By Jonathan Craig
If you weren’t at our recent National Convention, one of the main things you will have missed was the feeling of contented exhaustion we all shared throughout Monday as we prepared to leave. “I have no idea what day it is,” John Simpson had said over breakfast. I felt much the same, like I was emerging, blinking, into the real world, after a few days at a party where I could mention Audio Description, and not be met by stares so blank they needed no describing.
By the time I arrived at Hobart airport, I was unusually thankful for my wheels. “Did you have a good Convention?” asked the woman at the check-in desk. I did a double take. Had I taken a wrong turn, and ended up back at the hotel? Thankfully no. It seemed the party was following me home.
“There are three more of you guys on this flight,” my assistant said as she wheeled me toward the gate, where sure enough, several fellow Melbournites were waiting. I probably shouldn’t have been surprised, given that I’d had another fellow attendee on my inbound flight a few days earlier. But the novelty of being part of such a critical mass of “my people” hadn’t worn off.
I had expected my first Convention to be full of inspiring ideas and enlightening conversations, and of course I wasn’t disappointed. Technology was a hot topic, following an intriguing keynote address from Aira CEO Suman Kanuganti. Ironically, Human Rights Commissioner Ed Santow’s warnings about new technology were frequently interrupted by technical difficulties, but we aim to unpack some of his ideas in future issues.
Sessions on new mobility tips and taking the stress out of travelling alone reflected the ways technology is continuing to improve our independence. But in our discussion on “the future of work”, we grappled with some of the more worrying trends technology is causing. Former Vocational Consultant Ross Miller follows up that session with some intriguing suggestions in this issue’s feature essay.
But there was another aspect of Convention which isn’t so easily conveyed by our coverage. You might have caught a hint of it in the session on living with multiple disabilities, in which I was a panellist. That session’s moderator, Steve Richardson, recently learned that we both share the same incredibly rare genetic condition, which causes both blindness and brittle bones. I think we were both moved by how interested people were in hearing our perspective. Steve writes about some of his personal experience later in this issue.
The Convention dinner was a great opportunity to personally meet many of the writers and readers I’ve been working with this past year. This was facilitated by a roll call for each table. To catch up with someone, all you need do is remember the number of the table where they sat, or the direction from which you heard their voice. I was struck by the elegance of this solution, and the energy and efficiency with which our volunteers helped us pull it off.
In his acceptance speech, Martin Stewart, who received the David Blyth award, spoke about his tireless campaigning for better and safer public transport, which began when he was around my age. He described how David had mentored and encouraged him, and how proud he was to have lived up to his example.
I’ve gotten to know Martin through reporting on his recent advocacy work. He has been an energetic supporter of the magazine, and a genuine and generous mentor to me personally. For me, this was a powerful moment, where one generation honour the next, who in turn inspired a third.
The presentation of the Diana Braun Aspirations Award to her friend and colleague Robyn Bousie took on a new poignancy following her passing not long after Convention. I never knew or spoke to Diana myself, but those who did tell many stories about her pioneering work carving out spaces for women who are blind or vision impaired.
Given how many women now hold prominent roles within BCA, and the community more generally, it’s easy to forget that not long ago, things were very different.
In the same way, when you’re standing on the platform, you barely notice the announcements about upcoming trains, which were the result of a long advocacy battle for Martin and others.
The problems my generation is facing may be very different, but as we united to applaud the award recipients, I realised that many of the things we now find commonplace once seemed as out-of-reach to them as our goals seem to us. And I felt thankful that they were here with me, to offer the benefit of their experience, and remind me that we can achieve the seemingly impossible.
I believe BCA is working very hard to inform members about our current advocacy work. I’m especially impressed by our commitment to including those who couldn’t attend the Convention via our streams and message lines, as well as the nightly recaps Vaughn Bennison and I produced.
But none of that could convey the sense of solidarity I felt throughout the weekend, in countless encounters with people young and old, with various levels of sight, with a variety of other disabilities, each with their own skills, stories, and ideas. Whatever our perspective, we were all there for the same reason: to work together to build a better future.
I left Convention feeling encouraged by our long history of victories, supported by the wisdom of my peers, and empowered by our sense of genuine unity. This, as much as anything else, is why Convention and all our other gatherings are so important – because that solidarity is what makes our big dreams seem achievable.
Of course, there are plenty of other ways to bring people together. I’ve already written about the importance of story-telling, which is what this magazine is for. Similarly, our two new podcast series’ take a deeper look at what community means in the past and in the present. And I’m very proud of all the innovative ways we’re supporting new leaders and mentors, and using technology to connect people all over the country.
But from now on, whenever I think about BCA, I will remember the sound of so many of us gathered in one room, all in noisy, enthusiastic conversation. At my first Convention, the most important thing I learned was that advocacy is what we do, but community is who we are.