by Lauren Hislop Click a chapter link (right) to follow this story from the beginning.
A new dawn upon my horizon offers the promise of a crisp autumn day and the staleness of summer dissipates. “This is a new beginning” I pondered, as I drove my electric wheelchair around Ourimbah campus. I was feeling excited and hopeful, two emotions that had become unfamiliar to me. Studying here felt like home, this was the place I had started my uni life and was as comfortable as a pair of old jeans that fitted bloody well! Dragging my laptop bag behind me upon entering my first lecture, I felt a sense of solace. The students were varied in ages and with hardly a remnant of awkwardness, it all seemed quite easy to me. With significant credits from previous studies, I wasn’t required to take many subjects, leaving me the option to complete my degree in two years instead of three. However, after chatting with the course coordinator I opted for 3 years of study, taking pressure off with only two subjects each semester and allowing my confidence to return. Majoring in community welfare, was to my surprise the right choice for me, its focus on how policy directly impacts on individual lives resonated and a burst of optimism pulsated through my veins. My confidence soared at the end of semester, when with uncoordinated fingers I logged into my student portal, to find distinctions awaiting my attention. I had indeed recovered from my fall in social work! Many serendipitous encounters occurred during this time, including developing a connection with Basil, a taxi driver with an accessible cab who after one trip, offered to be my regular driver. Many stories have unsung heroes and Basil was one of mine. A retired surveyor, he often recounted tales of his career and with a spirit of gentle generosity and humility, he was an inspiration. On one occasion after bringing me to campus, I reached in my bag for my purse only to find it wasn’t there, I was distraught. After my profuse apologies, Basil smiled, grabbed his wallet and insisted I take five dollars in case I needed something, I was touched. I also became friends with fellow students Caroline and Kim, we would regularly catch up and support each other. They would often seek my advice because I had degrees and this was a real confidence booster, it all balanced out with my request for their assistance to pour a cup of tea! I recaptured a sense of camaraderie I had been missing for so long. I was in a state of perpetual motion in my second year with four subjects during first semester and although tired, I achieved decent marks. In second semester we had statistics, this was a terrifying prospect considering my absence of a mathematical brain. I sat in lectures, diligently typing on my laptop and whilst I may have appeared to know what the lecturer was talking about, in all honesty I didn’t have a clue! Fortunately for me, the statistic component was only worth 50% of our grade, if it was more, I wouldn’t have passed. During second year I was approached by one of my lecturers Michael Howard, who believed I had an aptitude for research and policy writing. He asked if I would consider honours, saying it would be an invaluable qualification. I trusted him, he worked in policy development in Canberra and I was so excited I think I accidentally drove over his foot! The prospect of being renumerated for pursuing my passion, brought me closer to the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. My future suddenly felt illuminated with clear direction, I would be a researcher. In my third year I was focused on achieving high marks, so I could progress into honours and when my degree was nearing completion, I felt a sense of achievement. I was back on course! When I graduated, I farewelled my fellow students and we all went on different paths, mine was towards an honours degree. From the onset of my honours degree, I immersed myself in academic journals in preparation for my thesis. Michael was my supervisor and the topic for my thesis was the effect of the Welfare to Work Act on the employment situation for people with disability. In 2005 under John Howard, the government implemented the Act to increase employment outcomes for people with disability. I predicted it would be a colossal failure because it came from the premise that the unemployment rate amongst people with disability, was due to a dependency on income support. Not surprisingly, their solution was to restrict the eligibility of the Disability Support Pension (DSP). After the act was implemented, those applying for the DSP, were only successful if they were unable to work 15 hours per week, reduced from 30 hours. Those who were no longer eligible were placed on Newstart. Whilst I wasn’t directly affected by the act at this stage, I was outraged. Many people with disability have a deep desire to work, however, extenuating circumstances such as employer’s discriminatory attitudes made this difficult and the Act stood to cause even greater financial disadvantage. I kept my emotional response in check, I was now a researcher and needed to gather facts and keep an open mind. In addition to our thesis, we had to attend a weekly seminar at Newcastle campus. As I was living with mum, I would catch the train up. I think my lecturer and my peers were both impressed and horrified when I strode into the lecture on one occasion with blood on my arm. I had fallen on the platform and continued to uni. “Proof I’m dedicated,” I thought! I wanted to survey people with disability affected by the Act. Whilst researchers were theorising about the act, it was time to ask the experts; people with disabilities, so I designed a survey. I hoped that this would provide a human testimony. I had to gain ethics approval at the uni, which was a lengthy process. Once approved I asked Centrelink to distribute my survey to some of their clients. After prolonging my degree and waiting months, I received a negative response, this was frustrating! Not to be deterred, I approached a disability employment agency who also stuffed me around with a long response time and unfavourable outcome. I decided to undertake a literature review instead and in the last few months of completing my thesis, I was attached to a PC for up to ten hours a day. Our family computer was in the living room, I had papers strewn constantly across the floor and Mum referred to it as the ‘white out’. I’m still astounded by mums patience, she provided me endless cups of tea and was successful getting me to occasionally eat. I grew extremely fatigued, I was my own worst enemy, constantly updating information as a result of reading further articles and research papers. Thankfully I had a due date and when it arrived, I breathed a sigh of relief knowing my study days were finally over. Whilst I was keen to join the workforce, I planned to have a break, catching up with friends and reacquainting my skin to sunlight! In memory of Basil