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Archive for December, 2010

The queue at the ladies’ toilet at the cinema was long as usual, despite the fact that there were toilets on various levels.

I guess that’s why a few of the ladies- in-waiting guiltily ducked into the disabled toilet, but not without the usual furtive looks.

It’s a common scene. What is the etiquette? Should you not use the toilet, even when there is no person with a disability in sight and your legs are crossed and your face is going purple?

But how do we know there is no person with a disability in sight? Should we always assume that such a person is in a wheelchair, the ubiquitous and often erroneous symbol of disability?

Disability comes in many forms, not always overt. Someone who has difficulty walking or using their arms, perhaps due to a congenital disease or a stroke, may need a disabled toilet. Someone who has a colostomy and needs more space, privacy and time may also need one. Or someone like me, who has lymphoedema and often needs space to adjust surgical stockings.

But despite being on the alert for all types of disability, in all my years of avid cinema and theatre going, I’ve rarely seen any people with disabilities use these toilets. What does this suggest? That people with disabilities are not interested in the arts?

Of course not. It may simply suggest that the times that I went to the cinema or theatre did not coincide with the times that they attended. It may also suggest that people with disabilities may not be able to afford a ticket to the cinema or theatre, or may not be able to afford it as often as others.

In all the talk about access and disability, an important factor is often omitted – economic access. Having a disability is expensive. At the same time, people with disabilities are more likely to be unemployed or receiving government benefits – making them amongst the most marginalised and poor in our community.

In the light of this, a ticket to the cinema may be a luxury: a ticket to the theatre, may be an impossibility, especially if you have to take a carer along.

I realise that things have improved greatly since the days when helping people with disabilities meant installing a ramp. The Disability Discrimination Act 1992 now protects against discrimination in many parts of public life, such as employment, education and access to premises.

But there is no protection against poverty, especially when people with disabilities must rely on an out-dated, complex and crisis-driven welfare system.

That’s why we need a National Disability Insurance Scheme. The scheme was first proposed at the Rudd 2020 summit and is now being considered as part of the Government’s National Disability Strategy, a 10- year national plan to improve the lives of people with disabilities.

The Productivity Commission began a public inquiry into the scheme in February and its final report is due by July 31 next year.

The proposal is for a scheme for all Australians who acquire a disability before age 65, funded by all taxpayers through general revenue or through an extension of the Medicare Levy.

For all those who are now hearing the nagging voice of Tony Abbott saying “big new tax”, think again. Disability is not something that affects some invisible minority.

Around 1.5 million Australians have a profound or serious disability, and more than 2.5 million people are caring for them.

Within the next 40 years as our population ages, the number of people with severe and profound disabilities is expected to rise to 2.9 million. This is a big new problem and yes it will require a big new tax if we are to avoid a crisis.

But there will also be many benefits. As Yooralla says, not only would the scheme provide the funds to meet the needs of all people with disabilities and their families, it would also enable them to “make choices, be in control and plan their lives with confidence, just like everyone else”.

That means going to the movies on a Saturday afternoon, just like everyone else.

So next time you queue for the loo, instead of sitting down, stand up for people with disabilities by signing the National Disability Insurance Scheme petition being run Yooralla, Disability Services Australia and the Spastic Centre. http://www.ndis.org.au/takeaction/signthepetition.html.

More than ever, people with disabilities need your support and advocacy to ensure that this vital law reform succeeds.

An edited version of this story was published in The Age on November 9. To read this version and see the comments go to http://www.theage.com.au/opinion/society-and-culture/guilty-of-using-the-disabled-loo-make-your-amends-here-20101108-17kg2.html

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When my father-in-law died 10 years ago, my husband predicted that with Pa gone, Nana would be like a budgie and just give up and fall off her perch. And for a while there, I feared he might be right.
On the first trip to the cemetery a few weeks after the funeral, she fumbled in her bag and began to arrange the artificial carnations with the camellias, squashing the thick stubborn stems into the narrow hole that formed a vase at the base of the newly made grave.
My daughter, then only seven, held out the pink carnations she had picked from our garden and we watched awkwardly, as Nana arranged them in another small vase.
Then she took out a cloth and a spray can from the small gift bag and began to polish the stone. “It comes up really nicely,” she said, polishing the rose pink granite as firmly an efficiently as if she was polishing the dining-room table at home.
We stood and said how nice it was, and how peaceful the garden was, and what a lovely spot: watching as the small claw-like hand, with its rivers of purple and blue veins, worked quickly, frantically – the cluster of rings jammed tightly on her finger a reminder of a union that no longer existed.
But then suddenly she dropped the cloth and covered her face and a sob escaped. “I just can’t get used to it,” she said. “It seems so unreal. I keep thinking he’s just going to come back and walk in the room.”
The nights were the worst. She would lay awake, listening to Keith McGowen, host of the Overnighters on 3AW. It was here that she discovered that she was not alone after all.
Keith talked and people rang up and talked back. People like her – lying awake, wondering how – after 40 years of marriage – that they were now alone and no longer needed.
Soon she was able to lose herself in the music, so much so that she began to go to JB HiFi the next day to buy the recommended CDs.
That’s how she discovered Bruce.
First it was the Live in Dublin album. The songs, with their raw poetry, seemed to speak to her personally.

We said we’d walk together baby – come what may
That come the twilight, should we lose our way
If, as we’re walking, a hand should slip free
I’ll wait for you
And should I fall behind
Wait for me

She learned them all by heart and when she came to our place, she would ask me to look up the lyrics she couldn’t quite grasp or hear.
She began to read everything she could about Bruce and quickly became an expert.
“His mother was Italian,” she would tell me authoritatively. “Oh, and he does a lot for charity.” She knew about his marriage, his children, the lives of his band members, and their deaths. When Danny Federici died – the E-street band’s organ and keyboard player – she was heartbroken.
At a Mother’s Day lunch last year, my husband and I gave her a beautiful illustrated biography of Bruce. She wept when she opened it and poured over it while we ate, pointing to photos as if they were old friends,
If I called and asked what she was doing, she’d laugh and saying “listening to Bruce” or “watching Bruce” or she’d be out looking for something Bruce. Thanks to Keith, her taste in music expanded including Mary Black, Johnny Cash, Il Divo, Amici and Emmy Lou Harris.
But Bruce was her favourite. Every time she visited, she would ask me to check the internet to see when he might be coming to Australia.
Naturally, as Christmas approached last year, I wanted to give her something Bruce.
But what? She had so much already. So I decided to spoil the surprise and ask her for a list of what she had already.
It was one-and-a-half pages long and when I checked the E-Street Band website, there wasn’t much she didn’t have, other than back-stage passes or tickets to various old concerts, or t-shirts.
I bought her the smallest t-shirt, a DVD/CD of Bruce with Pete Seeger, and three or four books on Bruce, some analysing his influence on US culture and others analysing his poetry.
I wrapped each individually and put it back in the box it had come in, which I also wrapped and labelled, “A box of Bruce”.
It took her a good 15 minutes to unwrap it all and exclaim over each one. Then she put on the t-shirt and asked to put on the DVD straight away – loud.
When I rang the following week, she had already read one book and was half way through another and was able to discuss it at length.
But now, as Christmas approaches again, having exhausted all things Bruce, I am stumped.
“I don’t know what to get you,” I said. “I prefer the days when you couldn’t afford to go to JB Hi Fi yourself.”
“I’m into Neil, too,” she replied.
“Neil who?” I asked.
“Diamond, of course,” she said. “Did you know he’s coming to Melbourne next year?”
And next time she came she asked me to look up all things Neil.

This story was broadcast on the ABC Radio National program Life Matters on December 2.

To listen, go to http://www.abc.net.au/rn/lifematters/stories/2010/3081328.htm?
However, this link may only be available for a short time.

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Here’s some advice to the VCE class of 2011 from a VCE (parent) survivor:

1. Choose the subjects that you enjoy and that are within your capability. You won’t have time to waste on subjects you don’t have a chance of comprehending. If it’s not working for you, change subjects.
2. Choose a mix of subjects that will give you some relief from reading and writing. If every subject requires masses of reading and essay-writing you will soon be overwhelmed. Variety is the key. It will keep you motivated and interested.
3. Speak to past VCE students about their choices and study habits. This will help and reassure you.
4. Your teachers are a major resource: make sure you use them. Talk to them about any problems you are having, and ask for extra help if you need it. If they can’t help, get a tutor. It’s worth the investment.
5. Do the work as it is due and try not to procrastinate. That way you won’t be inundated and lose control.
6. Make VCE your priority – yes, more important than friends, Facebook and that part-time job. The work you do on your VCE will be a much better investment for your future than the miserly $10-15 an hour you will get working at McDonalds or Coles. It’s only for one year. You have the rest of your life to work and party.
7. Get plenty of rest. Working till 2am might be necessary sometimes, but don’t make a habit of it or you’ll accumulate an even bigger sleep deficit that will backfire later. Remember, it’s only for one year.
8. Exercise – even if you never have before. You will need to get the blood flowing to counter all that sitting. If you feel you don’t have time for a walk or a run, buy a skipping rope. A 10-minute skipping break will revive your brain.
9. Plan some rewards: your favourite TV show, a movie with friends, playing sport, going for a walk or going to a concert. Break it up with things you love to do.
10. Eat well. Always have breakfast. Yes, it’s boring but true – your brain will work better if you are well nourished at the start of the day.
11. And remember, it’s okay to take your stress out on your family, if you have to. They’ll forgive you. But as soon as it’s over, the nice person they always knew you were has to return – in spades.

Advice to VCE parents

Successful VCE students require unconditional love and support so don’t be like my late Aunty Mary (RIP) who went on a holy pilgrimage to Europe and the Middle East while my cousin Dom was in VCE. Some kids cope well despite such benign neglect, but most VCE students do better if you can manage to hang around for the year.

How you parent your VCE student will depend on their attitude and priorities and your own values. But it may help to consider what type of student you are dealing with.

From my observation, there are five types of VCE student:

1. The under-confident over-achiever. This type of student so consistently over-prepares that they are in danger of ending up on a drip by the time exams come around. Parents of these (usually female) students live the whole year lurching from one (sometimes imagined) crisis to another. Your UCOA will probably lose weight but you will put it on as you reach for your trusty VCE survival kit: the pantry and the bottle.

2. The optimistic ostrich. This type of student is so paralysed by fear that they don’t know where to start. This means they usually don’t start at all until everyone else has nearly finished. Ostriches are usually easier to live with as they tend to retreat rather than take their fears out on others. They tend to be more optimistic (if deluded) and philosophical, but they are just as worrying and frustrating to parents who usually feel like wrenching the door of their room open and screaming “Do something!” Mostly, these parents just go for a brisk walk.

3. The primary-focus student. This student sets their sights on a goal – usually not academic – and puts all their energy into that, and only that. The PF usually excels in their chosen field, to the detriment of all other subjects. Parents of PFs are often heard to lament: “If only Johnny would put the same energy into English or Maths!”

4. The round peg in the square academic hole. This student is good with practical, not academic things, so VCE can be a struggle, particularly English. These students usually ace all the VET (Vocational Education and Training) subjects and often become the electricians, plumbers and builders that their peers end up paying an arm and a leg to hire later.

5. And last but not least, there is the good all rounder who sails through the year. This student usually gets 99.95, despite having to work part-time and look after a hoard of younger brothers and sisters. In their spare time, they volunteer at a soup kitchen and probably train for the Olympics. You read about these kids in the paper when it’s all over but I’ve yet to meet one.

Whatever type you end up with, they all have one thing in common: stress. So get out the iron and vitamin supplements, the Bach Rescue Remedies and the lavender and the tissues. You’re in for a hell of a ride!

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VCE and me

VCE and me

If you’re wondering why I haven’t posted a blog for the past 10 months, there is one simple word of explanation: VCE.
While I didn’t do VCE, (my daughter did), like most parents, I felt like I did it.
Those of you who have been through it will understand this.
For the uninitiated, let me warn you: VCE is like childbirth. After a while, you don’t care about the outcome – you just want the pain to stop.
The fact that so much is resting on the result means that, unlike other school years, every assignment and test matters.
To succeed you need to be organised, consistent, persistent, mature, calm, fit and extremely well supported, financially, physically and emotionally. As most people only manage this at around age 35, it is no wonder that VCE imposes huge stress on Year 12 students and their families.
For those who got what they wanted or needed, congratulations – the pain is over. For those who didn’t, the pain will continue, but only for a short time, as you will soon realise that what your teachers have been telling you all year is true: there is more than one way to skin a cat.
Take my friend’s daughter, who was recently offered honours at Monash and was a member of the Golden Key International Honour Society, a US based non-profit organisation founded in 1977 to recognise academic achievement amongst college students across all disciplines.
Jessica (not her real name) did her VCE about seven years ago now. At the time she felt too ashamed to disclose her ENTER to family and friends. This result was not through want of trying. Nobody could have worked harder. But Jessica suffered from dyslexia and was the victim of that cruel and subtle bullying that girls specialise in and which lowers self-esteem and paralyses the brain.
So instead of first-round offers, there were bitter tears. She squeezed into a hospitality course, where hard work resulted in success academically and on the job. But Jessica wanted to do teaching, so despite being offered hospitality work overseas, she bit the bullet and went back to study. At uni, Jessica worked hard and thrived. She rarely received less than an HD for her assignments and was offered honours on the completion of her degree.
She has now landed a great job and the miserable morning of years ago when she was too ashamed to tell friends and family of her VCE result, is remembered not as the end of the road, as she first thought, but merely a fork in the road.
She is not the only one. Take another friend’s son. Ben (not his real name) wanted to be a vet but did not get the marks to get into vet science. It was disappointing, but he picked himself up and instead, did science at Melbourne and then transferred across. Last year, his smiling face popped out at me in the Melbourne University course guide, advising future students about the value of the vet science course. He is now a qualified vet.
My own children chose music, for which the ATAR is less important. However, choosing music has its own pressures, as between 500 and 600 students compete for between 100-160 places at each of the various music conservatoriums across Australia.
Still, music students all need plan B, just in case, so the VCE score is important to ensure second preferences. This means music students must wait for two results: auditions and the VCE score.
Today my son is an award-winning composer (I’m allowed to boast here), who wonders why he listened to his teachers and did VCE chemistry to give him “options”. It turned out to be stressful and irrelevant, but how were we to know?
My daughter is now following a similar path as a singer. She was delighted with her VCE results, but in the end they were only taken into account by one university, as entry for music is mostly based on audition.
So remember, finding the right job or career is a bit like toilet training or learning to read – we all get there eventually in our own time and in our own way.
As for me, I’m relieved and grateful that we made it through the year. There were times there when I thought we wouldn’t because, for my daughter, there was simply too much to do and not enough time to do it in.
That’s why for me, VCE stands for Victory, Courage and Effort – for every student and their families, whatever the result.

Read my top tips for VCE students on my next post.

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A WRINKLE IN TIME

For the second time in her life, my friend Carolyn is lying about her age. But she tries to be honest about it. “I’m 53 but tell Facebook I’m 23 so I don’t get anti-wrinkle ads,” her profile states.
She now gets ads for lip-gloss. “It’s much more pleasant,” she says.
The last time she lied about her age was at the age of 17 “to get into pubs”. Then, she wanted to be older and look older. Now that she is older, she prefers not to be reminded of it.
But there’s another reason, she admits. All those ads for anti-wrinkle cream do wear you down after a while.
Carolyn is a consumer advocate and like me has read the Choice brochure on wrinkle creams and how simple sorbolene, a vat of which can be bought at the supermarket for under $10, does the same job.
Like me, she eschews all that manipulative pseudo-scientific bunk spruiked by the cosmetic industry and instead opts for sunscreen, a hat and a healthy diet as the best anti-ageing defence.
But we admit that those ads where Penelope Cruz, who looks young enough to be our daughter, says, “because you’re worth it,” do sometimes leave a lingering doubt.
Are we undervaluing ourselves by not buying a better quality cream, we wonder? Will we wake up one day and find our faces in a state of sudden collapse – leathery and brown like the women in National Geographic?
It reminds me of how I felt as a teenager, faced with ads for pimple cream.
Adolescents and middle-aged women have a lot in common, Carolyn says. We are both at a turning point in our lives, where insecurities abound. Advertisers know it, so are able to sniff us out as mercilessly and accurately as Beagles searching for drugs at Melbourne Airport.
Our bodies are changing and so are our identities. One day we are wearing tight jeans, heels and bikini briefs and the next we are wearing the middle-aged ladies’ uniform: long-line patterned shifts (to hide big tummies and bums) oversized t-shirts, gigantic black pants with elasticised waists and moon boots – those soft squishy shoes with the Velcro tabs that can accommodate bunions as well as orthotics.
Men also suffer insecurities in middle age, but mostly related to what they haven’t done, rather than what they look like. To ease his trauma, a man may buy a motorbike and grow a ponytail to distract from a bald spot, whereas a woman may buy a new dress and grow a moustache.
Either way no one is fooled. As they say, if you don’t want to grow old, die young. For those of us who are still here, it’s easy to feel invisible as well as insecure.
In Western culture, the only photos of older women that are published in magazines are usually accompanied by ads for how to make them look younger.
To prove this theory, I recently bought a copy of Vogue, which advertised on its front page “Looking great as you age: What fillers can do for your body.”
The story, titled “Blow up” was finally found on page 314, 337 and 338 of its 340-page publication, and its only illustration was a pencil-thin model wearing a body stocking stuffed with strategically placed balloons.
The only other older person featured in the magazine was Vanessa Redgrave, in a story about her role in the musical Driving Miss Daisy. The rest of the magazine was replete with pictures of youth, because youth sells – perfume, bags, shoes, clothes and hair products.
There were six ads for anti-ageing products. Three of them used celebrities – Kate Winslet, Cate Blanchett and Andie McDowell – but they were so air-brushed and photo-shopped that they were barely recognisable. One used no model while the other used a model that didn’t look a day over 30. The only other photo of an older woman was in a National Breast Cancer Foundation feature, where a woman wearing a silver bob was labelled: “Age 50+. Have yearly mammograms.”
No wonder I got such a shock when I took a toilet break and looked in the mirror. This is the only place I see myself reflected these days.
Meanwhile, as I reach for the sorbolene I think of Andie McDowell, looking like she always has for these past 20 years, urging me to buy Loreal’s Revitalift because it’s proven to repair even the deepest wrinkles. “Do I see a difference? Every day.” she says, oozing air-brushed confidence.
If I buy it, I suspect the only difference I see will be in my bank balance.
If I don’t buy it, will I wake up one day and find that I’m a fully fledged card-carrying member of the Sultana Club, as my father-in-law used to call my mother-in-law?
Wouldn’t it be great if we really could just buy some youth in a jar, slap it on our faces and wake up looking like our 18-year old selves again, shaking off the past but retaining all the wisdom of the present?
That’s why anti-wrinkle cream works – for advertisers.

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