The optimism of youth rested upon my shoulders as a gentle mist when I was young. As a 5 year old, I could see no difference between myself and any other child. I had a purity of spirit, untouched by the harsh realities of the world. I could hardly walk and yet dreamt of being a ballet dancer. One may say, my grasp of reality was extremely loose.
I had the desire to sing and dance. Music was an integral part of my life. I watched Shirley temple re-runs on Sunday and danced in our living room, my mind imagining grace and dexterity as my feet and body made gravity defying twists and turns.
At 6 years of age, my school physio encouraged my mum to enrol me in ballet lessons. With trepidation she did so, with ballet shoes in one hand and a helmet in her other! The helmet was to protect me from the frequent falls I had while walking. Mum strongly believed my head to be a ‘precious commodity’. I thought the helmet was downright embarrassing!
Sadly, my ballet career came to a grinding halt when I was 7 or 8. I realised they were never going to let me graduate to the higher classes and that I would be forever confined with six year olds.
I maintained my passion for dancing and singing, blissfully unaware of any lack of ability. My speech was unintelligible and my body didn’t operate as I anticipated. However, my heart was on the stage.
I joined children’s theatre for a couple years, I even managed to score a spoken part! The line was ‘no’ and to this day I have remembered it, repeating it often with clarity. My partner can verify this!
My performing aspirations ended when I fell on stage. My body was battered and bruised but for me the worst wound of all, my pride was bruised..
At 11 I began to develop more realistic expectations. I was fully integrated and had no cognitive limitations. I thrived on writing, using a typewriter. I often had difficulty speaking, though my head was teeming with words. My mother was my favourite story teller. She has a magical ability to weave stories and I was infected by an insatiable desire to do the same.
When I went to high school, future employment became more prominent in my mind. I sat with my laptop, in my plaid skirt and worked diligently, undaunted by my peers. I was intelligent and received decent marks.
During this time, I visited the Cerebral Palsy Alliance one day each year. I had a friend there, Lyn, and her symptoms were far more severe than mine but her mind was sharp as a tack. The problem was, she did not have the same opportunities as me and was working in a sheltered workshop! Lyn wasn’t able to attend a mainstream school or university. I realised right there and then, in that old decrepit building with Lyn by my side, how privileged I was. If I was born a few years earlier, perhaps I wouldn’t have had these opportunities either. I knew at that moment, I wanted to become an advocate for people living with disability. My desire was to work in the field of social work or social welfare.
I believed wholeheartedly I was going to make the world a better place for people with disability.
In Year 10, I had the opportunity to experience work experience for a week. We were given preferences and I chose social welfare work. I chatted to my career advisor, a vibrant woman with long jet black hair. She believed I had endless opportunities and I was infused with her optimism. I asked if I could go to the Cerebral Palsy Alliance and she arranged it. Mum helped me secure accommodation in Sydney and to procure support workers to assist with personal care.
When mum took me to Supre to purchase ‘work clothes’, I felt as though I was in a boutique, taking a step towards entering the adult world.
My work experience supervisor was brilliant; I had my own desk and I conversed with colleagues. I immersed myself into the environment. Although the office was painted a dismal grey, the vibrancy I felt, due to the people, was palpable. I had my first taste of independence and I yearned for more.
After returning home, I received a glowing report from my supervisor. She praised me for my competency and professionalism in the workplace. This fuelled my desire to become a productive member in society. I was determined to become an advocate for people living with disability by pursuing a degree in Social Work.
In senior school, I aimed for the ‘back door’ entry to a Social Work Degree, applying for the lower TER (Tertiary Entrance Rank) option of a Bachelor of Arts. Whilst I was in all mainstream classes within the top 20% of my year, I was physically slower than my peers. I found typing laborious and due to physical restraints, my speed was exceptionally slow. I worked diligently on weekends whilst my friends were having parties disguising Passion Pop as lemonade! I did not feel deprived though, I was on a mission to succeed.
My mum encouraged me to sit my HSC over two years. I adamantly refused. If the other students could do it then so could I. Stubbornness is my second nature! When I sat my exams, I used a scribe, quite a feat with my speech impairment. However, my scribe was a teacher’s aide who knew me well and was particularly essential for drawing angles in maths when my hands asserted their own authority!
During exams I would verbalise my answers and was awarded extra time. Sometimes my exams were four hours long, which was extremely draining. For my final exams, I was put in a small, separate room lacking ventilation. An ‘observer’ supervised me, to ensure I didn’t cheat. We were all supervised actually and they were predominantly middle aged women knitting or reading a Woman’s Day magzine. All in all, the exams fatigued me greatly, this is why I opted for a course requiring a lower TER.
But I was fiercely determined to succeed. I felt my future held promise and I was prepared to embrace the next chapter of my life.