Life has a funny old way of making you look back. Yesterday I went to the gym at my work. I get a cheap rate being a staff member. Last week I had key-hole surgery on my knee. The doctor has prescribed riding on an exercise bike as part of the rehabilitation. As I stepped on the bike for a very slow and mildly painful session I looked up at the televisions that are on the wall. As you cycle or run on the treadmill you can watch your favourite show and this takes your mind off your bursting lungs and complaining legs. There were three televisions and each one of them had the captions on. I smiled broadly because I knew this was part the legacy of my work at the University of Ballarat. Just two days before I had resigned to take up a new position in semi-rural Melbourne out in Lilydale. The captions in the gym told me that I had perhaps had more than just a little influence at the University. It was an immensely satisfying feeling.
On the day I handed in my resignation I met my boss. We spoke of the work that needed to be done before I left. We spoke of budgets and what was left over to be spent, what needed to be handed over and what needed to be tied up. It was just your standard wind up. Then my boss said, “Let’s talk about your legacy to the University.” I said, “I guess I have done my bit where it’s needed.” This was not good enough for her and she proceeded to roll off a list of my achievements and my influence. It ranged from making the University think of access from top to bottom (Captions in the gym). She mentioned programs like Online Access that will create access for a generation of rural people with disabilities. “You”, said my boss, “ …have had influence that is going to last for many years to come.”
A particular area she emphasised was my focus on technology. Educational institutions around the world are rapidly moving to online delivery of education. People are now time hungry and have to pay for their education. To do this they must work and study at the same time. Many cannot physically attend the place of education and prefer to study online. Overseas students can study online too without having to leave their home country, they are seen as a bit of a cash cow. In fact where on-campus and online education is offered there is research that shows that over 70% of students will chose the online option. But as we move headlong into online education we have forgotten access needs. The blind can’t watch online videos and the deaf need captions. People with learning and processing difficulties often need audio transcriptions to access text based information. My boss reminded me that I was one of the few that has constantly put forward the message that this online stuff needs to be accessible and that I had provided cost efficient solutions as to how it can be done.
It is hard to describe the feeling of self-worth that her words gave me. It is immensely satisfying just to know that an idea, a concept or a piece of work that I had completed has had such a profound and lasting implication. It is immensely satisfying knowing that as the result of this work the University is now considering access needs for online delivery of education. It is fair to say I left the meeting with my boss feeling ten feet tall. Interestingly just seeing the captions in the Gym on the television was equally satisfying.
In the work that I do you do not often see immediate results. It can be a very hard slog. I often think I would have loved to have been a Chef or a tradesman. As a Chef you see your completed work at the end, if you are any good at it you might get glowing and instant feedback as to how your work has made the eater happy and satisfied. As a builder you can sit back and admire your handiwork with satisfaction. It must be incredibly satisfying knowing that the house you have just completed is going to provide shelter, warmth and good times for generations of people. It is almost instant gratification. In my work this is very rarely the case. For example I worked on a concept for the online delivery of sign language interpreters through Skype for several years before it came to fruition. The pinnacle for me was using Skype to deliver interpreting to an all-day conference in Townsville last year. At times I thought it would never happen but you have to persevere. Now Skype interpreting is the way for the future, particularly for sign language users living in rural and remote areas. It would have been so easy to just give up and move on to the next project.
In my work you have to deal with prejudice and ignorance every day. There are still employers who make assumptions as to what people with a disability can and cannot do. Years ago I had an a apprentice group training scheme tell me that people who are deaf cannot be plumbers because they would not be able to communicate with peers while they were digging holes. “Plumbers” said the boss “ …dig holes and scream out their requirements to people working around them. There is no way deaf people can do that.” Twenty five years later there are hearing teachers of the deaf, hand on their hearts, who will tell you that deaf people can’t be teachers of the deaf, “….because they cannot teach speech”. Worse are the bosses and the bureaucrats that just smile at you and nod patronisingly and refuse to return calls or emails thereon. Recently we had the horrific case where the Teachers Registration Board is refusing to accept the registration of a person who is deaf and suggesting that even if they did it would a restricted registration. The Teacher Registration Board want to impose restrictions where the teacher who is deaf will have to teach with a hearing person at all times.
It is these examples that can make this work so soul destroying. When you are still dealing with this sort of nonsense a quarter of a century after you started your career you begin to question whether it is all worthwhile. Then of course you have seeming progress that is actually regression. The Accessible Cinema Roll-Out is a point in case. If ever in your life you want to see a case of more is less, the Accessible Cinema Roll Out is it. You sometimes just feel that it has all been a waste of time and you want to give it all away.
And then something happens to remind you that what you do has a little bit of impact. For me it was captions at the Gym. And then it was my boss reminding me of my “legacy”. But none better was the feedback that I got from an old client who is now a very dear family friend. This is what the client/friend posted on my Facebook wall for all to see, “Hey G, just a quick message to say thank you for rubbing your advocate skills on to me back in the good old days. You have taught me to stead on and to find another way to redeem the right and never to give up fighting for it as I will always get there in the end! I have just done that last week on two separate occasions!!!! Thanks once again G!!!! ”
The last quote, when I read it, turned me into a blubbering mess. It is fair to say it was one of the most moving moments of my career. The person in question had just been subject to the worst case of discrimination that I have ever witnessed. That I had provided her with some of the strength she needed to stand up for her rights and fight the system made me realise what my work is all about even if progress often seems non existent or painfully slow. And for all the advocates out there who sometimes feel it’s all too hard, remember that you make a difference, even if it’s just captions in the gym. YOU MAKE A DIFFERENCE; keep up the good fight.