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This Matters

Maya Wilmshurst

Orator of the Year


When I was in Year 6, my teachers brought something to my

attention. Until then the only time I had heard about people with

disabilities was in a negative light. When I saw them on the street, I

would turn my head until they had passed, frightened of their

appearance and oblivious to what was going on inside their heads.

That day, my teachers asked us to get into small groups. One

person from each group was taken away and shown a pattern, made

of tiny coloured blocks. Using only small nods we had to aid our

other group members in guessing it. They would sequence the

blocks in an attempt to understand what was going on and we

would grow increasingly frustrated as they missed what seemed

obvious to us. Tiny coloured blocks are a tiny problem. The real

problems are so much bigger.

Today I’m going to talk to you about something that should

matter to all of you and something that definitely matters to around

20% of Australia’s population; the 1 in 5 people with a disability.

Every disability is different; some affect movement, some speech,

sight and hearing and others the ability to learn. There are so many

more. One thing all of these have in common is the effect they have

on the lives of so many people; more than just the 1 in 5 people who

suffer from them, but also the lives of all those around them;

families, friends and in some cases carers.

That day in Year 6, my class was looking at a severe form of

cerebral palsy, in which the person has little control over their

movements and often can’t talk. Inside their heads, there may be a

fully functioning brain but their lack of control over their body

makes it extremely difficult for them to express their thoughts and

emotions. Often the dedication of those around them is the only

way they will ever be heard.

This is the story we don’t see when we look at someone with a

disability, we don’t see the hundreds of pages folded up behind the

cover, lined with rows and rows of words. In fact when we look at

any stranger, all we see is the cover. All we see is their appearance,

not their experiences, aspirations, family, friends and all those who

believe in them. We don’t see who they are. This is even truer for

people with disabilities. If all we see is the wheelchair they are

seated in, then the only emotions they’ll perceive are pity and fear

by those around them.

So, why does this matter to me? When I was four, my great-aunt

died of motor neurone disease. For the last two years of her life, she