Nearly four million Australian children are enrolled in our world-class public education system in any given year. Students from well-off families, students from families living day-to-day. Elite athletes, some even juggling early careers as Olympians or as professional athletes, some who have never played organised sport. Budding actors and performers, playing concertos, acting Shakespeare, others who have never spoken a word in their life. Students with high-mobility, bounding through the playground and corridors, some who will never take a step, let alone bound a flight of stairs.
I am incredibly grateful for the life I live but without the opportunities provided to me through Australia’s world-class public education system, and the teachers and students within it, I’m sure I wouldn’t be where I am today.
My education journey is laced with amazingly talented teachers who stood up for me and the values of an inclusive education. They fought for me when I was powerless and couldn't fight for myself.
They insisted my inclusion into the local mainstream school when the isolation of segregation was recommended. My primary school principal demanded that I had the same education setting as my brothers and sisters, cousins, uncles and aunts, grandparents, even one of my great grandparents, who received their schooling at Carcoar Public School. In readiness for my first day, that same principal spent his summer holiday concreting paths and ramps around Carcoar Public so I could start class in 1986.
My teachers instilled in me the value of expectation. Expectation which I treasure to this day. When travelling internationally, I’ve seen a life without expectation and that can be more disabling than any disability. When we remove the expectation out of an individual’s life that they are not able to interact with their peers we are doing the community a disservice.
When we allow the level of a child's education to be dictated by the depth of a parent’s bank account we are doing our whole future a disservice. My parents, honest, hard-working country-folk, with five children, including one with a disability, were lucky to have a dollar in the bank. If cost was a barrier to our participation in education, our nation would be short four successful university graduates, including three teachers, and a successful farmer and cattle-breeder.
While the right to an education is a basic human right, it’s estimated that around 90 per cent of children with a disability are not even enrolled in school (UNICEF, 2014). Only thirty three percent of children who need a wheelchair for mobility have one. That blows my mind, and we should be running in a direction to fix the injustice. But we’re not. Foreign aid from wealthy countries continues to be reduced, and children with disabilities continue to slip through the cracks living a life without expectation or opportunity.
I’m not only the beneficiary of a strong public education but also the graduate of a Bachelor of Education. I rarely get into the classroom nowadays, but I had to complete the tertiary degree as a moment of personal recognition to the teachers within my life.
Rather than spend each day in the classroom, I have lived the life of a professional athlete and a proud man with a disability. I’ve spent the best part of two decades attempting to make my body stronger. Convincing my heart that it can still pump at 200 beats per minute for nearly two hours today, as it did in my early twenties. Trying to finely tune a piece of equipment so that I can shave my potential finishing time down by hundredths of seconds.
I’ve had the people who are the best in the world at their craft help me build my self-belief and skills as a wheelchair racer into being the best in the World on my Paralympic stage. Those moments when you cross a finish line and you have been able to put all those moments of guidance and hardship into a moment of success and joy are amazing. I’ve been chosen to carry the Australian flag in an Australian Commonwealth Games Team and captain my national team into a Paralympics. I’ve had lunch with the Queen of England, met the King of Spain, crewed a winning yacht in one of the world’s most prestigious yacht race.
But access to engaging teachers in a mainstream setting is more than that and wins every day of the week.
When a community is willing to open up education systems to all those who have a different variation of life, our community benefits. Education can’t be seen as a luxury. It is essential for life, and an inclusive education allows all to experience a realistic version of that life. I learnt normality through my inclusion into the mainstream education. That normality brought expectations within my peers. From that moment I grew a dream to be the fastest in the world. But I have never lost sight of what made me who I am. I am the kid from Carcoar Public School, I am valued by my Teachers, and I am needed by my peers.