I spent most of last week in Brisbane at a disabilities conference. Given that I've been working in this field since 1971, I guess there's always the risk that I'm getting jaded. If this was the case, this particular conference was a cure.
It also left me feeling both hopeful and nostalgic.
A very large proportion of the delegates were people with disabilities, and as a consequence, the venue, programme and content were developed with the principles of "Universal Design" well and truly in mind. This meant that accessing every aspect of the conference, from the presentations to the catering, rooms, toilets, documentation and speakers was simple and hassle-free.
This, in itself, was a revelation.
I was able, for example, to listen to the keynote speakers whilst at the same time watching a real-time text presentation, word-by-word, of the content of their addresses. This was achieved by a combination of software and human editing. The editors were shorthand users, who (almost instantaneously) edited any errors in the software-generated text as it appeared on the screen. This was done so quickly and seamlessly that it was almost undetectable. (See pic). The people involved needed to have shorthand ability as through this they had the skills necessary to edit a stream of text in real time. What this meant to someone like me, not a person with a disability, but with failing hearing as a consequence of damage (caused both by age and spending two months in 1970 cheek-by-jowl with Yank mobile artillery which fired regularly and routinely), was in a better position to accurately listen and respond to the material presented.
Given that the speakers included people like Bernard Salt, Kevin Cocks, Bill Shorten and Vinny Lauwers, this was worthwhile.
Bernard Salt is a demographer, Kevin Cocks an advocate, Bill Shorten the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities in the federal parliament, and Vinny Lauwers the first person with a disability to sail around the world, solo and unassisted.
Both Cocks and Lauwers have significant physical disabilities.
I was particularly impressed by Vinny Lauwers (his sense of humour, sheer guts and total honesty) and Bill Shorten (his obvious determination, and his no-nonsense and almost politics- free delivery). They are both, in different ways, inspiring speakers, and it was worth being there just to hear them.
The other interesting (if nostalgic) aspect for me was to encounter people with cerebral palsy I had taught at the State School for Spastic Children (New Farm) in 1971 – straight out of my RTA after Vietnam. Two of them are now doing great work as leaders in disability advocacy in Queensland.
The scary bit is that they are both in their early forties.
One other novel aspect of the conference was the roving cartoonist, who drew non-stop. His cartoons were posted daily. I've featured one which describes the work of the Make-a-Wish foundation, which sets out to make the most of the moment for kids with terminal illness. It shows a diver attaching fish to the line of such a kid so that he is guaranteed success in his wish – that is to catch fish off a boat at sea. It seems to me that lots of people working with kids with disabilities do this often. It's probably not a bad metaphor for their work. This is particularly the case for the hundreds of thousands of aging carers out there.
Perhaps Shorten's concept of a national disability insurance scheme holds out hope for these people and those they care for.