Comment: Why I care about disability

Nicholas Stuart (left) in 1989 with reporters Catherine McGrath and Dr Richard Smith. Source: Supplied

As the world prepares to mark International Day of People with Disability on December 3, SBS Chief Political Correspondent Catherine McGrath shares a very personal story about how disability has affected her family.

I know a lot about the disability sector but it strikes me that when we talk about this we don't discuss the real issues. Like how come so many disabled people who want to work never get job interviews? We don’t talk about how we can help ensure people with disabilities have the opportunity to lead the productive and constructive lives they have every right to hope for.  

You may wonder what right I have to talk about this. What insight does a woman who’s worked as a media professional for nearly three decades and had plenty of career opportunities have to say that we haven’t already heard?

Let me start by telling the story of a brilliant 29-year-old man who was a star reporter of his generation. Nicholas Stuart was marked for early success as a journalist. A lover of history, politics and military strategy, he won a coveted ABC cadetship and began to report in a style not often seen. He brought an intellectual rigour and flair to his reports that caught the attention of audiences and editors alike.

He ruffled a few feathers. People who move rapidly through their early careers usually do. He was quickly promoted and within a few years of starting out was a senior reporter for the AM and PM programmes. He was confident, perhaps arrogant. The ABC sent him to China to join the ABC team when pro-democracy protests were crushed in 1989. He was a star of an ABC TV science/environmental series and was then posted to Bangkok as the ABC’s Indochina correspondent. At 29 his world looked bright. Nicholas was covering the Cambodian peace process, the emergence of Aung San Suu Kyi onto the political stage in Burma and the early economic opening up of Vietnam.

In November 1990, 25 years ago, Nicholas was on his way back from a meeting with Australia’s Deputy Ambassador in Bangkok when his car was hit by a drunk driver. He received a catastrophic brain injury and slipped into a coma.

Nicholas Stuart is my husband.

Every day, even after 25 years, I can still see the pain of what he has lost. That doesn’t mean he hasn’t worked hard to rebuild his life. He has, and does. These days Nicholas is one of the country’s most prominent defence writers, a contributor to Fairfax publications and a writer of three books on politics. He even spent three months earlier this year at Cambridge University in the UK as a Press Fellow. Next year he has a Churchill Fellowship that will take him around the world investigating community responses to brain injury. Nick is a former President of the National Brain Injury Foundation and is currently on the Board of the House with No Steps, a national disability service provider. 

"He received a catastrophic brain injury and slipped into a coma."

One could say he is an overachiever. Even with a brain injury.

But that is only part of the story.

Nicholas lost out on being the prominent and successful journalist he could have been. Every day he has to deal with that. As someone with a serious brain injury, he has to work hard every day just to do what most of us can accomplish without effort. He watches his wife go off to work each day to do exactly the sort of job he hoped to do. Old friends have gone onto successful and senior careers that are no longer open to him. He accepts it, but it hurts.

He has replaced his old life with a new life and new successes. But that doesn’t mean it has been an easy or clear-cut journey. Brain injury lasts a lifetime. It means he can’t process information or remember things as he once did. He has to concentrate very hard to finish tasks. When he is tired it’s difficult to cope. Any changes in routine can be hard to deal with. 

Nick’s recovery and journey is his story, not mine. 

What I have seen, however, is how difficult it is to find a new path when a disability prevents you from operating in the way and at the level you had hoped you could. I have seen how people, especially in the early days, couldn’t look him in the eye. Often they, too, were saddened about what had happened and couldn’t find words of comfort. Instead of embracing him and the person he’d become, they walked away.

I remember watching his father as he was carried off the emergency flight from Bangkok to Sydney in December 1990. The look of a man who realised his son’s life is forever altered.

"I am sad for what he has lost even though he battles on regardless."

I remember Nicholas trying to work as a broadcast journalist post-accident, only to eventually discover that he could no longer do it. His memory, organisational skills, and ability to operate were severely curtailed.

One day he, or we, may write a book, but even after 25 years, I find it difficult to talk about this without tears. I am sad for what he has lost even though he battles on regardless. He doesn’t believe in indulging in what might have been. There is a gulf in his life that won’t ever be filled, even if he does get stronger over the years. This impacts the entire family, because now there’s a gulf in my life that will never be filled either. 

For Nick, all he has ever wanted was to be given a go. To work, to write again and to take part in national debates and community discussion, because that is where his interests were.

So my take on International Day for People with Disability on December 3 is to ask the question, why do so many disabled people who want to work not get job interviews? 

Can we do something to help?

Events for International Day of People with Disability will be held around the country on December 3.

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