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Moments of glory

By Erik Leipoldt - posted Tuesday, 10 January 2006

Hopefully most opinions are expressed after reflection on experience, ours or that of others. In this case I let a personal experience talk for itself. It’s another beach story: about the spark of prejudice in all of us and of our undeniable connection. And about bridging our differences and fears. Whether it is culture, religion, skin colour, or disability everyone of our “ordinary” acts of relationship and trust are our only real lifeline for a flourishing society. Why stop at tolerance - a festering hotbed of a comfort zone? By daring to step out of it we may earn opportunities to really feel that we are indeed all in this together.

It happened in Denmark. No, not the new Tasmanian colony in the Northern Hemisphere, but our own good old organic Denmark in Western Australia fringed by karri forests, nestled in Wilson’s Bay by the Southern Ocean. Our summer holidays are often spent down that way. On this particular day we decided to go to the beach. June, my wife, would go swimming and my daughter, Sophie, not yet old enough to swim, would paddle and play.

We parked in a large bitumen carpark, which was 99 per cent empty but I parked the car in the only wheelchair-accessible bay. Just for a laugh, a practical joke that sustained me in my temporary mood of frustration. Even after 28 successful years in a wheelchair, losses I had long thought written off still revisit me on occasion. Especially on holidays where the pursuits are naturally physical, outdoors and out of my comfort zone.


Going down to the beach on the bitumen was easy. But of course it was a different story when we hit the loose beach sand. June tipped me on my backwheels pushing me wheelbarrow-style, bags on my lap. Sophie was doing her bit too. It was hard going with the thin wheels sinking in the sand way over their rims and my own feeble attempts at pushing did not help much. At a small distance a gaggle of young guys passed us by, studiously avoiding looking at our struggling tableau, joking and laughing among themselves. “City guys!” I thought with some annoyance. Anyway we did not have to go that far. Only as far as losing the feeling of closeness to bitumised civilisation and as far as to give us the illusion of a stretch of deserted white-beach-by-the-ocean. Our powers of imagination were strong so we soon stopped, put everything down and got on with beach life.

I looked around and did notice one other person some way off. A figure sitting on rocks on a nearby breakwater. He had a fishing rod in one hand but wasn’t fishing. He just wasn’t casting out and reeling in at all. In his other hand he held a beer can.

Well … anyway … June went swimming. Sophie found all kinds of differently coloured and textured seaweed and we started to make an intricate pattern on the beach with them, the strong mid-morning light revealing their magical colours. It was engrossing.

I looked up sharply when his shadow fell across our display. Here stood, I thought, the vacant fisherman, swaying slightly in the still summer’s day. A broad grin under a wide-brimmed hat set in a red face and an esky in hand. It was him. A quick glance over to the now deserted breakwater confirmed his identity. “G’day”, he slurred before I could do more than raise an eyebrow. “Mind if I sit down for a bit?” “Wanna beer mate?” He saved me from answering his first question when he plonked himself down and I declined the drink for now. It seemed to me that he was probably doing well enough for both of us already at this time of the day.

He began to talk. To me. About his blue with his wife who was on holidays here with him, and which was why he was sitting here, alone, on his rock. And about his Dad with whom they lived on their farm in the wheatbelt. He was angry, being bullied by his father. Nothing was ever good enough. No recognition for anything and he made him work bloody hard and treated him like no more than any farmhand. “F**k!” Tears sprung in the eyes of this big and burly bloke. And there was bugger all to do on the farm or in town and that was his future.

That’s when June returned from her swim. He shook hands but he wanted no dialogue. Sophie played on in the warm sand, happy with her shells and seaweed. I did not need to say much as he kept turning to me, squinting in the sun looking up at me at my wheelchair height. He seemed encouraged by having a listener, even if it was a captive one.


He changed tack now and talked about his brother. Without asking me the stale question: “what happened to you?”, he told me that his brother had cerebral palsy and used a wheelchair - just like I did. His brother was a clever fellow and he helped him around on the farm and wherever he needed to go to, and his brother helped him in other ways. They got on well. They were close and they looked after each other. They had fun. They did things.

After a while his waterfall of words slowed to a trickle. We now enjoyed some silences as he sipped his beer. Together we contentedly stared over the blinding white sand, across the shimmering bay, and to the emerald forested land across the bay. So we sat together for a while. And as unexpected as his shadow first fell he got up. To go fishing. We parted like bonded mates and he ambled back to his rock. There was no doubt that my new mate’s affections were partly alcohol-fuelled but I also really liked this fellow, Ben, so genuinely hurt and open-hearted. Maybe he felt a little better for talking. I hoped so.

Every now and then we waved across to each other and we heard him curse when he lost his one and only accidental catch. After some hours we started to pack up to start the slow caravan trek back to the carpark. But before June could start pushing, Ben was there again. “Can I help? I’m here to help”, he said. And before he had an answer he had the handlebars and wheeled me over the sand. Well … through the sand really.

Wheelbarrow style was not for him. His solid farm legs pumping behind me, every wheatbelt-farm muscle fully in his service, he bulldozed ahead, all four wheels ploughing up the beach, roughly parting the beach sand in front of us. Whoaa! Moses, eat your heart out!  And he was fast. Craning back I saw that June and Sophie found it difficult to keep up. And to judge by the deep and weaving tracks behind us he had not stopped drinking since we last saw him. This was great. Nowhere could I ever purchase a chair with this kind of power.

The nine inch step-up from beach to bitumen loomed ahead already. We were there in a jiff. I called a halt and smiled as I imagined our sandy bow wave crashing into the step as we stopped. I started to explain how to get me up. It had to be front wheels up first, then lever the backend of the chair. “No, not this way. The other way around. It’s too hard. I might fall out. I might lose my balance”, I hastily instructed.

Calmly, like a Cheshire cat his grinning, big-hatted face appeared over my right shoulder and he beamed: “Nah! You gotta trust me now mate!” And without further argument he heaved me up in the most impractical way imaginable. He did it! And safely too. His way! “You’re right from here now mate?” he said. “Oh yea, thanks a lot mate. And all the best to you.” We all said our goodbyes. He grinned again and walked off. Rather steadier than before I thought. Playing in my mind Joe Cocker’s rendition of “You get by with a little help …” I followed my family, grinning my way to the car.

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Read the Jennifer Fitzgerald Memorial Lecture, October 2005. A refereed article based on this lecture will appear in The Journal of Futures Studies in February 2006.

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About the Author

Dr Erik Leipoldt is a Dutch-born Australian. He acquired his disability of quadriplegia in 1978, which first prompted his long-term involvement in disability advocacy and advocacy development. He is a past chair of the WA Disability Services Advisory Committee, and member of various former government disability policy advisory committees, including the Disability Advisory Council of Australia. He is a past convenor of the Australian Advocacy Network and past Executive Officer of People With Disabilities WA. He was a Member of the former Guardianship and Administration Board WA and is currently a Senior Sessional Member of the State Administrative Tribunal of Western Australia. Erik is known as an author of many articles, commenting from a disability perspective. His PhD thesis (2003) was entitled "Good life in the balance: a cross-national study of Dutch and Australian disability perspectives on euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide." His main current interest is how disability experience may provide a practical guiding story to a sustainable world. He is an Adjunct Lecturer with the Centre for Research into Disability and Society, Curtin University of Technology, WA.

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