Life with a cane has turned me into one of those bolshy ‘disabled’ types I once scorned
I can’t recall when it was that I first noticed, but as one enters one’s twilight years bits start dropping off, so it must have been about 20 years ago.
Overnight, the issue du jour was the appalling treatment of the disabled. Whenever one opened the paper or turned on the teev there was some social welfare worker rabbiting on about the suffering of the halt, the blind and the lame, claiming that nobody gave a rat’s arse about them. They made it clear they thought politicians were a heartless lot.
My early sympathies turned to irritation and anger at the constant whining and the exaggerated numbers they claimed were ‘disabled’. If they were even close it’s a wonder any Australian was walking upright. If they were right Australia was a nation of Toulouse-Lautrecs.
‘Stuff and nonsense,’ I told all who would listen, although not too loudly I hasten to add. ‘Where are all these invalids who are demanding disabled parking places, specially designed exits and entrances to public buildings, separate toilets and so on? It’ll send the country broke and all for a handful of bludgers and whingers.’ I poured myself a gin and tonic and muttered darkly about what I would say to them if I could summon up the courage.
However, that was then and this is now. I am a changed man. And what has brought this about I hear you ask? It wasn’t the heart attack after the 1984 elections. All that did was end my squash-playing days and necessitate a return to golf. My sympathy for the disabled grew as I found it impossible to play without a golf cart.
I became a rolled gold supporter after being bedridden for six weeks. Fortunately, I was living in my wildlife sanctuary and all my screaming did was drive the kangaroos mad. Readers will enjoy the image of a politician, even an ex-pollie, suffering excruciating pain.
Suffice to say that the new hip was not a raging success. I’m no longer bedridden but have been unable to resume golf or walk more than 100 metres without stopping or sitting down. I rely on my trusty cane and, to my embarrassment, my even trustier ‘disabled sticker’, which brings such joy and relief with each passing year. I say embarrassment, for in early times I would pour scorn on those who used them, particularly when they ‘stole’ the parking spots.
More evil still were the doctors who issued certificates to these ‘frauds’. It is said that there is none more zealous than the convert, so readers will understand that having realised the error of my ways I have taken up the cause of the disabled to compensate for my past boorish behaviour.
I was reminded yet again of the suffering of the less fortunate on a recent visit to Parliament House to meet with a number of former colleagues. Although I live a mere 30 minutes from the House in Bungendore, my visits to watch the bloodbath in the Representatives have become less frequent due to my lack of agility and the relatively recent practice of banning all but ‘Royalty’ from sitting in the Speakers Gallery — areas on the floor of the House previously reserved for visiting dignitaries, former members, ministers and their spouses.
For some years I have accepted this exclusion with extremely bad grace, wondering
who had decided that we were no longer fit to sit with our betters. And this
is how the ‘disabled’ question came to the fore. As the twilight years encroached and
the hip worsened, it developed a mind of its own. It went one way while I went
the other. Now on flat tarmac I can manage, meaning I only fall over about twice
a year. I usually finish with some minor cuts and bruises but none, you will notice, have
proved fatal. However, that would change if former members, particularly those in
a fragile state, are forced to climb up to the bleachers with all the risk that that entails.
Getting up to the bleachers is not the problem. It’s going down a series of very steep steps without a handrail and relying on one’s cane, that’s the problem. At each successive visit I found myself having an attack of the Joe Blakes, fearful that the foot, cane or hip would go in an unpredictable direction and I would make the first one-and-a-half somersault dive with pike into the House of Representatives. It would be the most unusual entry since the new Parliament House opened in 1988. Trust me, I was there.
It would be my first such entry, my most spectacular and my last. I decided not to try it, and watched proceedings from a member’s office. I also decided that I had watched my last live performance in the House, where I had represented the seat of Robertson for more than 20 years. When they announced that another former member
for Robertson, Jim Lloyd, was in the House, as was the sitting member, Deborah O’Neill, I said, ‘We should go for the hat trick.’ Being a coward I decided against it. Then I thought, ‘Who changed the rules? What was the reason? What prompted them to change a practice that had continued since Federation?’ I asked the Speaker’s office to reconsider the decision. They replied. ‘Upstairs or nothing.’
At this point I decided to pick up the quill and strike a blow, not only for former members, ministers, wives and so on, but because I am not the only one who regularly falls over. If the Parliament of Australia can’t set an example of helping ‘cripples’, then frankly there is no hope. And I’m not talking just about former MPs. Special arrangements should be made for all the disabled.
I had almost completed this epistle when word came through from ‘Sir’ Bernard Wright, Clerk of the House, that the Speaker, Harry Jenkins, had decided to change the rules so that fragile former members could use the Distinguished Visitors’ Gallery. Well done, Harry. Your father would have been proud of you.
Now let’s see what the Parliament can do for all the disabled.