Outsiders, however, always treated me as different, and were
surprised when I didn't behave like a child. At university, for the first
time in my life I was in a world where age, sex, colour, creed or disability
were of no importance."

These
two speeches, Finding Your Own Shape and Transition, are
about a search for self-acceptance; a difficult journey for any of us.
If I can attempt to sum up Elizabeth's message in these speeches it is
to look beyond the disability to the person.

Accessibility
for people with disabilities can be improved in many ways.

Yesterday
I launched the BIG PRINT BILL for Telstra. It means customers who are
visually impaired can now request their bills in big print at no extra
cost making the service more accessible. Many will no longer need to rely
on someone else to read the bill for them.

Accessibility
is important. It can mean the difference between being included or excluded.

As
individuals we can also improve accessibility for people with disabilities.
In small ways. Assisting where assistance is needed (without going overboard),
treating people with disabilities as people first. As Elizabeth said "that
is basically all any person wants"
.

One
of my staff, whose brother is intellectually disabled, breathes a sigh
of relief when a newly-introduced person treats her brother as an ordinary
person, without speaking unusually LOUDLY or sloooowly.

People
with a disability are often attributed with qualities such as 'courage',
'bravery' and 'determination'. For many girls and young women these are
unwelcome words. What about 'interesting' or 'loving' or descriptions
that reflect internal qualities such as intelligence, sensitivity, empathy,
a sense of vision or creativity?

Currently
there are 13,499 students participating in the integration program across
Victoria. I commend the Education Department's commitment to providing
all students with disabilities and impairments access to high quality
educational opportunities.

As
Sex Discrimination Commissioner and Acting Disability Discrimination Commissioner
one of my main tasks is to promote understanding of peoples rights and
responsibilities when it comes to human rights.

I
firmly believe that to be exposed to the real-life experiences of others
is one of the most important ways to learn and progress. For students
with disabilities, to work and socialise alongside others encourages the
process of getting to know, respect and value difference. Imagine how
dreadfully boring life would be if we were all clones of one another!

I
note that the theme of the Pascoe Vale Girls' integration program is 'inclusive
education' and that provisions for wheelchair access have been made where
possible. I would have been interested to listen to your guest speaker
at last year's International Women's Day Breakfast, Dani DiToro. Dani
was the winner of the Australian Open Wheelchair Tennis Championships.
Like Elizabeth Hastings, she probably too had the courage to 'jump
off the mountain'
.

The
speeches I am launching today were written and delivered by Elizabeth
Hastings.

Another
wonderful Elizabeth, who I note features in the Pascoe Vale Girls' Pastoral
Care Workbook, is Elizabeth Kenny. Sister Kenny was a nurse who after
spending WW1 working on ships carrying sick and wounded soldiers to Australia,
devoted her working life to the treatment of children with poliomyelitis
(infant paralysis) - the same disease that caused Elizabeth Hastings
muscles to be, as she called it 'permanently relaxed'.

Sister
Kenny set up her own clinics to treat polio here in Victoria, Qld, NSW,
England and later set up 'Kenny Clinics' in the United States. Sister
Kenny received many honours and was granted permission to enter and leave
the States whenever she wished. Her methods started a lot of research
into polio and brought the disease to the attention of governments and
the public.

Although
the incidence of polio is now controlled by vaccine, there are still many
people with varying levels of impairment from the disease.

Elizabeth
Hastings did wonderful work as one of the original members of the Human
Rights Commission from 1981 to 1986. She was particularly well known for
her work around International Year of Disabled Persons 1981. In 1993 Elizabeth
was appointed Disability Discrimination Commissioner to administer the
new federal Disability Discrimination Act 1992.

Working
tirelessly, Elizabeth was keen to ensure that people with disabilities
were always seen as people first. Responsible for challenging entrenched
mindsets that portrayed people with disabilities as 'different' or 'recipients
of charity' she did much to progress government, business and community
views about people with all different types of disabilities.

Elizabeth
was a very sincere, determined person with a great sense of humour. She
regularly faced challenges that many of us will never face. Having devoted
much of her life to improving the lives of others with disabilities, Elizabeth
sadly lost her fight with cancer in October 1998.

It
is an honour to launch this package of material in recognition and memory
of Elizabeth Hastings, on behalf of the Disability Discrimination Unit
and the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission.

It
is paramount that young Australians come to terms with the importance
of valuing difference.

 

See Also

Disability Disability Rights

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