Friday, 12 March 2021

Inspirational People (1)


Another inspirational person - Malala Yousafzai. Image courtesy Time.

This post is the first of a series about inspirational people I have encountered. There will be more.

Because this is a public blog the privacy of these people will be protected, but they are all real people with whom I spent time.

Back in the late seventies, I was a Teacher-in-Charge of a unit in a Brisbane high school for students with physical impairments. There were about thirty of them, a mixture of teenagers with congenital impairments (spina bifida, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy) and spinal injuries causing paraplegia.

Most were wheelchair-bound, and the accessibility of the school had been enhanced with three separate ramps to make almost all classrooms available to people in wheelchairs. The classroom housing the unit was on the ground floor.

With that number of students enrolled I had my hands full, as I was teaching, running the unit, and liaising with the school staff of a couple of hundred teachers. I had been nagging the regional administration for some time to provide a second teacher, although the numbers were enough only for a fraction of a teacher allocation. Like most staffing allocations, the assignment depended on a mathematic entitlement which was calculated to the smallest fraction.

One Monday I had a phone call from the Inspector of Special Schools in the region, asking me to remind him how many ramps were installed at the school, and where the wheelchair-accessible female toilets were located in reference to the unit. I told him, and in the next breath, he broke the good news that a teacher would visit at a convenient time during the week, to see if she would like to be appointed to my staff. Almost as an afterthought, he added that the teacher was in a wheelchair.

The next morning Jeanne* turned up. She arrived in a Holden Monaro which had the advantage of two long doors rather than four short ones, as was more commonplace for Holdens of the era. She reached around behind the driver's seat, where her wheelchair was stored, transferred herself out of the car onto the chair, and wheeled over to the unit from the staff car park. The long doors made entry and egress easier, and allowed stowage of the chair. General Motors had designed the car with fashion in mind, but Jeanne had sussed out its functionality.

I learned as I got to know her, that she was a genius at working out ways of using what was available to improve her physical function. She passed this attitude on to the students in the unit as time went on.

It turned out that shortly after her graduation as a teacher the previous year, she had a serious motor accident causing a spinal injury that resulted in paraplegia. That was in the days of "bonding", which meant that she was obliged under contract to work for three years in the state system to discharge the financial obligation of her training programme.

Education Queensland (or the Department of Education as it was called then) didn't know what to do with her, so they encouraged her to get medical advice that she was physically incapable of working and to be superannuated out of the system. Jeanne was indignant and told them in no uncertain terms that she was physically independent, a qualified teacher who wanted to teach, and she would be taking the department to the Industrial Commission if they forced her to resign.

Hence the questions about accessibility. They were looking for somewhere to put her and the enrolment numbers were not an issue.

Thus began for me and the students in the unit, a very profitable association. She was smart, resourceful, and had a sense of humour that was capable of overcoming almost anything. The added bonus for me was that she was much more successful at encouraging the students to achieve than I was. Her credibility as a person who knew what she was talking about through bitter experience was much greater than mine.

She also got a very clear message to all teaching staff that a disability was not necessarily a handicap and that the young people with disabilities that they were teaching were capable of great things. There had been a tendency for some teachers to have a lower set of expectations for this group than for able-bodied students.

Jeanne had become interested in sport as part of her rehabilitation and was a budding wheelchair basketballer. She would encourage the kids to shoot baskets from their wheelchairs during the lunch break, and some of them began to demonstrate talent. These sessions also had the payoff of breaking up a ghetto situation where some of the kids would socialise only with their disabled peers. The able-bodied kids began to join in the basketball sessions.

From this, Jeanne got a team together, and challenged the able-bods to a game one Friday afternoon. The challenge was issued via a school assembly in front of the assembled nine hundred students and was something of a big deal. The "Wheelies" as they became to be called, wiped the floor with the able-bods, who were made up of sporting stars from the student body in wheelchairs borrowed for the occasion. The whole school watched the match and barracked for the Wheelies.

Then followed a series of matches organised in a similar manner with neighbouring high schools. The Wheelies won them all and morphed very quickly from "The Wheelies" to "Our Wheelies".

The only time I saw Jeanne lose her sense of humour was one day when she was late back from lunch. She'd forgotten to pack a lunch and had driven to a nearby cafe to buy some tucker. When she had returned to her car after the lunch purchase, she found that someone had parked so close to the Monaro that she couldn't get in the door. Apparently, she gave him the rounds of the kitchen when he returned to the car half an hour later. I would have liked to have witnessed that conversation.

Jeanne was still at the unit when I was sent off to do an in-service post-graduate course full time the year after her arrival.  I never returned to the unit, as I then went to North Queensland on my first principal's appointment. Jeanne married a Chilean refuge bloke who was a paraplegic and had escaped from Chile during the Pinochet era. I remember her proudly showing me the plans for the innovative accessible house they were building.

I lost track of her over forty years ago because I have forgotten her married name, but I trust she is living her best life, and continuing to inspire those around her as she inspired me all those years ago.

*Not her real name.

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