I’m sure that many readers will expect me to give my predictions regarding Saturday’s upcoming South Australian election. The truth is despite it being in my beloved home state I can’t offer much insight beyond the standard commentary. Much to my own disappointment I can’t even tell you what State seat I lived in for the first fifteen years of my life, beyond the fact that former Premier and Federal Senator Steele Hall was a Liberal Party candidate during one election I vaguely recall.
My South Australian heritage is something I hold close to my heart, I love its football, I love its culture, and the truth is that I was very lucky to be living in Adelaide at a time when South Australia was at the forefront of disability services in this country. I was looked after well. So well in fact that if I moved to Queensland any earlier than I did, I dare say I wouldn’t be as able as I am physically and intellectually. Based on anecdotal evidence, the services I had available to me in Adelaide just weren’t around in Queensland during the 1980s and 1990s.
At a very early age I attended Regency Park Centre School (RPC), which was for all intents and purposes a ‘special school’ for people with physical disabilities like mine. Complete with modified classrooms it had what was then state of the art technology, and support services. Each classroom had ten or eleven students, one teacher and two or three teacher assistants. We were taught a modified curriculum to cater for different ability levels, and for the most part my experiences there were positive. You could say RPC transformed me from a kid who was expected to remain at the school for his entire educational life, to a kid that excelled in a mainstream school setting.
I’ll be the first to admit that my experience is atypical, but I can’t underestimate the effect of a highly specialised environment had on my development. Through RPC I learnt how to interact with my peers and the world around me, skills that I have never taking for granted. Some awesome memories were created playing in the purpose built theme park made for wheelchairs known as ‘Wheelie Park’: navigating my way through mazes, doing burnouts in my very first electric wheelchair on the skid pad, as well as trying to play wheelchair soccer, at age 5 desperate to get a touch against the big kids while we all waited for the bus to pull up to take us home.
RPC was not just a school, but also a combined therapy centre as well: where physio was achingly endured, a rehabilitation centre where wheelchairs were repaired, a swimming centre where hydrotherapy was enjoyed. To call RPC merely a school is simply a disservice. Now though, the South Australian Government are doing just that and relocating its educational facilities elsewhere while keeping the other components on the original site.
Way back in 1989 when I was a mere five years old, The Crippled Children’s Association (CCA) as it was then known celebrated its 50th year. The CCA ran RPC so that year was like mecca for all politicians to come to the school and get good press. Then South Australian Premier John Bannon unveiled a commemorative sign outside the front entrance, and I can still remember the dark grey suit he wore as he gave a speech at the ceremony in front of the kids and the cameras, I had no clue what was going on about, except that I was BUSTING for the toilet. Later that year Hazel Hawke came to visit, the then wife of Prime Minister Bob Hawke. She sat down next to me and asked me my name. At that stage I was only able to speak a sentence or two. I smiled at her and said ‘My Name is Todd Winther, can you please tell Bob I like his haircut?!’ she laughed hysterically. My Mum has dined out on that story for 20 years as I have made my way up through the ALP.
While I don’t know the particulars of the decision that forced the Rann Government to relocate RPC, I am struck by its irony. I found out the information fourth hand last night, during the last week of the State campaign, which I of course want Rann to win. However this decision demonstrates how much the government fails to understand the whole package of disability issues. By separating two components, for what I assume are for economic reasons, they are taking away the essence of what RPC represents: a community. Forget the kids who went there, parents like mine were grateful they didn’t have to make one trip to school and another to a physio when we lived on the opposite side of town. That’s not cost effective, its sheer lunacy.
As I have forged a political career I have thought a number of times about what John Bannon might have said on that hot February morning of 1989. My guess is that he would have said how RPC plays an important part in the community. How it allows disabled children like the ones before him that day opportunities they could not have imagine a generation before, as RPC was being built. How the RPC is fundamentally important for the way the Government tackles disability services in the state. The ironic thing is that Mike Rann was John Bannon’s press secretary at the time. I wonder if he remembers his former boss making that visit and speech? I wonder if he wrote it? I wonder if he believed it? Because he doesn’t now.