On Monday night, I not only watched our daughter perform at the Sydney Opera House, it was the first time I’ve gone out as a disabled person in a wheelchair and I can’t tell you how encouraged I feel by the experience. It truly opened doors for me, making it so much easier to relax, have a great night out and do what I was there for. That is, to hear my daughter play her violin without any unexpected medical nightmares… even if I couldn’t see her!
As a person with limited mobility, if all goes well, I can get around okay and usually use a walking stick in unfamiliar and crowded environments. I have what’s known as “an invisibility”, meaning that most of the time, you can’t see anything’s going on. However, these symptoms fluctuate dramatically so it can be hard to predict how I’ll be at a given point in time. Indeed, I was simply walking on grass when I broke my foot. Knowing that “being the hero” can have serious consequences, I’m understandably cautious about participating in seemingly everyday activities…such as getting to the Sydney Opera House. As such, I often end up staying home.
However, there was no way I was going to miss our daughter playing her violin at the Sydney Opera House. No way on this earth!
However, if you have ever marvelled at the Sydney Opera House, you’ll note those stunning white sails are perched on top of a huge mountain of stairs. Of course, architecturally speaking, the effect is very dramatic.They’re also a photographer’s dream. I’ve seen intense portraits of lone performers sitting on those stairs with that same sense of abandonment you’d recall from Princess Diana’s portrait taken at the Taj Mahal.
As striking as these stairs might be, for anyone with mobility, health issues, or even a lack of fitness, those stairs are insurmountable. Although I can walk, I’d need an oxygen tank, not to mention a Sherpa, to help me get to the top. Even if I did miraculously make it to the summit, I’d be off in an ambulance and straight to the ER.
Yet, while I’m prone to catastrophising, I knew I didn’t have to get up those stairs. That’s because public venues must have disabled access…even if it can be difficult to locate. When I attended School Spectacular at the Sydney Entertainment Centre last year, I was told to take the stairs, even though I was standing there with my walking stick. This particular person seemingly thought I could sprout a pair of wings and magically fly to my seat. Naturally, this meant that instead of having a good experience, I found myself defending accessibility rights when I wasn’t there as an activist. I was there to watch my daughter perform. Thankfully, someone else was more helpful.
After that, it’s hardly surprising that I want to sing my praises of Sydney Opera House staff right across the rooftops when everything went so well. We had VIP treatment all the way, and even the road lit up to greet us. What more could I ask?
I didn’t think about all of this when I booked myself in for a wheelchair seat. I always need an aisle seat and easy access in and out but get by with my walking stick and an accessible seat. However, these had sold out. The box office suggested this wheelchair spot, saying the Opera House could provide a wheelchair. I wasn’t entirely comfortable that I warranted a wheelchair. While I know people who use wheelchairs and can walk and how it enables them to do more, I’d never tried it out before. If I wasn’t doing well, I stayed home.
So, our trip to the Opera House, would also give us the opportunity to test out how a wheelchair went in public situations without having to BYO.
Our experience began with booking an accessible parking spot at the Opera House. It wasn’t free but it meant we could park right out the front with very little walking required. What it also meant was that we received the VIP treatment. We drove along Macquarie Street to the security gate, where the road was blocked off by a row of very sturdy metal bollards. As you could imagine, security is very tight. No more of this “G’day mate, it’s Fred” business. We had to show my disabled parking permit and my receipt to get through the gate. Then, like magic, the bollards electronically sunk into the ground and a row of recessed lights turned on. This was our road to the Opera House. By now, I was in my virtual limo pulling out the royal wave. It’s about time somebody treated mobility challenged people as VIPs, instead of outcasts!
After detouring for dinner, we returned to pick up the wheelchair and begin the journey to find our seats. The performance was in the Main Concert Hall and side-wheeling a gazillion stairs, we were personally escorted by staff along corridors, though multiple lifts via the bathroom. Once we’d finally reached our seats, we were greeted by a staff member asking: “You’re Rowena?”
Every single member of staff was courteous, friendly and respectful. I can’t tell you how that made me feel. It’s warmed my heart right to the core…a night we will never forget. Not just because our daughter was playing her violin at the Sydney Opera House, but because we were given the touch of human kindness, acceptance and understanding without it being a chore, something noble or even being “special”.
It just was.
Just like it ought to be!
What more could I ask for?!!
Well, there was the small matter of needing someone to push my wheelchair. I don’t have the muscle strength to push my own chair. Not unsurprisingly, my husband was the wind beneath my wheels. Geoff’s Mum was in a wheelchair, so he has had experience. This is a good thing because wheelchairs can be notoriously difficult to operate, not unlike recalcitrant shopping trolleys with minds and travel destinations all of their own. Indeed, turning back the clock, Geoff’s mother fell out of the wheelchair when they went round a corner at Brisbane’s Expo88. I think he lost his licence after that and was put on a good behaviour bond!
Anyway, he got his licence back again last night…especially working with a difficult passenger who kept putting her foot on the wheels…not to mention bathroom stops up and down the lifts.
There was just one bit of explaining. We’d met a few other performing families during the day when I was walking round seemingly okay with the stick. Now, I was suddenly in a wheelchair. One lot had only seen us 5 minutes beforehand and thought I’d had an accident. They were all very understanding and had no dramas that I could walk and use a wheelchair all in one day.
Wouldn’t it be great if the rest of the world could be so understanding? Yet, you could say it was a Eureka Moment finally reaching that understanding myself after living with dermatomyositis for the last 10 years and struggling with the whole concept of using equipment!
I don’t know if there’s some quote about it being easy to change the whole world but more difficult to change yourself. If there isn’t, there should be and that’s where real change begins!
So perhaps you’ll be seeing more of me in wheels. Not because I’m getting worse but because I’m getting better.
Have you ever ventured out in a wheelchair or similar and how did it go? What sort of accessibility problems have you had or moments like mine where it all went well? Please share.
“Hold faithfulness and sincerity as first principles.” ~Confucious 1. Pay attention to detail Let’s face it, people love to be noticed. Whenever you meet someone new, take a moment to identify what makes them unique. Make sure to look for positive attributes so you don’t end up pointing out that someone has poor posture or dirty shoes. Maybe they have a nice […]
“If history were taught in the form of stories, it would never be forgotten”.
– Rudyard Kipling
Last week, Australians celebrated, lamented or slept through Australia Day which marks the arrival of the British First Fleet at Port Jackson (Sydney Harbour) On the 26th January, 1788. Governor Arthur Phillip raised the Union Jack claiming British sovereignty over the eastern seaboard of Australia, which was then known as New Holland. There was no treaty with the Aboriginal people, as there had been with the Maori in New Zealand and you will still hear Australians talk about how Captain Cook discovered Australia in 1770, even though Australia was never actually “lost”.
If you have read my last post, you’ll know that I recently came across a vintage copy of The Australian Women’s Weekly from January, 1988. This was their “Bicentennial Souvenir: Special Collector’s Edition”, to celebrate Australia’s “200th Birthday”. It included a couple of pages of birthday wishes from around the world:
“Australia is the closest thing to Texas you can get…the women are beautiful, the men are tough and it has got great beer! Happy 200th, Australia.”
-Larry Hagman, who played J.R. Ewing in the hit series: Dallas.
“Although by birth I am English, I feel Australian and think of myself as Australian. Australia took me in, nurtured me and sent me out into the world with a sense of belonging and a great outlook on life. Happy birthday, Australia.”
– Olivia Newton-John.
However, while I was reading the magazine, it struck me that there was no mention of Aboriginal people at all. That bothered me enough to put my detective’s hat on and to start digging.
“The most effective way to destroy people is to deny and obliterate their own understanding of their history.”
― George Orwell
Rewinding back to January 26, 1988…I was a young, 18 year old who had just finished school and was still reveling from celebrating “Schoolies Week” at Surfers Paradise on Queensland’s Gold Coast. This involved lying by the pool or on the beach by day and hitting the nightclubs by night and to be perfectly honest, I was probably more concerned about the state of my tan and of course, friends, relationships, fun.
Enjoying the party atmosphere on Australia Day, 26th January, 1988 , my boyfriend and I were jammed under the Sydney Harbour Bridge along with hundreds and thousands of other sardines on a characteristically hot summer’s day, spellbound as the Tall Ships in the First Fleet Reenactment sailed majestically through Sydney Harbour. I still remember battling to try to photograph the Tall Ships through the crowd with my humble Kodak camera, which was so old that you had to shove a film cartridge in the back. There was a woman standing right in front of me wearing the largest, brightest sunflower-yellow hat I’d ever seen. Indeed, the brim was so wide, that you could land a helicopter on it no worries. I passed the camera to my boyfriend, who being 6ft 4″ almost towered up into the clouds. With that camera, none of our photos were “good” but at least when he took he photos, you could pick the Tall Ships out over the hat.
That was my Australia Day.
Meanwhile, there was a protest movement of upwards of 40,000 Indigenous Australians and sympathisers marching through Sydney. For them, Australia Day was Invasion Day and 1988 would be a year of mourning. This was the largest march in Sydney since the Vietnam moratorium. The march ended at Hyde Park where several prominent Aboriginal leaders and activists spoke, among them activist Gary Foley; ‘Let’s hope Bob Hawke and his Government gets this message loud and clear from all these people here today. It’s so magnificent to see black and white Australians together in harmony! This is what Australia could and should be like.’
While I can be a bit oblivious, I find it hard to believe that I missed a march of that magnitude and it’s only now, some 24 years later, that I’ve been enlightened.
“If you don’t know history, then you don’t know anything. You are a leaf that doesn’t know it is part of a tree. ”
― Michael Crichton
That said, I’m still fairly ignorant. It’s simply impossible to pick up all the nuances on this flying visit and understand what happened. There are others who have done the research and also lived through the times, who can give a much better account than I. As I said, this is just a fleeting visit sparked by a magazine I’d bought at the op shop and my relationships with my extended Aboriginal family.
Bicentennial celebrations exposed differing views both about our history, our future and our identity as a nation. While it was only 24 years ago, I’d like to think we were in a different place back then when where racist jokes were the norm and most Australians really couldn’t understand what the fuss was all about. Why couldn’t the Aboriginal people just join the rest of us under The Bridge and enjoy a piece of birthday cake and enjoy the “celebration of a nation”? What was their problem and why didn’t somebody lock all those radicals up? Indeed, a disproportionate number of Indigenous people were already in gaol and there was mounting anger about black deaths in custody.
I am not an Aboriginal activist, historian or anybody who really has an understanding of the rights and wrongs involved but I am a person who has a disability and has experienced discrimination enough to know that even the well-intentioned who at least try to get into my wobbilly feet, don’t necessarily know what it’s like to walk in my shoes. Therefore, I don’t pretend to know what it is to be an Indigenous person in Australia…then or now.
However, I do care.
As much as I believe in equality for all and respecting all peoples, it is particularly harsh when someone comes into your country and treats you like shit. Takes away your land, your children and gives immigrants preferential treatment and won’t even give you the vote. Moreover, once some of these things were finally acknowledged, it wasn’t until February 2008 that Prime Minister Kevin Rudd finally managed to say “Sorry”…some 20 years after the Bicentenary!
I am also in an interesting position because my uncle is Aboriginal and because of him, my children identified themselves as being Aboriginal. No matter how much I seemed to explain to them about genetics and pointed out that we were related to my aunt, they still believed they were Aboriginal until quite recently. The penny finally dropped when, after a long discussion with our daughter, she finally asked rather sadly: “Not even a drop?” “No,” I replied. “Not even a drop”. They wish they were Aboriginal and are very proud of Australia’s Indigenous people, culture and history. We don’t see a lot of my aunt and uncle so I believe this connection has been strengthened by their school. Our school says: “Welcome to Country” (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Welcome_to_Country_and_Acknowledgement_of_Country) at assemblies and events and the children learn Aboriginal arts and culture in way that goes way beyond anything we ever did at school. They have local elders come into the school and talk to the kids as well. About 10% of kids at our school “identify” as being Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander and we have an Aboriginal Liaison Officer on staff. We are very proud of our school’s passion and commitment.
It has been interesting seeing how buying a vintage magazine at the op shop has opened my eyes to so many things and made me see the Australian Bicentenary in a completely different light. That said, I have been conscious for some time that celebrating Australia Day on 26th January is not showing sensitivity or compassion towards our Indigenous people who were displaced and so often subjected to horrific crimes of abuse throughout history. This is our national shame and we shouldn’t just bury that under the carpet and pretend that nothing ever happened. We can’t. To be honest, it continues today.
I don’t know what, if anything, I can do about it personally other than write about it, which does seem a bit lame but we each have our role in the body, in our community and as I have said before, I always hope the pen is mightier than the sword. That through writing we can highlight prejudice and injustice and also love and embrace all peoples.
In this, I join with Dr Martin Luther King (Jnr) and say “I have a dream”. I haven’t quite worked out all the details yet but have joined at least 1000 other people who will be writing about compassion on 20th February, 2015…the UN International Day of Social Justice: 1000 Voices Speak for Compassion. I encourage you to also participate. You can check out the details here:
We need to keep working on the foundations laid by trail blazers like Dr Martin Luther King and Nelson Mandela and see love, compassion and equality triumph!
PS I have compiled a series of quotes relating to the Bicentenary, which is coming up next.
 The Australian Women’s Weekly, January 1988, pg 7.
 The Australian Women’s Weekly, January 1988, pg 7.
 The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995) Saturday 7 March 1987 p 9
 Woroni (Canberra, ACT : 1950 – 2007) Monday 7 March 1988 p 19 Article
 The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995) Wednesday 1 June 1988 p 30
 The Canberra Times (ACT : 1926 – 1995) Saturday 25 January 1986 p 3