A Different Kind of Attitude

Like other disabled people in Australia, I’ve been watching the new Attitude series on the ABC.

I don’t know what I’d expected. The first two episodes made me think a little, but not a lot. I considered them well made, but not terribly different from Four Corners. Stories about disabled people and their lives, which we tell every day.

But then I watched THAT episode, and it changed everything.

THAT episode is one that I would probably have not watched unless I’d been told to. It was about sport - I’m not the sporty type. It was about the Solomons, a country I’d never been to. And worst of all, it was narrated by a Paralympian – a good looking jock who’d rediscovered himself as a ‘motivational speaker’ – aren’t they all? I rolled my eyes and prepared myself for 'Kurt Fearnley meets The Third World', and watched with a sense of trepidation.

I couldn’t stop watching.

According to the blurb, Paralympian Curtis Palmer ‘has just one week to train Solomon Islanders with disabilities on how to become coaches and empower lives through sport.’ I’d prepared myself for a dose of inspiration porn, but this was neither pit nor pedestal. This was something different.

Palmer narrates this episode and his insights are startlingly honest. I imagine that he wasn’t in the least prepared for the physical impact of living in a tin shack, with no running water, let alone airconditioning. Drenched in sweat, he speaks frankly about having temperature regulation issues and the importance of a role model keeping a grin on their face – and the importance becomes apparent as the story moves on.

The sports clinic is filled with Solomon Islanders with disabilities – the twisted, the paralysed, the palsied and the limbless - but revolves around one man, David, a bilateral amputee. David has rarely left his home since having his legs removed. The show catalogues the inaccessible terrain, the harsh conditions, the 1930’s prostheses and the old medical model wheelchairs. A pivotal moment involves Palmer being carried by a group of people up a rocky incline, and realising that David never leaves his house because he simply cannot – it is built on a hill, between a river and a mountainous backdrop. His house is a simple structure, made of wood, and one of the most revealing moments comes when Palmer asks David how David thinks Palmer lives.

‘I think your life is easy…you probably have a big kitchen.’ Palmer concedes that he does.

‘And water in your house?’ Palmer’s face reveals a complicated progression of overwhelming emotions – in a first world country, a quadriplegic is often considered disadvantaged. Here, he is envied and considered amongst the most privileged of men, for basic amenities we take for granted.

All of that, remarkable. But the most important part of the story was this. It was a story about a country so far removed from our own that they could be in a different world. And yet, it could be the same place.

I noticed that David had built a rudimentary Freewheel, much like the commercial one I’d bought for my own wheelchair. I’ve been discussing Freewheels with some folk in remote Aboriginal communities of Australia; red dirt is not kind to wheelchairs. The Freewheel helps lift your castors off the ground in rugged terrain – whilst Palmer struggled with his expensive lightweight wheelchair, David’s old wheelchair travelled across the bumps and rocks with ease. Innovation is universal.

I watched David’s terror mounting on his first trip to town since becoming disabled, and recognised his fears. I look down, he said, when I go out. I am ashamed, because they stare. One man pulls out his camera to take a photograph of his legs and Palmer teaches him to ignore the stares, to develop self-confidence, to learn wheelchair skills, to know how to ask for assistance. Palmer notes David’s terror and connects it to his isolation – David is segregated, trapped inside an inaccessible house and within an inhospitable environment. He has never learned independence, and the thought of leaving the house without help, let alone trying wheelchair sports, is terrifying. And I think about the many men and women trapped in institutions around Australia, safely cocooned, both in care and dependence and fear. Segregation and isolation is universal.

And the most powerful moment comes when David learns to coach. His quiet voice grows in timbre and confidence – his eyes stop reflecting fear and start reflecting hope. When he runs his first wheelchair basketball game for able bodied students, he speaks with quiet authority, a far cry from the frightened man at the beginning of the show. Back in the village, he teaches the children to bounce a ball. He trades phone numbers with people who have been part of the Sport for Change program. In one short week, sporting became the universal language that binds that community, tying it together with peer support, respect and a mutual passion.

I can’t help wonder what the Attitude series will look like if it comes to Australia. The difference, for me, was watching the story of disabled people through the lens of other disabled people. That is what makes it unique.

I've changed my mind about wheelchair sports forever.

It’s a big ask, finding $50,000 to tell the stories of people with disability in Australia to the rest of the country, the rest of the world. But I watched this episode and thought that this kind of show might just bring the type of change that Australia desperately needs right now. We can stop living as third world citizens in first world environments. We can stop being invisible. We can start Australians thinking with a whole different kind of attitude.

I want that to happen. Today, I have donated $100 to the Attitude Foundation to bring the producers to our country. If you’re moved to do the same, please hit this link.

You can watch the Sport for Change (and the rest of the Attitude Live episodes) here.

The next Attitude episode screens on Saturday 17 Jan at 6:30pm.

Image description: Curtis Palmer shakes hands with David, a Solomon Islander. Both men are using wheelchairs. A man and two children look on. The ground is unsealed and made of earth and there is an almost vertical flight of stairs behind them.


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