Build a better, more thoughtful Australia

2 February 2011

Photo by Simone De Peak, courtesy of the Newcastle Herald

We need empathy and inclusiveness for those with disabilities, writes Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum, AO in the Newcastle Herald.

At a ceremony on the forecourt of the Australian Parliamentlast week, Prime Minister Julia Gillard did me the very great honour of naming me Senior Australian of the Year for 2011.

I am not quite sure about the "senior" bit, as I have only just entered myseventh decade. However, being given this designation is undoubtedly one of the most humbling honours any Australian (old or young at heart) can ever hope to receive.

Family and friends have asked me what I wish to achieve in this special senior Australian year. As a person with the disability of total blindness acquired shortly after my birth,my first concern is with the more than 3 million of our fellow Australians who are people with disabilities.

We people with disabilities are no different from our fellow Australians.We have the same hopes, loves, fears and dreams as everyone else. It is important to recognise that disabilities can and do occur in many families from the young to the elderly, by disease, by accident or through a deterioration in health.

Yet,we people with disabilities wish to join hands with you and to obtain meaningful employment so that we can play our part in growing our nation.

My wish is to achieve progress in three areas, one general, one specific and one relating to
Newcastle and the Hunter Valley.

My general wish is that fellow Australians will help all people with disabilities by giving us the full measure ofhuman rights and inherent dignity that many Australians take for granted.

This can mean something really simple, like acknowledging a person with a disability in the street, by stopping for a chat or by offering a helping hand where one might be needed.

Don't be afraid of the physical differences that often accompany a disability. If we are more thoughtful and inclusive, we can build an even better Australia. I have special concerns here for my sisters and brothers in institutions to ensure that their personal liberties and wishes are respected.

Greater inclusiveness would make us more aware of the difficulties of accessing buildings and transport, and for we blind people of accessing information. A more inclusive approach to access would benefit all, including people with disabilities, but also the elderly and
even young parents with prams.

The specific matter on which I hope to see progress is in Australia embracing a national disability insurance scheme. We as a nation need such a scheme to adequately fund support for people with disabilities andt heir carers, however disabilities are acquired.

While local, state and federal governments have made great strides in recent years, disability services are still underfunded. A Productivity Commission report will soon be released, and it is my hope that all Australians will get behind the recommendations made by the commission.

Finally, for more than half-a-dozen years I have chaired Radio 2RPH. Like its sister radio stations for print-handicapped people throughout Australia, this station reads out over the air newspapers and magazines for blind and print handicapped listeners.

In fact, people from many walks of life tune in when they cannot physically read the papers to get all the latest news.

Our readers are volunteers who give up their time to read for the community. We also broadcast to Newcastle and the Hunter Valley at 100.5 on the FM band.

For now, the Newcastle Herald is read by volunteers from our Sydney studios. My local wish is to obtain funding to build a studio in Newcastle from which Novocastrian volunteers will be able to broadcast local content to our listeners.

The Newcastle Herald has donated the premises for a studio,we just need the funds to fit the place out.