Finding a Way

Finding a Way

by Graeme Innes


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780702254079
Publisher: University of Queensland Press
Publication date: 07/01/2016
Pages: 296
Product dimensions: 8.90(w) x 6.00(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Graeme Innes AM is a lawyer, mediator and company director. In 1995 he was made a Member of the Order of Australia for his work on the development of the Disability Discrimination Act, and in 2003 he was a finalist for Australian of the Year. Graeme’s work as a human rights practitioner has spanned more than thirty years and includes his role as Commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission where he led work on Australia’s ratification of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Same-Sex: Same Entitlements Inquiry.

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Finding a Way

By Graeme Innes

University of Queensland Press

Copyright © 2016 Graeme Innes
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-7022-5727-8


Early years

There's a photograph of me in the arms of Sir Robert Helpmann as he spun the chocolate wheel at the fete. I don't remember it, but the camera doesn't lie. And I would know, wouldn't I, as a person who has been blind since birth. I didn't look particularly pleased about being held by a famous dancer, with the whirring noise of a chocolate wheel close to my ear. Perhaps my face was a sign of things to come in that I would indicate clearly when I didn't like something.

We're not sure why my eyes did not form properly during gestation. Perhaps it was measles, or some other virus that Mum had. That was the original theory, although it was later supplanted by one of contact with the fumes of paint or some other similar chemical. It's an issue that has puzzled some minds for quite a time, but mine is not one of them. 'You play the hand you are dealt the best way you can' has always been my philosophy. You don't fret about why you were dealt that hand.

The doctors' bedside manner was sadly lacking when they told Mum and Dad of my blindness after I was born in 1955. 'Your son's eyes have not properly formed,' they said. 'He is totally blind, and that won't change.' Mum remembers it as a very harsh message, but perhaps in hindsight it was the right approach. Take the hit, and start planning for and dealing with the consequences was certainly the course Mum and Dad adopted.

Perhaps it was their country town upbringing – Mum in Parkes and Dad in Bathurst. Perhaps the fact that I was their second baby helped, with my sister Robyn having been born two years earlier. Or perhaps they didn't see many other alternatives. Whatever the case, that practical approach – treating me as one sibling and an equally important member of the family, rather than as the 'special' kid with the disability – has paid me back in spades during life.

They brought me home to Petersham in Sydney's west and did all the normal stuff you do with a new baby. Robyn was apparently pleased with my arrival. She loved me and bossed me around in equal measure, and was proud of my achievements. These characteristics of our relationship have continued throughout our lives.

* * *

Mum and Dad were children of the Great Depression. Mum's father – who died in 1958 – was a blacksmith in Parkes. They came to Sydney during the Second World War, where Mum then trained as a nurse. She met Dad at the Masonic Hospital where she worked and Dad's mother was a patient. Their relationship blossomed.

Mum's mother, Madeline, whom we knew as Grandma, lived in Strathfield when I was born. We moved to Ashfield when I was six, and Grandma moved into our old house in Petersham. Visits to Grandma's house are some of my fondest early memories.

Dad's father, Hilton, known as Mick, fought in the First World War, incurring a knee injury and being gassed in France. He returned home and worked on the New South Wales railway, and Dad followed him into that profession. Mick's first wife, Olive, died in 1949 and he married Claire some years later. We called them Pappa and Nanna, and I first remember them living in Marrickville. They had a frangipani tree in their yard, and I loved the strong smell and the soft touch of the petals as they fell. I have loved that smell ever since.

Dad came to Sydney as his career with the railways progressed. He told wonderful and exciting stories of pushing a hand-trolley along the tracks to check them, and how you had to quickly get it off the tracks if a train was coming. Perhaps I gained my love of trains from these stories. Or perhaps it was the many train trips I took as a child with Mum, who didn't drive. These train trips have continued into my adult life. My wife, Maureen, has a smile in her voice to this day as she tells people that I will only live in houses within walking distance of a railway station.

Dad followed the Protestant tradition for males of his generation, and joined the Masonic Lodge. As well as a community activity, the NSW Masonic Lodge soon became his employer, and he worked in Castlereagh Street in Sydney for a number of years.

When Mum and Dad acquired our Petersham house from a Mr Shoe, it came with a mantel clock that pealed Westminster chimes. This clock remained in the house while Grandma was living there, and only joined us in Ashfield after her death. I love those chimes. They evoke memories of visits to Grandma, and her tucking me into bed in what was then her spare room. And, later, of the warmth and sounds of the coal fire in the dining room in our Ashfield home. I missed that clock terribly when I moved out of home, and pre-emptively 'acquired' it when my parents moved to Gerringong on the NSW south coast. I have had it with me ever since.

* * *

My brother, Brian, was born four years after me, and Mum could not come home from hospital for several weeks because either Robyn or I had some childhood illness, which could not be allowed to infect the new baby. We were looked after by a housekeeper while Dad continued working. She probably did an excellent job of looking after us, but my childhood rang with stories from Robyn and I of how the housekeeper checked our schoolbags every day to make sure we had eaten our lunch, and punished us if we didn't. She cooked dinners we did not like. We could not leave the table until we ate them. Worst of all, she wouldn't let us run down the street towards the station to meet Dad, like Mum did.

Being allowed to meet Dad on his way home was a special treat. I remember crashing into his suited legs, and the smell of the newspaper print from The Sun, which was always under his arm. If I told him I had been good he would let me carry the paper home, but I always had to wash the newsprint off my hands afterwards.

As well as the clock in Grandma's house, Mr Shoe had left us the contents of his back shed. Once I knew of its existence, I often spent time there, with or without permission. It was full of tools and equipment, a fascinating hidden treasure for the exploring hands of a young boy. There were wonderful shapes that I later learned were planes, chisels, awls, lasts for repairing and making shoes, and tins and boxes of various shapes and sizes containing screws, nails and hinges. There were also incredible smells – paint, vinyl, leather, grease (which was the cause of one ban from the shed after my white shorts and hands became smeared by it).

The best part was the grinder. This was bolted to the workbench, and consisted of a wheel that could be turned by a handle. If turned quickly, it made a very satisfying noise to a young boy, similar to that of a chugging engine. So the shed became my boat, in which I had many thrilling adventures. I towed big ships out of Sydney Harbour or cruised in search of pirates. I fought the Second World War alongside some of my heroes from the ABC radio serial The Kraite, the story of brave Aussies who fought the war, and went behind enemy lines, in an old fishing boat. I was the captain of my boat, of course, busily turning my grinder as the boat chugged along.

* * *

Grandma recognised my early love of boats and trains, and some of the best times we spent together were on what we called our transport days. We would catch two buses from Petersham all the way down to the Darling Street wharf. We would enjoy our picnic lunch in the park on the harbour, where I revelled in the tooting of tugs and ferries, and the sound of the wash on the sea wall. Grandma painted wonderful word pictures of the boats as they passed, describing their vivid colours, and we had lots of fun giving them names. As Grandma told me about each boat, I would develop a story of where it had been or where it was going, and what adventures it was having.

Then came the best part of the day, when we caught the ferry to Circular Quay. This involved a little boy bouncing up and down on the wharf as we waited for the ferry to pull in, listening to the exciting noises of the motor running, the propeller churning water, commands being yelled, gangplanks sliding out and hitting the wharf, and the inevitable tooting. I learned what the number of toots meant, and that memory has been a useful one as my time on boats has morphed from my imagination to reality.

Holding tightly to Grandma's hand, I then had the exciting walk along the gangplank, above what I imagined to be that dangerous strip of shark-infested water, and onto the ferry. We always sat outside, of course, rain, hail or shine. I remember the rocking motion, the feel of the sometimes wet wooden seats and the always wet mooring rope, and the smell of engine grease, painted wood and salt water. And after the return trip on the ferry, we took the train from Circular Quay.

Having a three-transport day – bus, train and ferry – was the norm. But if I was really lucky, and it was wet or Grandma was a little tired or unwell, we would also catch a taxi, which counted as a fourth type of transport. Those were the days of which I dreamed, when we could sit in the back seat of the taxi – or, if I was very lucky, I could sit in the front – and ply the unknown man at the wheel with questions, while I listened to the constant click and rumble of the meter, or the chatter on his radio. I would often tell him that he should call in on this or that job, or tentatively reach out and touch the controls and the microphone.

I would come home from these days absolutely worn out by my own curiosity and excitement. Grandma would prepare me my favourite dinner, pop me in a warm bath, then hustle me off to bed, where I went to sleep listening to serials on the radio, and the wonderful ticking and chiming of the clock.



I'm sure Dad was very excited when he won the job as chief executive at the Masonic Hospital in Ashfield. With not much more than his Bathurst school education, he had worked his way up as a clerk, on the railway and in the Masonic Lodge. The job was a major promotion, giving him responsibility for all non-medical issues at the hospital, as well as for the infrastructure and grounds, and we would live in a beautiful old two-storey house on the premises called Mountjoy.

Most of our friends and acquaintances were, I am sure, pleased for Dad and us. But the concern I remember, as a six-year-old, was how I was going to cope with the stairs, which wound their way to the second floor. This concern has been a continuing theme in my life, but I have never shared it. One of my regular and somewhat terse responses is: 'It's my eyes that don't work, not my legs.'

For a young family growing up, Mountjoy was a dream come true. From a small cottage on a corner block, with an adequate backyard and a shed, and a busy road along one side, we moved to a large house with verandas and balconies on two sides, numerous out-buildings, an area of trees at the front that we called 'the bush', a long gravel driveway with a circle at the end, and two large areas of lawn for games. The grounds, gardens and buildings required constant upkeep and maintenance. Yet they provided Robyn, Brian and me with a very large and mixed environment where we could play and explore in relative safety.

* * *

It took me a while to understand that I was different from other kids. But as I grew up, I did start to wonder why I bumped into things more often, why I could not run around and follow people as other children did, and how it was that they appeared to know much more about the broader environment than I did. I worked a lot of it out from sounds, and information I had gained from conversations or previous experiences, but I did start to realise that other people could do something that I could not.

I don't remember thinking that this was unfair – just that it was a little strange. I do remember deciding that I would have to develop strategies to deal with this annoying lack of information, as I could see no reason to let it limit me. So I began to do that.

I worked hard at memory, and keeping maps of my environment in my head. To this day, even as my memory is more stretched, I still have a fairly good grasp of areas I am familiar with. I also learned to ask more questions about what was happening, or what was around me, and my family supported me by painting great word-pictures from which I could garner much information.

My wife, Maureen, has become one of the best impromptu audio-describers I have ever met. She has also developed the skill of weaving her word-pictures into general conversation, so that it does not feel like something special she is doing for me.

I also taught myself to retain this information. This was both so that I could make use of it later, but also so that I could refer to it in conversation in similar ways to others around me. I did not avoid words like 'look', 'sight' and 'see', because that would have made my conversation stilted and different.

My possessions were usually kept in the same place, so that I could put my hand on them easily when I needed them. This skill development has benefited me to this day, and it is unusual for me to lose something. My family support me very much in this regard. Maureen either has, or has developed, an amazing skill for putting things in the same place, and remembering that place even when I forget. And my daughter, Rachel, while not being the tidiest person herself, constantly chides her friends not to leave chairs or other items out in the paths of travel. She has developed the technique of making a noise between a squeal and a squeak when I am about to run into her or something else, and saved me (and her) much pain and embarrassment.

At a young age, I also learned to bluff when I did not know, to pretend I understood more than I did, so that I could acquire further information and fill in the gaps at a later time. This is a skill I have honed over the years. As a young boy I had a very good ear for sounds and voices. I could identify car makes by the sound of their engines, and amazed adults used to test me on it. But I often pretended I knew someone or something when I didn't, and usually worked out who or what it was before people realised my bluff.

I modified children's games and activities to 'level the playing field', and suggested or encouraged activities at which I knew I could perform well. I played rugby league on the big grass areas between the house and the hospital with my brother and his mates. They were all around four years younger than me, so my superior weight and strength compensated somewhat for my lack of sight. I didn't get the ball as much as they did, but once I got it I rarely let it go.

When we rode our bikes on the gravel drive I could follow the sound of the other bikes, and so crashed less frequently than I should have. My parents were not keen for me to have a two-wheeler bike because they felt I would find balancing at the slower speeds at which I needed to ride much harder than on my tricycle. But when my sister and brother started to ride two-wheel bikes and scooters I was determined to do the same, and just took theirs until my parents gave me my own.

Inevitably, as someone who could not see, I had some major misconceptions about what things looked like. I thought for a long time that birds were just like small cats or dogs with wings, because I had been able to touch a cat or a dog but not a bird. I could not understand why the Sydney Harbour Bridge was referred to as the 'coat-hanger' until much later in life when I felt a scale model. The shape of Sydney Harbour really confused me until I felt a map. And only recently, while attending an audio-described performance at the Sydney Vivid Festival, when light was projected onto the sails of the Sydney Opera House, did I really come to understand the shape of the sails. Even today, I can be caught out with an assumption about a thing or a place that is just fundamentally wrong because I have not seen it. It's a bit of a shock, but I normally get past it.

* * *

My parents were keen to ensure – right from the start – that I contributed equally to our lives. This was partly because they knew that the whole family would gain a greater benefit if everyone 'pulled their weight'. But they were also determined to ensure that I would not be treated differently because of my disability. The same expectations were placed on me as on my brother and sister; I received the same rewards of independence and opportunities. Mum or Dad, and increasingly I, just had to work out how I could best meet those expectations and take those opportunities.

I realise now just how much these family activities benefited my later life and career. They taught me many things: to work as a team, and plan to maximise the contribution that all team members could make; to enjoy the process of a shared challenge and a shared reward; to not limit someone by setting the expectations bar low; and when expectations are not met, to search out a different process by which they might be achieved. Life was about finding a way.


Excerpted from Finding a Way by Graeme Innes. Copyright © 2016 Graeme Innes. Excerpted by permission of University of Queensland Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents

Introduction 1

1 Early years 4

2 Mountjoy 10

3 North Rocks 24

4 Ashfield Boys High School 33

5 Social life 41

6 Sydney University 46

7 Finding work 53

8 The disability rights movement 61

9 Cricket 73

10 The bowlo 83

11 Going west 92

12 If at first you don't succeed … 105

13 A London wedding 115

14 Landmark legislation 123

15 Qantas flies me to Sydney 134

16 Tribunals and babies 141

17 The proof is in the pudding 155

18 Deputy commissioner 163

19 Parenting 175

20 Commissioner 181

21 Human rights 188

22 Race discrimination 196

23 The Disability Rights Convention 205

24 Transport 213

25 Equal access 222

26 Jobs 229

27 Arts and culture 241

28 Powerful stories 246

29 National Disability Insurance Scheme 250

30 Twenty years of the DDA 258

31 Reflections 267

Acknowledgements 284

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