People With Disability

"My schooling finished when I grew too big
for the local bus driver to lift me in and
out of the school bus."

Speech for Port Stephens Community Care Inc. A.G.M.

By Robert Farley

Thank you and good morning.

I will talk about three issues. A little of my past and the impact of few or no available support services. My connections personally with services and the realization and understanding of the critical part community services can and do play in a person’s life. Then I want to talk about services themselves and some thoughts I have.

Briefly, my own experience has been heavily influenced by the lack of available services when I was a young person. A lack of transport services, access to education and access to employment. There was generally a lack of expectation on the part of the community, government and probably people with disability themselves about the rights of people with a disability to participate in all aspects of life.
It wasn’t until relatively recently in history - maybe 1981 and the International Day of People with a Disability - that a lot of focus and energy was directed towards advancing the opportunities of people with disability. Much of the energy and drive was by people with disability themselves. Gradually accessible transport came to be. Taxis and the Taxi subsidy scheme. Even accessible buses and ferries. It became a normal expectation that community facilities should have access for all.

And support via the Attendant Care Scheme and Home Care meant people with disability could live independently within their communities. It has become commonplace for people, whatever their impairment, to complete an education and gain employment.

Of course these things happened over time and after much lobbying and effort by disabled and community welfare groups. The effort to continue advances goes on; as well as vigilance to maintain what has already been gained.

While all this was happening I had fashioned something of a life for myself without being aware of possibilities. And there were not many possibilities in country areas. My schooling finished when I grew too big for the local bus driver to lift me in and out of the school bus. And senior classes were held in a newly developed area of the then Raymond Terrace High School that was not accessible to me.

Over a period of more than twenty years I lived a socially isolated life. I had no accessible transport and I did not like being lifted in and out of vehicles. I saw and mixed with few people. Of course my brain didn’t stop working and almost accidentally stumbled over some abilities I had. I started painting, and sold a few. Then I began to write stories. And I won a national Literary award. This was interesting for me but I really didn’t know what it could have led to so I stopped writing for some years.

I began crafting toys and furniture from wood. I became good at this and was registered as a craftsman with the Crafts Council of NSW. I used to exhibit at Craft Shows and take orders. I still didn’t get to meet many people though and I would only see people when they came to collect their goods.
About 1991 I realised, procrastinator that I am, that there might be a world outside. And more importantly, there might be a place for me in it.

By now I had acquired an electric wheelchair which meant I could move outside independently. And I learned of Community Transport. And wheelchair accessible taxis. So at age 39 I began the terrifying, exhilarating solo exploration of my new world. How to post a letter. How to buy something in a shop. How to find my way about this unfamiliar landscape, a foreign place where people wandered.

Life suddenly had become a bit scary and quite complex. So I wrote another story. This one was published in Japan. Soon I got quite experienced at doing things. I began doing things for the second time. This took some little time to come about, actually, because if I didn’t start until thirty nine then I had a whole lot of  experience to catch up on. I could go for days and engage in an experience or event for the very first time. Like crossing the road.

The more I did the more  discriminating I became about my activities. I learned that not everything I did was a huge event. In the beginning everything was an event. Because of its strangeness, its cost or the difficulty in organising it. Some experiences were more enjoyable or valuable than others. I was socially maturing. I never did get blasé or world weary, though.

I also had the opportunity to initiate my own support and social networks. That largely means friends. I discovered the delight of going to music concerts. I also discovered the delights in restaurants and coffee shops. And the downside of social integration and wider opportunity. I was quite thin when I started out.

I also began working in the Community Welfare and Disability Sector. As a Manager, an Adviser, on Recruitment and Approval Panels. In a whole host of positions. With ability to always see things from a consumer perspective.
Later on I began working with the NSW Ombudsman as an official community visitor monitoring services that provide supported accommodation to people with disabilities. How ironic I used to think as I travelled from the Central Coast to Taree that as a person whose life has been so heavily impacted upon by a lack of available transport that I would spend years on the road visiting residents and services..
During this time I also became appointed by the Governor to the Disability Council of NSW. The Council is the Official Advisor to the State Government on disability issues. I must stress we only offer advice, we do not direct. But it is exciting to be at the policy-formation end of decision making.
I have gained a comprehensive understanding and appreciation of services across disability and community welfare generally. I see how critical a service intervention and support can be in an individuals life. I saw very closely as an community visitor what a lack of services can mean to a resident who lived in a very controlled environment. From my own experience I realise that a service that’s appropriate and timely can be quite life changing. At the very least it adds to the recipient’s quality of life.

In my life some services have been more effective than others. They have all been useful. At times they provided me with the chance to identify my needs and this enabled me to work out solutions or strategies. They led me to door of opportunity, or frustration, and I found my own way through, if you like.

The support I received has enabled me to contribute to the work of other organisations and provide benefit to others. Others might decide that supporting my participation in the community has returned a useful dividend.

At this point I want to mention the invaluable work of volunteers. Without volunteers community groups could not achieve the results they do. Without the work of volunteers many groups could not continue. In talking about the importance of services to recipients, I’m also talking about the fundamental importance of volunteer contribution.

Over the last two years I have become a director on the Board of People with Disability Australia. PWDA is one of Australia’s premier advocacy organisations. We advocate for individuals, for groups and systemically. We operate the National Disability Abuse and Neglect Hotline and the National Disability Complaints Resolution and Referrals Service. We also have assisted in the establishment of the Aboriginal Disability Network, Groups in Asia and the Pacific Region and most recently, after four years of work, have been a part of forming the United Nations Declaration of Rights for People with a Disability.

Involvement in this group, which will soon see me leading it as President, has focused my mind on the importance of organisational governance and performance. Particularly as we are burdened at times with so many regulations, changing legislation and requirements from funding bodies that it almost seems we can lose sight of who and what we are.

In my organisation, PWDA, I am fortunate to have a clearly developed, identifiable structure of a membership base who elect the board and the president who then elects the C.E.O.. Even so, with external pressures that are constantly changing, I am conscious of the need to revisit our mission statement, our vision. Re-identify with the reason we exist.

And so I think of the fellow who spent more than 20 years in social isolation posting his first letter, buying his first article of clothing.

I think of the man or woman who gets a meal delivered to their home and the person supported to go shopping or move. within their community or the carer who receives respite and then I understand very clearly who we are and what we are about.

Thank you ladies and gentlemen.


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