Wednesday, April 30, 2014


Kintsukuroi (n.) (v.phr.) "to repair with gold"; the art of repairing pottery with gold or silver lacquer and understanding that the piece is more beautiful for having been broken.

Kintsukuroi. I didn't know this word until today.

I have many friends with a disability, and almost as many friends who are parents of children with disability. It is a difficult life. There are barriers at every turn - access barriers, societal barriers, systems that do not work. Life is often harder, much harder, than it should be.

I looked at this picture, exquisitely broken, perfection in the repair. Not a hairline crack, cleverly concealed, but a ghastly shattering that is resolved by art, improved by disaster.

It made me think of others who have been broken in one way or another. Their bodies or minds or spirits, cracked or crushed in accidents or by some callous intent. I have many friends who are recovering from an injury to the mind or spirit - just as many who have experienced a life-changing blow to the body.

Kintsukuroi. After the intial shattering, the bowl lies in pieces, unable to be used. It takes careful effort and the help of others to piece together the shards and fit them together.

You can see the cracks. The trembling of a hand, the slight stutter in a voice. Limbs that are stilled forever, minds that work differently. The cracks are there for everyone to see.

And gradually, the gold is smoothed into the cracks and polished to a luminous sheen until it looks like it was there by design.

I no longer see the wheelchair or the paralysed limbs. I see how perfectly a paralysed hand is cupped, as if nestling something small and fragile. I see patience and grace where others would bleed anger and frustration. I feel the preciousness of every breath that is taken, more precious for the struggle.

I see the effect of the break, and the differences, life-before, life-after. But not as disaster or deficit. The catastrophic moment when the mind has suffered a blow, the slow recovery...prelude to a growing of compassion, an understanding of pace and limitation, a new appreciation for the slow and the small and the wondrous.

You can see the cracks. But the harder you look, the more you forget that the bowl is 'broken' or 'repaired'. The harder you look, the more you understand that the bowl is improved upon perfection, that the breaks have only added beauty and strength and depth.

Kintsukuroi. Learnings that come from adversity, cracks repaired by gold.

Leonard Cohen said it better than anyone.

'There is a crack in everything. That's how the light gets in.'

Tuesday, April 22, 2014

With Intent

A few weeks ago, a taxi driver pleaded guilty to raping and sexually assaulting five female wheelchair users in his taxi. He pleaded guilty to 33 charges, but they only included the assaults that appeared on the taxi security cameras - four of the victims, who could not communicate his crimes, had to be tracked down by police. Nobody knows how many others this man may have assaulted. He carried out his crimes deliberately, covering the camera with a rag. Deliberately, with intent.

It's not just the disability community who is outraged. This is an issue about our daughters, who need to travel safely home at night after a party - our children, who may not be able to access school bus transport. It is a mainstream issue, but for many of us, it is deeply personal.

A group of disabled people organised a 'silent protest' for the sentencing, and many, many people with disability and parents of children with disability indicated that they would attend. We wanted to be together in solidarity and support for the victims and send a powerful message to say that this is, and will not ever be, okay. 'Break the Silence about Violence and Abuse against People with Disability', the event title read. We pictured a sea of wheelchairs, a group of people, clad in black, silently protesting the daily hidden abuses against the disabled. Silently, purposefully, with deliberate intent.

At some point, I had a thought. A sea of wheelchairs is sometimes difficult to accommodate. And so I rang the District Court.

You can imagine the response.

' many wheelchairs did you say might be attending?' The young woman at the end of the line was calm and competent, but sounded slightly flustered.

'People in wheelchairs,' I reminded her. 'Well, there are five victims who use wheelchairs, so that's five. But at least thirty or forty more, I would imagine.' There was a pause, a long pause.

'I'll contact building management,' she said at last. She understood a lot, this young woman - that the victims had the right of every other victim to face the rapist, that the supporters had every right to be in the public gallery. But in her voice I could hear the other understanding - that each courtroom had room for only one wheelchair. Perhaps two. Equity versus logistics.

Now, many Australian courtrooms have problems with access. In 2011, South Australia’s top judge had to work from home because he could not get up to the bench after breaking his leg on holiday. They are mostly located in historic buildings, combining the justice system's love of tradition with an ambiance that screams of power and authority. They're designed to be that way. In those buildings, there's a palpable feeling of 'imposing' that strikes fear into the heart of the offender. That's entirely okay.

But the Perth District Court is practically brand new. I googled it. At five years old, it's a purpose built, high security courtroom with 24 courtrooms over seven levels. The District Court website boasts that it can accommodate 'multiple accused and a large public gallery', with impressive leather and timber interior finishes. In total, it finishes gleefully, it can seat up to 1900 people.

With one space for one wheelchair user per court room.

I kept thinking about the women who were raped. Five women, all wheelchair users. Who will be the lucky person in the special seat for special people? The fastest? The one who has been raped the most? Will they be playing scissors paper rock in the foyer?

The District Court staff were nothing but helpful. Beyond helpful. They have coped with my surly reaction to the suggestion of video conferencing – ironically, via the same technology that the rapist will be using from his cell – and discounted that as inappropriate. They are liaising with the building management and we are meeting to discuss the ripping out of chairs – yes, the ripping out of chairs – and to look at solutions which hopefully include the installation of chairs that can be easily removed to accommodate wheelchair users. They are doing everything they can, and I can tell that they have every intent on making this work for both the victims and their supporters.

The architects who designed the building were not available to speak to, but the person who authored this report was. She, like the people at the District Court, was helpful and compassionate and understanding. Yes, she will happily table a letter to DoTAG from me about access for the public. Yes, she will ask for further considerations to be included in their Disability Action and Inclusion Plan for the court system. Yes, it was a good idea to include advisory groups of people with disability in the planning of large buildings, and I could hear her jotting down the name of both People with Disability WA and the name of an access consultant who might be helpful in the future. I listened with one ear and talked tiredly in the same manner that we advocates always do, about DAIPs and systemic issues and inclusion, but my eyes kept drifting back to the glossy District Court brochure.

Advanced safety and security systems. And I thought of the man at the Taxi Industry Council who told me there would never be capacity to monitor video footage of vulnerable taxi users.

Electronic tablet whiteboards, called starboards, to help witnesses in the presentation of their evidence, forty eight plasma screens in the courtrooms. Costly, I imagine. And I wondered how the young woman who can no longer catch taxis, who is frozen by her PTSD and terrified at the sight of a passing taxi, will be able to raise the $1000 a week hire a wheelchair van and go to work.

Nowhere in the glossy brochure was a mention of access. 1900 people, 24 courtrooms, twenty four allocations for wheelchair users overall.

The words drone on at the other end of the phone and I can hear embarrassment, resolve to do better, a strong desire to fix it for people who should never have been victimised. I hear it and I nod absentmindedly, recognising that intent. But if the intent had been there in the first place, prior to the building being designed, would we be having this conversation now?

All it takes is the desire to do something, the will, the intent. The will to make transport safe, equitable and dignified - the will to make courtrooms and public buildings accessible. Peter Edward Kasatchkow had the intent to become a predator, picking up vulnerable women and covering the security camera with a rag. Why is it, then, that we do not have the intent to make things right for people with disability?

The District Court of WA took three years to construct. The building has;

A total building area of 31,250m2

15 levels including the basement and plant rooms

Accommodation for about 250 permanent staff and many visiting professionals

24 courtrooms ranging in size from 70m2 to 250m2 with a total seating capacity of 1,900

6600m2 of ceiling tiles (enough to cover five Olympic-size swimming pools)

9 interview rooms

18 mediation rooms

More than 1000 glass panels including a five story glass curtain wall on the eastern face of the building made of 164 individual panels

55378 light fittings and 2110 power points

227km data cable, 37l, fibre optic cable and 505km of power cable supporting 21st century building throughout the building

Three story glass curtain walls on the northern and southern side of the building made of 84 separate panels

And more than 200 other external windows, the largest of which are 48 metres wide.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

The Brotherhood of the Unusual

I have a friend who I hardly ever see – we correspond mostly by email.

She doesn’t have a good command of written English, and sometimes we communicate only with pictures. Pictures from our holidays, or sometimes just a picture of a dog or a kitten or something we have both found amusing or cute or interesting.

It would be a lot easier if she had Facebook.

None of this is unusual, right? A friend, someone without Facebook. Someone who talks to you from a distance because you rarely see each other in person. Someone who you know, and eventually get to know better. A normal thing, nothing unusual.

It should not be unusual, but it is. My friend has an intellectual disability.

My friend was not always my friend – she was a student in a classroom and I helped support her to carry out her studies. She was a student for a long time. Over that time, I got to know her better. Like other people with intellectual disability in our small town, she had no privacy – people knew her family background, her personal history, every detail of her life – yet nothing the person. It took me a long time to get to know her as a person, and longer to allow her to know me as a person. I was guarded, you see, and I never thought we could connect as two women on an equal basis. How wrong I was. How wrong, and how discriminatory.

I do this cool exercise when I talk to support workers. I ask them if they discriminate against people with disability. No, they say, and their voices are shocked and outraged at the suggestion. They are the support workers who pride themselves on person centred planning, the people who are careful about person first language, the people who would never dream of doing their personal shopping on their client’s down time. Do you discriminate against people with disability, I ask? Of course not, they say with one voice. They are earnest in their responses. ‘I am disability blind,’ some proclaim. ‘I see the person, not the disability.’

I ask them to raise their hand if they have ever had dinner or a coffee date or gone out with a person with an intellectual disability. A sea of hands are raised. Some fall when I tell them to put their hand down if the person is a family member. More are lowered when I say ‘or a current client’. And when I say ‘or a past client’ their hands fall softly to their laps, their eyes grow wide, their faces reflect the accidental lie of their imagined inclusiveness. The realisation that they have concealed a falseness with words and rhetoric and duck speak. That they may talk the talk, but are not walking the walk.

In thirty or forty training sessions, only two hands have stayed raised. Two hands.

I am ashamed to say that I have only one friend – one real friend - with a learning disability who I know well ‘in real life’. I find this hard to reconcile with what I believe, but I have grown to understand why it is so. It is harder to meet people my own age who have the same interests and in places where friends would naturally congregate. If I went to the ‘disability disco’ in Kenwick on a Friday night, two hours from my home, I would, no doubt, meet people with intellectual disability from my home town. I could drink cordial with them and go home at ten o’clock. I could go bowling in the city, every Thursday, or I could go to an ‘adult day centre’ – I am an arty type and would quite like to make endless piles of greeting cards. I don’t, though. They are places for people with intellectual disability, where they congregate. Not the places where ‘others’ come together – the community groups, the sporting clubs, the pubs and nightclubs and meeting rooms. I have only one friend with a learning disability - not only because she is the one woman of my age group who I ‘clicked with’, but also because she was one of the few people with an intellectual disability that I had the accidental pleasure of spending time with in a mainstream establishment.

Something unusual. It should not be something unusual, but it is. Those same support workers will talk it out amongst themselves and come to their own moral reconciliation with their internal struggle – they will justify their 'accidental discrimination' by saying that they cannot socialise with clients. They will argue that all people discriminate on the basis of intellect, or come together on the basis of commonality. They will come to the conclusion that this is their work, not their life. They will use words to make it right, but they will rarely explore the deeper definitions of friendship and what we value in others – loyalty, a sense of humour, trustworthiness. I do not have too many friends that I value ‘just because they are smart’ – mostly, neither do they.

I do not think things will change in a hurry, whilst we continue to segregate and isolate people with disability. We can talk til the cows come home about social role valorisation and person centred approaches, but if we are unwilling to have a cup of tea with a neighbour because he takes longer to process something, we’re not getting anywhere. We can spout the values of inclusion – all means all, everyone needs to be with – in workshops and training rooms and at conferences, but if people are locked away in institutions and day centres, we’re unlikely to get the chance to meet people in ordinary places. If we do, it is something unusual. Until attitudes and the culture of segregation changes, exclusion is the norm.

Let’s change that.

I challenge you to become one of the Brotherhood of the Unusual, one of the select few who befriend people who are 'different'. Be one of the few who intentionally sees the beauty in every person and is drawn to the qualities you both share. Make time to share confidences, intimacies, thoughts, coffee. Geography has made you neighbours, but it is up to you to become friends. Circumstance may have drawn you together, but it is your choice whether you become passing strangers or people who share a deeper connection.

Unusual. Deviating from the customary. Something outside the usual parameters of normalcy. An occurrence of unprecedented weird. And let’s go one step further - let’s do this this together so that eventually the unusual becomes the norm.

I think we’d call that ‘inclusion’.

Unusual. Deviating from the customary. Something outside the usual parameters of normalcy. An occurrence of unprecedented weird.”

― Jasper Fforde, Lost in a Good Book

Monday, April 14, 2014

An Unlikely Hero

Somewhere in Perth, there lives a hero.

The young woman I speak of is only 29 years old. She is an unlikely hero in the eyes of the public – she is severely affected by cerebral palsy and uses an electric wheelchair for mobility.

In February of this year, a Perth taxi driver, 58 year old Peter Kasatchkow, drove this young woman to an Ascot carpark, some kilometres from her destination. There, he repeatedly sexually assaulted her.

Remember this. The young woman was strapped in with four straps of nylon webbing. That, and her disability, made her effectively a helpless victim. Trapped in the back of the taxi van, she was unable to move or escape or fight back. And when he had finished, he drove her home.

The most vulnerable and powerless of victims, you would think. But you would be wrong. Upon arriving home, this young woman who had been sexually assaulted and threatened and terrified, signalled to one of her support workers to record the taxi driver’s registration number. And that was the beginning of the downfall of Peter Kasatchkow.

When police investigated the security cameras, they discovered that Kasatchkow had been a busy predator. He’d sexually assaulted not just one wheelchair user, but a bunch of others – four in a two month period. And upon assaulting his fifth victim – 33 attacks over January and February of 2014 – he did not realise that the rag that he used to cover the security camera had slipped, that his victim did not have an intellectual disability. That unlike the others – that his victim could tell, and testify. And did.

Today, Kasatchkow pleaded guilty to 33 charges of sexual assault, including assaults against the other women, all of whom had a cognitive disability. The newspapers will tell you that. But they won’t tell you everything.

They will tell you that the last victim is now too frightened to use wheelchair taxis and is effectively trapped at home, being treated for PTSD. But they won’t tell you that the Taxi Council and Black and White Taxis never once contacted her to offer support, let alone an alternative means of transport.

They will tell you that the young woman is shattered and that she feels disabled for the first time in her life. Disabled and helpless, she says. But they will not talk about the other victims, nor how they felt – because as women with intellectual disability, they have no voice. If the footage had not been discovered after the report, they would, no doubt, be recorded as having ‘behavioural issues’ and treated accordingly.

They will tell you the statistics around sexual assault of women with and without disability, as recorded in the courts – but they will not tell you how many of those cases never go to court, because the victim cannot testify.

And they will not tell you the ‘word on the street’ – that this predator was moved sideways from his job at the Department of Education and Training, rather than being charged. He had allegedly been downloading porn on a colleague’s computer. If he had been charged, he would never have been driving that taxi on that day.

I can’t help but think of the other women, the nameless women whose faces were erased from the tape that commenced recording on the 1st of January, 2014. I wonder how many of them were in a taxi with that driver, and how many parents and family members will endlessly wonder, left forever without an answer.

One thing is for certain. This young woman is undoubtedly an unsung hero. Not just for the other four women, but for other wheelchair users, other disabled women. By taking action, by speaking out, in the midst of her anguish and pain and fear, she has singlehandedly removed a predator from the streets. She has put into motion a scrutiny that did not exist before around vulnerable people who use taxis and the checks and balances that are sadly missing.

You, courageous young woman, have done what others have not been able to do. You are not a victim, but a survivor. If you had not spoken, another woman would have gone through what you have gone through, this week, last week, next week. From all of us – thank you.

Courage is resistance to fear, mastery of fear, not absence of fear. Mark Twain