Tuesday, 28 October 2014


Yesterday I took a trip to the movies with two carers, who have now become part of my extended family, and three of my favourite residents at Youngcare.

Carer 1 calls me on my shit all the time, who also generates laughs and lively debate at every opportunity. Though he is more than ten years older than me, he's the paid carer who I've most enjoy doing things with. He's more like a cool uncle. Carer #1 is a semi professional musician who pays the bills by wiping my arse, and doing an imitation of Springsteen whilst helping me in the shower, so he can actively pursue his true purpose.

Carer #2 is probably the best all around carer I've ever come across (I have had well over 200 in my lifetime, that's how good she is). She is empathetic, warm, generous and deftly negotiates the fine balance of helping me when I need it, and staying out of the way when I don't. I was telling someone last week that if someone asked Carer 2 to jump in front of a bus for me, she would probably do it, and I wasn't using hyperbole. Yet despite the fact that I tell her how good she is at her job (and as a person), she struggles to understand the compliment. She is the same age as my older brother, and half the time I just want to be the protecter, and tell her that everything is going to be OK, if she just believed most of the justified compliments that I, and others, give her. She is probably the closest thing to an older sister I will ever have.

Resident #1 is a lady who has absolutely no filter, but has a heart of gold if you can join (and understand) her flights of fancy. She insists that I call her 'Nanna', even though she is the same age as my Mother. Depending on her mood, which can fluctuate every 10 seconds, she'll either call me 'My Toddicles' or 'Little Shit,' sometimes in the same sentence.

Resident #2 hardly spoke to anyone when I arrived, but his ability to speak has improved so much that today he started a conversation with an usher by exclaiming 'Hi, how are you? Do you get free drinks because you work here?!' He is a cheeky bastard, and living proof that sometimes the remarkable recoveries that you see on TV are real.

Resident #3 is a man who likes to keep to himself and always stays in his own room, but I can always get him to go out if I promise him free beer. He loves to tell me stories of his days as the guitarist of a well known pub band in the 1980s. He told me several debortuous stories of his pub days last week. It was the first time I've ever seen him grin from ear to ear.

After the movie voyage.  I was reflecting on the fact that I'm only six weeks shy of two years at Youngcare. That means that its more than 4 years since the 'madness' began. If you told me in 2010 that I would willingly go out and enjoy my time with three crips with various levels of cognitive impairment, I would have had you committed. However I am slowly learning to get rid of my Crip Snobbery and I no longer ignore crips who aren't 'at my level intellectually'.

This is the most unexpected surprise of my time at Youngcare. I now understand the duel dichotomies of disability. Prior to moving in, I had only come across people who had developed their disability from birth, like me. Currently I am the only who lives at my complex with a congenital disability. I have never known what it is like to lose ability to look after yourself. I've always been like this. I thought I knew about disability 4 years ago, but really I know now that I had no idea.

I had always hoped that I would meet people like Carer 1 and Carer 2 when I moved, but what I didn't expect are the lessons I've been taught by the Residents in my complex, particularly the ones mentioned above.

I am the crippled Henry Higgins.

I wonder if '... that blasted plain...' has wheelchair access?

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

Whitlam: Labor Hero or Its Ultimate Destroyer?

Former Australian Prime Minister Gough Whitlam died today aged 98. When casual observers consider his legacy, thoughts on his dismissal will immediately come to mind. In particular his famous quote on the steps of Parliament House on November 11, 1975, "Well may we say, God Save The Queen because nothing will save the Governor General." Historians will argue until the end of time as to whether the Dismissal was valid (I've even put forward my point of view) but in truth Whitlam's legacy isn't defined by his Prime Ministership, but the changes he made to his party, for good or for ill.

Whitlam's leadership of the ALP spanned 11 years, longer than that of Curtin, Chifley, Hawke, Keating or Rudd. In today's era where changes of party leadership has become commonplace, this is an achievement in itself. When Whitlam became leader after the ALP's disastrous 1966 result, the ALP was an antiquated party in a structural sense that relied upon traditional mass party values to serve its trade union base, rather than being a party that concentrated on winning elections in order to capture the minds of the majority of voters. 

It was Whitlam who became the face of internal party reform during the middle of the 1960s. As Deputy Leader he had already confronted the ALP's National Executive who controlled the party's rules. Famously calling them 'faceless men' Whitlam risked expulsion from the ALP.as he fought them over state aid to private schools.

Concurrently, Whitlam helped the party broaden the ALP's political base by courting voters who had previously been ignored by the ALP. From 1967, the party sought out intellectuals by promoting policies that focused upon tertiary education and the Arts. During a famous speech at the 1967 Party Conference Whitlam made his intentions clear:

Our Party is weakest electorally and organisationally... we as a Party or a Movement ignore the vast changes that are taking place in the nature and composition of the workforce in Australia

Essentially what Whitlam was arguing led to the first electoral campaign in Australia that targeted specific demographics in order to win elections. This strategy was a significant reason why the ALP obtained its best ever electoral result at the 1969 poll. Given the extremely low base the ALP was coming from in 1966, the party did not triumph in this election, however, this stunning result laid the groundwork for the ALP eventual victory in 1972.

The story of the Whitlam Government is well known. It was the most prolific government in Australia. It's policy platform known as 'The Program' ushered Australia out of the postwar years and into a more modern social environment befitting its times. In less than three years the Whitlam Government instituted universal health care, free tertiary education, as well as legislation to prevent discrimination on the basis of race, gender and disability. In addition the Whitlam Government pulled Australia's remaining troops from Vietnam and annexed Puppa New Guinea as part of an attempt to broaden Australia's foreign policy generally. Despite these successes it is agreed that the Whitlam had an extremely poor economic legacy and could not carry 'The Program' out effectively.

This is where the impact of Whitlam the political leader becomes complex. Whitlam has cast a shadow over all who have obtained the leadership since his resignation in 1977. While the ALP as a party is happy to embrace the legacy of the Government's comprehensive social programs, it has become paranoid in attempt to learn from Whitlam's economic failures. 

The Hawke Government was overt in labeling itself as the Anti Whitlam Government by adopting free market economic policies that were the antithesis to the Whitlam model. ALP leaders have continued to become weary of the Whitlam legacy since, both in advocating internal party reform, and implementing comprehensive social policy.

Most obituaries will therefore focus on what Whitlam achieved as ALP leader, but it is what he did not do, which is far more important. Whitlam in death, casts such a huge shadow over his party. The party has not recovered from his dismissal in 1975. Whitlam had a clear set of values and beliefs as leader of the ALP. Whatever the merits of these, the party has struggled to define itself in this manner since. Whitlam's legacy stretches far beyond his eleven year term as leader. Instead it is a multi-generational struggle in which the social and economic ideologies of the party are in constant battle. 

Whitlam may have changed the party for the better in the short and medium terms, but the long term ramifications of his leadership have proven to be far more destructive for the ALP. 

Sunday, 12 October 2014

Youngcare is About Choice. Our New Ad Campaign.

Tonight is the launch of Youngcare's new advertising campaign, which I star in and more importantly, co-wrote. It will run on the Nine Network in Queensland and New South Wales from tonight until October 25.

Back in May, the amazing creative gurus from Publicis Mojo came to visit me at my apartment to try and get a sense of why Youngcare is so important. So I took the team on a tour, and proceeded to tell them what Youngcare means to me. Everyone who knows me well will recognise the words I speak in the ad. I told the Mojo team that:

Disability is not about a lack of impairment.

It's about CHOICE

Choice of when to eat.
Choice of when to go the toilet
Choice of when to go to sleep...

Yes, the words that I speak are mine. They are not the words of some marketing executive who has no concept of disability. I was involved in every step of the creative process. We all tried to avoid the binary traps of disability PR. No one with a disability wants your pity, and no one with a disability is an inspiration just because they get on with life.

The ad was filmed in July at the Griffith Film School with the wonderful team at Cutting Edge. What you see took an entire day to film. It was a totally different experience for me, a hard, tough and ultimately satisfying one that I won't forget. I am very happy with the outcome and I hope you are too.

The purpose of the ad is two fold. Of course it is important to highlight the work of Youngcare, but it is there to inform people of the forgotten plight of young people with disabilities. It is a call to action to encourage people to donate, for the thousands of people who are on the fringes of society.

Thanks to the Youngcare team for encouraging my involvement. It is one of the best things I have ever done. As I told Youngcare's website, this is personal for me. It will change the lives of thousands of families, forever.

Monday, 6 October 2014

The Roosevelt Effect.

Expectations are strange as far as I'm concerned. I shift between the two extremes. Either I harbour none, or they are impossible to live up to. This is particularly so when something takes a long time to come to fruition.

I first heard that Ken Burns was making a documentary on the three famous Roosevelts: Theodore, Franklin, and Eleanor two years ago, and that his frequent collabroator, Geoffrey C Ward, would be writing it. I was even more elated when I found out that (of course) it wouldn't be a single stand alone documentary, but a seven part, 14 hour series.

I had joined the cult of Burns and Ward some 5 years ago when I first saw their documentaries on The Civil War, Mark Twain, Thomas Jefferson, and then later Baseball. Each were sweeping in scope, with a contradictory mastery of fine detail. The so called 'Ken Burns Effect' is so well known by the public at large it has been parodied extensively. But while Burns gets most of the credit, it is Ward who brings the history to life with his trademark narrative push that focuses on the big and the small. It helps in this case that Ward is one of the world's most respected scholars on all things Franklin Delano Roosevelt.  

Given that Franklin is my hero, idol, and inspiration, and the fact that his family's story was being told by Burns and Ward I lived in frenzied expectation. It is true that I would tell anyone who would listen that The Roosevelts: An Intimate History would be in my biased, politically and historically obsessed opinion, the best program to ever air on television.

For once the remarkably high expectations I had set were matched, and even surpassed. It is exceptionally hard to distill each episode or their respective highlights. However, the highest compliment I can give the overall series is that Burns and Ward achieved the impossible and demonstrated to me that even I had underestimated the achievements of all three Roosevelts.

I love Theodore, the 26th President of the United States (1901-1908), for his ability to harness the big picture aspects of political life, and for his determination to hold steadfast to particular sets of principles, no matter what came his way. All this was achieved despite grave challenges throughout his life, including losing his first wife and mother within hours of each other on the same day.

I obviously love Franklin, the 32nd President of the United States (1933-1945), because he is, and was, the greatest political leader the world has ever known. He was the saviour of the American economy in the midst of the Great Depression, commander of the American forces during World War Two, and the architect of the modern political world. All this was achieved with a severe physical disability, which left his physical movement roughly equivalent to my own.

I love Eleanor (niece of Theodore and wife of Franklin), because as Burns like to say '...she was on the right side of history on every issue, except Prohibition (and you can't really blame her for that because her father was an alcoholic).' She was the leader of the women's movement and architect of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. Again, all this was achieved despite a truly awful childhood, which very few others would survive, let alone have the ability to thrive in adulthood.

The moment of the series for me personally occurs in episode four, Into the Storm, as Ward describes the moment when Franklin realises he has contracted polio and he would not be able to move without assistance ever again. These words are given extra special meaning because like Franklin, Ward has polio. As Ward chokes back tears he says that the disease:
'... produces terror, unreasoning terror, you just can't believe, that the legs you depended on, simply don't work.. It's agonising, simply agonising... he (Roosevelt) lay there terrified.. he must not tell (people) how terrified he was, he simply turned inward'.
In that moment I cried, and I cried, and I cried. Yes, Franklin was modern history's greatest figure, but he shared that terror with Ward. And they shared that terror with me too.

Sadly, the greatest achievement in my televisual history is unlikely to ever be broadcast in Australia  (I brought this DVD set from America). This is despite the fact that Meryl Streep narrates Eleanor's voiceover, whilst Paul Giamatti narrates Theodore's. It seems that very few Australians share my Roosevelt historical fanaticism. Pity, because we all have much to learn from this series: about courage, about triumphing despite adversity, about passion, and about leadership. Now there's only one question left to answer:

Can Burns and Ward surpass their own brilliance with their upcoming series on the Vietnam War?