Gisele & Robyn

Robyn first met Gisele when she answered a notice on a notice board at her local vet looking for people who could assist people with getting their animals to the vet. Robyn made a call and that’s how she met Gisele, and of course D’Artagnan, Gisele’s guide dog.

Gisele says: “When I found Robyn it was such a relief. I didn’t have to pay, you know $50 an hour or whatever, to take my dog to the vet or walking or swimming. Somebody was willing to volunteer.”

That was 4 years ago and since then the two women spend one day every week with D’Artagnan, walking him or taking him for a swim. And they discovered that they had lots in common: Robyn was learning French, Gisele is a native French speaker. They both love the theatre and reading. And they both go to adult education classes at the WEA.

And something else happened along the way. During their walks Gisele would often talk about her work for a not for profit organisation. “About three years ago I started a group called Digital Gap Initiative. It’s a bit of a mouthful but basically, it’s an organisation that pushes for digital accessibility. We all know that in a physical environment we need to have access ramps to buildings, disability parking and lifts and so on, But there is no legislation for access to the digital universe. And yet the digital universe is there everyday for us: home appliances and other devices, ATM machines and much more. That digital universe is difficult for people with disability to use.”

“I started this group to push for legislation three years ago and we are still going. Every time D’Artagnan and I walked with Robyn, I would sound off, so Robyn got interested and when we needed a new Director Robyn put up her hand to join. And it’s been incredible for us. My main experience has been about vision impairment and access to technology. Robyn brought a new perspective because of her having been a teacher of children with special needs, including children with Autism. And so that’s really enriched our work.”

Robyn nods and adds: “Because it’s technology-based, that’s not my world! So I’ve had to learn a lot. But it has opened my mind. I understand now that in ten, twenty years’ time this accessibility issue will be huge.”

And then she adds with a smile: “Besides, Giselle and I, we also really like to go to French patisseries!”

Sorayya

“I studied and it’s my dream to have a job. I want to use my skills and experiences and find a suitable job.”

Sorayya’s dream, having completed a course at the Gordon, her local TAFE, was really helped by being included and feeling welcomed there.

Her experiences of ‘reasonable accommodation’ included access to all areas (lifts, classrooms, bathrooms). Teachers were friendly and helpful and she was given some additional time to complete her assignments.

She also says:

“If I had any problems and questions, there is a special office for people with disability and they provide support.”

Sorayya said that this made her feel independent and equal with the other students.

Ben

Originally from the Congo, Ben and his family joined the millions of Congolese who fled their country fearing the violence that was destroying lives and livelihoods.

Ben, Jacqueline and David arrived in Townsville in 2017.

The family is happy that Ben, who has a disability, is now receiving regular early intervention services, including Speech and Physiotherapy.

David says: “It’s really helpful because we don’t have to go to the services – actually they come here. This means at home we can do our things and the same time Benjamin is getting services, which is good for us.”

Jacqueline adds: “I think things are getting better and better for Benjamin. He goes to school. We get health services.  But the most important thing is it’s very peaceful, you know, there is no war.”

David and Jacqueline have set up a church and there are services in their house three times a week.

Jacqueline laughs when she says:

“When I was born, I was accustomed to getting a lot of people coming to our home. You know, we are people of the people. So, when I moved to Australia, it has been the same.”

To make people feel welcome David has the following tips:

“First thing we do when we meet new people – first of all, we greet them; ask their names and where they live and how they feel. We talk to them friendly, we make sure that for those who are in need of getting familiar with Townsville we help them with different services, helping to do shopping and getting around and making sure that they feel welcome.”

And Jacqueline adds:

“The first thing we do is we accept all people regardless of their origin, culture or race. When people come to our home, we let them feel free in terms of getting something. If people come here we let them go to fridge – we let them go and see for themselves. Just have a look! If there is food we welcome them and ask them to have food with us. Secondly we talk to them respectfully and make them feel welcome. And the third way is once someone decides to leave we actually accompany them from home to outside to make sure they feel like they want to come again.”

Colleen & Sibbo

Colleen and Sibbo are colleagues on the Townsville Inclusive Community Advisory Committee.  Colleen is a City Councillor and Sibbo works for Townsville Multicultural Support Group.

Townsville hit the news not so long a go with images of blue mats being laid out down ‘The Strand’, the iconic Townsville beach, making it wheelchair accessible.

That was the work of the Committee and both Sibbo and Colleen speak passionately about inclusion and why it is so important.

“I think inclusion works for everybody because we are one community. And there’s unity in community.” says Colleen. “We are united, we work together, we look at the problems and we solve them as a united group.”

She talks positively about the various initiatives Council has been involved in: “The impact on Council, when we actively engage with the broader community, is that we get a richness and a diversity that comes into Council. So we become a far more open community, and as an organisation we get more skills.”

Sibbo then adds:

“Inclusion means a lot to me. It also means practical actions. It’s not just to say we promote inclusion and multiculturalism. You know it’s not just words. It needs concrete actions, to see people getting involved and participating in different things. It involves social transformation: How people participate in sports clubs? How people participate in creating jobs? How people are getting involved in decision making?”.

The interview is conducted in Corcoran Park, a park in Colleen’s Division. Right now it is still a bit of a mess, but there are interesting things happening. We can see some accessible playground equipment; there is an accessible sandpit and accessible water fountains. Colleen explains:

“It’s a park leading the way in terms of creating inclusive environments for our whole community. We’ve really tried to think about how people access the park. How do they get out of their car and into the park? How they get around the park and how they play in the park?

While we are there, a couple of kids are using the play equipment. A dad, recognising Coleen, comes up and provides some good feedback and has a few suggestions for improvement. Like Sibbo said, inclusion also means taking part.

Antoni & Mohammad

Being postgraduate students from overseas studying at the University of New South Wales is how the two men met, but what connects them now has only a little to do with being students.

Antoni and Mohammad are from different countries; they speak different languages; they are doing PhDs in different subjects. Antoni is a disability activist from Indonesia, researching Indonesian Disability Policy; Mohammad is a linguist with a passion in ‘dying languages’. They met on campus. Both were looking for new friends, both were struggling with making friends other than with overseas students.

Antoni loves Mohammad’s humour: “He’s a really, really funny guy. That’s why I like him a lot. He keeps me happy all the time. Actually, I learned to make jokes from him.”

Mohammad is also pretty straightforward. He talks about his thoughts when he first noticed Antoni: “Ok, such a person who is in a wheelchair, he has got lots of problem with moving around. In his life his father and his mother are helping him with everything. I thought ok – maybe he’s not very smart. He just got something out of his government and came to Australia.”

That opinion changed pretty quickly when they started talking and competing. Mohammad tells the following in his usual humorous way:

“He’s got a first in the Faculty of Art and Social Sciences. I got a second. Then we went to the finals.  He got the third place, but I, I did not get anything!”

And about much more serious matters, Mohammad says to Antoni:

“You are a kind of representative for your community of disabled people in Indonesia. I really long for such a chance in my country for people with disability, because we’ve got lots of disabled people as result of the war between Iran and Iraq in 1980s.”

Antoni is great at bringing different people together: “During Ramadan, I always invite Muhammad to have Iftar, the fast breaking. So I introduce him to other Padang people (the region Antoni is from) living in Sydney.”

And Mohammad adds: “He not only invited me for the lunch, but he invited lots of people from different religions; Buddhists, Jews and Christians to come over to his place. I really admire his sense of friendship and promoting this kind of brotherhood between the students.”

Antoni will soon be finishing his studies and he is asking Mohammad to hold him to his promise to take him to a nightclub to celebrate.

Mohammad downplays the whole idea and then says laughing: “I admit. I went to some clubs. Just looking around to learn about the culture. Because I’m a linguist. I should know about the language of dance, the language of drink, the language of everything. But, for you Antoni, I think it’s not necessary.”