The Mover and Shaker, By Sylvana Mahmic
Lauri is an active and dedicated advocate for people who are blind or vision impaired in rural and regional areas. Until recently, she lived for many years in a rural area of southern NSW. She is a Guide Dog user and the founder of the Rural Disability Network, a rural advisor for the Women with Disability Australia Network, Board Director for Blind Citizens Australia and was a Disability Council NSW member between 2007 and 2011.
Forty years ago, when I lost my useful sight, I became forcefully aware of what it is to have a disability in a rural area. What to do? No information seemed to be available, no referrals to service providers (whoever they were), just: "Sorry, we can't do any more for you". I had seven children and a husband to care for, and just got on with it the best way I could. For eight years, I had no information or training, and no option but to keep going, and working out different ways of managing and thinking outside the square. I had to take the "t" out of can't, and change my thinking to "I can do it".
Assistance eventually arrived eight years later in the form of the Royal Blind Society and also the Guide Dog Association, as they had just started moving into regional areas. The two organisations worked well together and I had an excellent training program in daily living skills and mobility. And, ah, my first guide dog, Oban. I progressed from never leaving the house to never being home, according to Brendan (my husband).
Armed with mobility and knowledge, I encountered the real problems of living in a rural area. No pathways, no transport, and no understanding of a need for any accessible facilities. Approaching local government councils for access was an exercise in futility: How could they spend that amount of money on only one person? It was a five kilometer walk to the bus stop, which I looked on as good exercise....until the buses stopped running.
Then, I decided it was time to do something for the rural people with disability. We toured around regional, rural, and remote areas in NSW on an information gathering trip. The Rural Disability Network was born. The Multicultural Disability Advocacy Organisation eventually took on the Network. This led me to join the Disability Council, as I wanted to be a strong voice for the rural community and become a vehicle in which their frustrations and problems were heard.
Many of the people I have met live without help, knowledge, or any idea of what is available, so are confined to a very limited existence through no fault of their own. Service providers are based in regional areas and information to the smaller rural towns and villages is in a lot of cases non-existent. Though mis-information in many of these areas is alive and spreading. Transport, when it is available, can be very expensive. Communication is also expensive and education can be limited, e.g. when I decided to upgrade my computer skills the teacher was learning "on the go" what to teach, but my skills were more advanced than hers, hence there was no advantage in travelling the 100 kilometers to attend TAFE.
In 2007, I was very honoured to become appointed to the Disability Council, where I was going to be "Mrs. Fix It" for rural NSW. That was a dream, and sometimes I felt I was banging my head against a brick wall, and other times I felt maybe we were getting somewhere.
In my opinion, the main changes that have been affecting people with disability since my time working on Council have been in the areas of accommodation, livable housing design and putting rural and regional issues on the policy agenda.
The current opportunities I see as being available over the next few years include advocacy, Person Centred Approaches, Stronger Together 2 and the National Disability Insurance Scheme. And so the list goes on, there are far too many to mention here. I also think initially the changes may bring many misconceptions and misunderstandings to the surface that will need to be looked at, but in the long term, especially with the implementation of Stronger Together 2, the future looks bright for people with disability.
If I were to be a Council member again, I would be more adamant in placing rural and regional issues on the policy agenda. I sincerely hope the new Council continues to promote the inclusion of people with disability living in rural and remote communities. I thank the Council for always being there, listening, and supporting the rural community and myself.
By Lauri Grovenor