On the last evening of my 23rd year, my girlfriend at the time lost control of our car and it plunged down a ravine in the Tasmanian wilderness. As we flew off the road and over the edge, the headlights lit up the trunks of the trees in scene of terrifying beauty, with the emphasis being on the terrifying! Ever since then, or rather ever since I lay for hours in the pitch darkness in the middle of nowhere waiting for my girlfriend to find help, unable to move most of my body and unable to feel anything below my chest, I have been trying to work out the meaning of the change in the relation of my body to the world; I have been trying to work out the meaning of my disability. For I believe that there is a reason to be found in the car accident. I feel that there is a right way and a wrong way to respond to life’s misadventures, and that we must find the right way, or one of the right ways.
I knew that I was privileged, that as an educated white man in a rich country, doing postgraduate study in philosophy of physics, I would not need to modify my goals as much as many others who had sustained a spinal cord injury similar to mine. My initial response, after my rehabilitation, was to throw myself straight back into my postgraduate study. Eventually I completed a PhD at Monash University on the nature of space, time and matter. Investigating the nature of reality is part of my purpose in life.
Action as well as thought is important to me. My experiences of discrimination have led me in a practical direction, into challenging the disabling structures and attitudes of our society. Sometime after completing my PhD, I complained about two bus lines and a cinema using the Disability Discrimination Act. These complaints were successful, in that the companies agreed to improve the accessibility of their services. It impressed me that these actions could potentially benefit a significant number of people, and I decided to move into the area of disability rights on a more full-time basis. Along with a colleague, I took up the job of running workshops about the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. I ended up travelling to New York with a disability organisation to assist with the negotiations of the text of the Convention. It was an honour to speak at the UN about disability access in front of perhaps a thousand people from a hundred nations.
Soon afterwards I decided that in concentrating on practical action I had been neglecting my ideas in philosophy. I decided to come back to Melbourne University to do some research on a voluntary basis, but to keep involved with disability issues as well. I have cut down the number of disability rights organisations I work with to one, namely the Disability Advisory Committee of the City of Yarra.
I now choose to act locally rather than at a more global level, such as at the UN, because I believe that in order to be directly responsive to local conditions and individual needs, decisions should be made as locally as possible. We need to strengthen local communities everywhere. I also work with two local environmental groups: Yarra Climate Action Now and Livewell Yarra. I may be spreading myself a bit thin, but I feel that I am making progress in the direction of a balance between thought and action, and I am happy with the progress of my research in philosophy, which is expanding to include reflections on disability and the environment.
My disability forms part of my identity. In many ways it adds richness to my life, for example in my dealings with the attendant carers I work with. Personal relationships give meaning to every life, and the care relationship is no exception to this. For me, just like for others, a major part of meaning comes from what we do to help others and leave the world a better place. As I hinted at earlier, because our society has so far to travel to bring about justice for people with disability, it can be relatively easy for a person with a disability to help improve our society, since many of the changes required to meet one person’s needs will help many people in a similar position. Ironically, this might give those of us with disability an advantage in meaningfulness – it might give us a superpower if you like. However I would happily forgo this superpower in exchange for living in a society of real inclusion and equality.
This piece was read as part of Origins and Superpowers, a public readings event held by Scope and Melbourne Library Service in December 2015. A group of writers with disabilities who had worked with professional writers in the Telescope Workshops read selections from their work across the genres of fiction, memoir, poetry and non fiction.
Telescope is one of the arts programs run by Community Inclusion staff at Scope and it includes workshops, a writing prize, awards and public readings.
Watch the video of Martin’s reading here: