Currently, the only well known Aussies with disabilities seem to be entertainers and sports people. These include people like wheelchair athlete Louise Sauvage and blind indigenous singer Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu. But surely some of the other millions of Aussies with disabilities throughout our history have made a major contribution to our society?
A bit of research reveals they have.
Most Australians probably do not know that iconic Australian author Henry Lawson had a disability. When he was nine he went to bed sick with an earache and woke up the next morning unable to hear properly. His hearing diminished further when he was 14. He visited the Victorian Eye and Ear Hospital when he was 20, but they could not help him. It was about this time he began to write poems and newspaper articles. Stories like 'The Drover's Wife' and 'The Loaded Dog' have been read and loved by millions of Australians.
No doubt many reprints of Lawson's stories and articles have appeared in magazines and newspapers owned by Kerry Packer. Most people would remember Packer as the man who created World Series Cricket after the Australian Cricket Board refused to give his television station the broadcast rights. Packer always appeared to be powerful and ruthless, a man not to be trifled with. But he had at least two disabilities during his life.
Packer caught polio when aged six and spent nine months in an iron lung to help him breath. He did not return to school until he was nine. He also had dyslexia, which probably contributed to his father thinking he was stupid and calling him
But Kerry Packer was far from stupid. When his father died he took over and expanded his media empire. Dyslexia didn't stop him from controlling over 60 per cent of the magazines sold in Australia including 'The Bulletin' and 'The Woman's Weekly'. He went on to become one of Australia's first billionaires.
Saint Mary Mackillop
If she had the opportunity, Mary Mackillop would probably have spent Packer's billions helping the poor. She and Reverend Julian Tenison Woods founded the Sisters of St Joseph of the Sacred Heart. This congregation of sisters established schools and welfare bodies throughout Australasia.
Mackillop had a chronic health condition called dysmenorrhoea, or painful menstruation. This often left her bedridden for days. According to Marie Foale, her official biographer, Mackillop self-medicated with nips of brandy. A jealous fellow nun accused her of being an alcoholic and Mackillop was temporarily exiled from her religious order. These accusations may have delayed Mackillop being canonised, or declared a saint.
Prime Ministers with disabilities
Plenty of politicians have been accused of not listening to the people; it seems some of them had an excuse. Billy McMahon avoided overseas service during the Second World War because of poor hearing. But his hearing did not stop him from becoming Prime Minister in 1971.
Billy Hughes had a severe hearing impairment all his adult life. He also had chronic dyspepsia or painful digestion. He was a teacher in England before migrating to Queensland in 1884 at age 22. He became politically active, joining a number of political groups including the Australian Socialist Party, Australian Labour Party, the Nationalist Party, and ending up in the Liberal Party. He was Prime Minister from 1915 to 1923, leading Australia through the First World War and its aftermath.
So there have been many nation-building Australians with disabilities. While remembered for their achievements, their disabilities have not been. It is important that these people and their disabilities are known and acknowledged to celebrate the successes of people with disabilities.
With an estimated one in five Australians having a disability at some time during their life, people with disabilities can only continue to have a major role in shaping Australia.