26. Carl Thompson

20 Mar

carl thompsonWhen I was planning my interview questions for this piece, I originally had the idea that I would be profiling a person living with a disability and that I’d be raving about all of the marvellous things they have achieved ‘despite the odds against them’. However, upon meeting my interviewee and having chatted with him for about a minute, I realised that by following the original angle, I would not only be insulting my interviewee but all members of society living with a disability.

Carl Thompson lives with cerebral palsy and whilst the condition can sometimes effect speech and cognitive ability, Carl views himself as “one of the lucky ones” in the fact that it affects his mobility and nothing else. Unlike other conditions that were acquired “from a car accident or drugs”, Carl has grown up living with his disability and has thus become accustomed to it. With “care needs that weren’t as high as some other people’s”, Carl’s parents put education first, choosing to enrol him into a mainstream school as opposed to a special education school which offered extra disability support.

This decision was the best option for Carl and he is incredibly grateful to his parents for providing him with a challenging and stimulating environment, one which he feels he would have missed out on had he gone to a special school. Contrary to what society would envisage, growing up wasn’t a challenge for Carl. With “a brain that worked relatively satisfactorily”; as he modestly puts it, and a personality that made him enjoy talking to people, Carl was able to foster a strong peer group who carried through to his later years of life. “At the start, kids always stare but that’s just because they don’t know what’s going on. Once they know, they’re a lot more forgiving”.

As what normally occurs in these circumstances, Carl had an aide to assist him with motor skills at school such as writing and eating. “A good aide is very important; you need someone who is well-trained at blending in so that other kids view them more as a friend, rather than a mother type figure, consequently the kids are more likely to disregard the disability”.

However, there were times when people were not as understanding. With the academic competition that came as he progressed through his later years of education, he was often perceived by adults as having an unfair advantage over other students as the aide who was physically writing his essays and maths problems was viewed as mentally doing those things for him as well. But gradually as time went on, it was a thing that others learnt to understand and one that you yourself “try and overcome”.

Achievements in Carl’s life were viewed as victories for him, even if he himself viewed them as basic. “If you do something that’s relatively normal, you get put on a pedestal which is patronising in a way; and it’s not because people are being nasty”, but more so a result of the “low expectations” that others have of you. When Carl received an offer from La Trobe University to do his Bachelor of Business, it was seen as a “really big deal”, even though “thousands of kids go off to university each year”. So from witnessing first-hand the stigma attached to disability, Carl has undertaken numerous projects and advocacy work to emphasise the fact that people like him “just want what everyone else wants and not for it to be given to them, but for it to be made achievable with support, encouragement and greater expectations of them”.

“Disability is seen as aged care; a welfare state that isn’t considered an investment”. Instead of just “meeting someone’s basic needs”, Carl hopes that through his advocacy work he can make a difference and show that disability support “should be about getting people into education and employment” so that they too can achieve “the Australian Dream” which we all hope to have. “It’s not always possible with everyone, but it’s something we should aim for”.

Carl’s advocacy work led him to travel to Canberra as a result of his ABC Ramp Up article regarding systemic advocacy. He and a group of other wheelchair users blocked trams on Elizabeth Street to spark the attention of the media and lobby for more wheelchair accessible trams. He was recognised for his report of this protest with a Yooralla Media Award, and was invited to Canberra for the National Press Club address regarding the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

In addition, Carl also co-ordinates Banyule City Council’s ‘Good Access Is Good Business’ program, whereby local businesses are given rankings based on how disability sensitive and accessible they are. Taking into account factors such as ramps, lighting and guide-dog access, various shops and cafes around East Ivanhoe and Rosanna have been given rankings as an incentive to make them strive to achieve a more disability friendly environment.

I feel so blessed to have been able to interview such a quirky and charismatic man and I know that everyone at Banyule City Council loves working with him too. Even though he just wants “what everyone else wants” in life, I have no doubt we will see great things from Carl in the future.

Words By:Annalisa Cercone

Photo by: Sean Porter

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