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Breaking barriers

My life has fallen into a few stages.

As a child, I lived in Box Hill when it was village. I then became pastor to the slums of inner Melbourne for eight years. I was then a country parson and a teacher at a one teacher bush school out at Jackson Creek in Western Victoria and then for 13 years, I was a suburban minister in one of Australia’s largest suburban ministries.

And then, for more than 27 years I’ve been Superintendent in Sydney of Wesley Mission, Australia’s largest church ministry.

I’ve told you stories of people in each of these places.

Tonight I want you to come with me into the heart of the city.

During 1980, I worked very hard for what was to occur in 1981. 1981 had been declared the International year of Disabled Persons by the United Nation. They had adopted a theme of full participation and equality. I had always been very concerned for disabled people and my experiences at the Cheltenham Church of Christ with a young, profoundly disabled boy, had led to us building ramps instead of steps, providing an electronic typewriter for him to communicate, and providing special teachers, adapting toilets and other facilities.

The work at Wesley Mission had already been well established in caring for the disabled but our buildings were another story.

If Australia was going to break down the barriers during 1981 so that all disabled people might have the same chance as everyone else to have a happy and independent life, then we were going to have to make a lot of changes.

Barriers can be physical such as, “How can a person in a wheelchair get into a shop with steps at the entrance?” Or “How does a blind person read a newspaper?”

Other barriers can be caused by what people think: “How often are disabled children are not invited to another child’s birthday party because the birthday child’s parents don’t know how to cope with a disabled person present?” There is also the problem of perception such as how often is deaf person regarded as stupid because they cannot hear you?

One in every 10 Australians is permanently disabled and every one has some sort of disability at some time in their lives like a person on crutches after an accident or the person who must use glasses or a hearing aid.

Disabled people are not different. They are our neighbours. They are our workmates. They are our school friends. They are fellow church members. They are members of our family. They have the same hopes and abilities as everyone else—but with a few extra problems to overcome.

During 1980 I made a survey of all of the centres and activities of Wesley Mission to see what we would need to do to make The Year of the Disabled a really significant occasion. We were already making a positive contribution through the use of our staff expertise. Dr. Keith Suter was a member of the International Year of the Disabled Person’s national committee. The Rev. Colin Wood and Deaconess Joan Horgan had special responsibilities in our handicapped persons work that deeply involved them. We had started undertaking some research into rehabilitation. Other staffs were involved in both the preparation of programs and our own ministry among the disabled.

I wrote down a number of aims that we would seek to encompass in the special Year of the disabled. These included providing maximum opportunity for disabled people to make satisfactory physical and psychological adjustments; to promote all efforts to provide disabled people with proper assistance, training, care and guidance; to encourage study and research projects to improve their access to public buildings and the transportation system; to educate and inform the public on the special difficulties confronting the disabled and to promote effective measures which would prevent people from becoming disabled.

The whole aim was to give disabled people the same opportunities and choices and personal independence as is enjoyed by the rest of society.

There were about 1 1/2 million people in Australia who faced barriers caused by disability. Sometimes their problems were architectural such as steps and high counters and inaccessible toilets. Sometimes they were attitudinal like pity, paternalism and prejudice. Many of them were occupational—employers just wouldn’t employ a person who had disabilities. In my investigation in 1980, I found there were many difficulties for disabled people, such as the gap between the train and the platform, or buses that were too high from the ground for many people to board safely. I also found that most theatres were totally inappropriate with seats too close to each other for disabled people to get in or out and very few public buildings in Australia had any facilities for the disabled. For example, the newest building in Australia and the one of which were most proud, the Sydney Opera House was an absolute nightmare with steps everywhere, no lifts to take people to most parts and really inaccessible toilets.

So when we got closer to the beginning of the year we had already outlined more than a year’s activities. We would lift public awareness to the needs of the disabled by bringing to Australia the magnificent film “Joni”. This was the remarkable story of a quadriplegic Joni Earickson. We premiered this film in the Lyceum and invited every significant public official, politician, and person who could make choices and decisions about public buildings, access and architecture. We took out rows and rows of seats to enable hundreds of wheelchairs to be brought in. Prior to this Wesley Mission had spent a great deal of money totally adapting all of our toilets in Wesley Centre and the Lyceum Theatre; enlarging doors, removing steps, making gentle ramps and enabling people in wheelchairs to have total access. We were probably the first major public facility in Sydney to be totally disabled person friendly.

When we screened the film to a huge crowd of disabled people we had an enormous response. We started a program to educate the public by producing published material about our own work and about the needs of the disabled and we had a number of large public events scheduled to highlight the needs of the disabled. We improved our caring programs to let the community see that we were already doing for the disabled through our David Morgan Centre, a workshop for handicapped people and Pinaroo a residence for 40 mildly intellectually handicapped people and our weekly gathering on Thursday night known as or Orana, a social activity for the disabled.

We became very alert to buildings which needed to be specifically adapted. For example, I tried to take some people in wheelchairs into and around the facilities of the Sydney Town Hall. It was absolutely hopeless. Everywhere we went were flights of steps. We had to lift and carry wheelchairs up 20 and 30 steps. I went to see the then Lord Mayor Douglas Sutherland who gave us a wonderful reception. Doug himself had a damaged leg and walked with the aid of a stick. He understood immediately and established his own program within the Town Hall to make sure all the facilities were in place for wheelchair access. He organised new entry points to the disabled not by the major front entrance but at a side entrance to the Town Hall where ramps were installed with wide doorways and corridors so that wheelchairs could be brought in and taken to the lift. I was privileged to be asked by the Lord Mayor Douglas Sutherland to speak at the opening of these new facilities that enable disabled Sydney people access to their own Town Hall. The Sydney Opera House unfortunately did not have a sympathetic person like the Lord Mayor to alter its architecture. There were never suitable facilities and areas like the Northern forecourt of the Opera House became literally out of bounds for the disabled. They still are, 30 years later!

In an era when we were short of cash we very bravely went ahead by faith and spent tens of thousands of dollars in all of Wesley Mission’s 23 major buildings to make sure that they were adapted and suitable for the disabled. We put in specially built showers and toilets suitable for people in wheelchairs and initiated new programs of care with independent living units for those who wanted to live on their own. And we planned to move about 40 intellectually disabled people who lived in our hostel into their own private accommodation with staff after we have trained them to use money and to get around Sydney on the public transport. Over the next two years we made what I believe was a most profound contribution to the International Year of Disabled Persons.
But the most significant contribution came about in September of 1981. We brought to Australia from England a most incredible person. Terry Wiles was born in England in 1962 and consequently came to us when he was 19 years of age. Terry was born of a prostitute mother and a visiting American Negro father. When he was born he suffered damage from his mother taking Thalidomide. This meant that Terry was born without either arms or legs and with only one eye. He had recently achieved some international fame when he starred in a film on his own life called “On Giant Shoulders” which told of the struggles against disability and bureaucracy.

Following his birth Terry was put in an insane asylum where he was left with little attention throughout most of his growing childhood. A gardener, the very dysfunctional man and his wife who lived in poverty themselves, took a liking to this young child who lay on a mat all day. Because they weren’t married and because both of the adults were dysfunctional people there was no way the bureaucracy was going to allow them to adopt young Terry. But Hazel and Len did everything that was required of them. They married each other, cleaned up the caravan in which they permanently resided and fought the government bureaucracy to adopt young Terry. Their battle over the next 10 years was the most incredible one as they eventually gained access to the child, then custody of the child, then the right to adopt him. Hazel persevered in teaching him basic educational skills and Len used some of his war time experience as an engineer to build him battery driven “Super cars” to enable him to be independent. A wheelchair was no good because he had neither arms nor legs to propel himself along but his little Super cars built by Len had an hydraulic hoist that lifted him up so he could see where he was going and by using his shoulder blades could push pressure buttons to enable him to go forward or back or to brake.

Just to get Terry to Australia required an immense amount of corporate support and to this day I will always be thankful for the support of Qantas, TAA, Sydney Hilton and Budget Rent-a-Car who enabled us to bring Terry and his dad Len him to Australia and to visit Sydney, Canberra, Perth and Adelaide. I arranged for Rev. Colin Wood to go with Terry on his Australian tour.

Everywhere that Terry went he found that disabled people were loud in complaining that they were prisoners within institutions and captives to systems that did not allow them to go where they need to go.

We got Terry to show us the kind of problems that severely disabled people had by going shopping with him. We found that there were many shops that were totally inaccessible to the disabled. Len went with Terry to a major Sydney store to buy something but stopped outside at the steps leading up the main entrance. He went to another entrance and found steps there also and although Len was quite capable of walking in, he refused on principle to do business with a store that did not take into account the disabled and so went elsewhere. Terry used to say, “Why should a person have to use a back door just because they are in a wheelchair?”

Sometimes even when some rough access had been provided design faults indicate that people had not thought out the needs. For example in the city Terry and Len saw a ramp beside some steps leading into a government building. The ramp went down two levels of steps alright and then stopped abruptly nearly 2 feet above the footpath, before a person in a wheelchair could go up the ramp he or she had to get someone to lift them up onto the ramp and if they were coming down, there would suddenly be an enormous drop when they reached the end. Terry said; “We need architects and designers to spend a few days in a wheelchair so they can experience first-hand the types of problems we have to deal with everyday.”

I arranged a civic reception which the Lord Mayor Douglas Sutherland was delighted to put on and Kamahl the famous singer entertainer people at that particular gathering. The disabled love to go to the Sydney Town Hall where the Mayor’s efforts had made sure there were good ramp entries and access to the lifts to enable people to get up to the reception area. Everywhere Terry went he was the centre of attention on nationwide television programs interviewed him. Without arms or legs and with only one eye Terry was a master of achievement. His little super car in the midst of a circle of wheelchairs caught everyone’s attention.

On one occasion he told Rev. Colin Wood that he wanted to go swimming in the hotel swimming pool. This presented a new challenge to Colin: Big and strong he carried Terry in his swimming togs, which didn’t have any holes for legs, up the couple of flights of stairs to where swimming pool was. But how can a person without arms or legs swim? Terry’s answer was simple: “Just through me in, mate” Rev. Colin Wood was very dubious about this. He felt the young man would just sink like a stone. At last carrying the little body without arms or legs to the edge of the pool Colin did what was asked and just dropped him in and then prepared to dive in and rescued him immediately. But Terry came to the surface and with his head bobbing along and his body moving like a porpoise he just bobbed along the surface of the water swimming without legs or arms.

Neither Len nor Terry Wiles were Christians when they came to Australia. But when they saw how Christian people at the Wesley Mission were working to change community attitudes as well as provide care for more than 100 profoundly disabled people they were absolutely delighted and their faith grew at the practical expression of faith found in the Christian in Sydney. By the time the tour had finished at Perth, Terry made the surprising request. At the end of this final gathering he asked if he could say a prayer of blessing upon the disabled and to close his tour with a prayer of thanks. So it was that this 19 year old without arms or legs, challenged but not disabled, closed his visit with a moving prayer thanksgiving to God.

While he was with us Terry received some wonderful information. He had completed his high school studies in England thanks to the work of Hazel, his adoptive mother. Now be found out that he had won a scholarship to attend a University in California Len and Hazel moved with Terry to California where he attended university and eventually graduated with his degree specialising in aspects of disability services. I went to America a year later visited them. That morning I was due to speak for Rev. Robert Schuller in the famous Crystal Cathedral and Len drove me and the rest of the family including Terry in his super car, in a van to the Crystal Cathedral.

Terry Wiles later came to New Zealand to become a manager of a service for the disabled. He married and has continued to serve the disabled in a most productive and fruitful life.

If the International Year of the Disabled was the only International Year the United Nations ever ran, it would have been a most successful program and it was one that Wesley Mission was in the forefront of changing community perceptions, attitudes and building standards.

Today when I see so many disabled people moving freely around the city and in and out of their work, when I see modern buses which actually stoop down to allow wheelchairs to roll in and see special places for wheelchairs on public transport, braille words in lifts so blind people know which button to push, and a whole host of other innovations, I thank God for the battles we had in that International Year and for remarkable people like Joni Earickson and Terry Wiles who changed our attitudes towards people with disabilities.

The city of Sydney would grow to be one of the world’s great cities and Wesley Mission would grow to be one of the world’s great churches and I was privileged to spend each day in the heart of both.

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