In Australia in the 21st century, people with disabilities occupy a strange liminal world, at once accepted and ostracised. We have made enormous steps as a society when it comes to people with disabilities; we have given them financial support, anti-discrimination legislation, and even the opportunity to participate in sport. However we seem reluctant to give them our friendship.All of this looms like a shadow in my mind for my eldest son, who has Down Syndrome, turns 18 this week. A day that should be all about joy and celebration will also be tinged with the sadness of loneliness. Rory O’Chee with his father, Bill O’Chee. Photo: Supplied Rory has accomplished many things in his life so far. He is studying photography at TAFE, while completing Year 12 at a mainstream school, where he has been elected a school prefect. He is an outstanding photographer, whose work has occasionally appeared on this masthead, as well as winning awards in national and international art competitions. Yet for all of this, his close friends can be counted on the fingers of one hand.What does the future have to offer him when the academic year ends, and all of the people who have been through school with him go their own ways?
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It hasn’t been easy for my son to achieve the things he has. He has made enormous efforts, and we have been been given wonderful support from his teachers and teacher aides. But now that school is coming to a close it sometimes seems for nought.For a young man who can be talented, witty, charming and thoughtful, surely life must offer more than this.
I thought perhaps he wasn’t trying hard enough to socialise, but his teachers tell me otherwise. Everybody at school knows him, and they often say hello, but when he wants to be part of the conversation, he discovers that popularity and friendship are completely different things.He even confessed to his teacher aide that he had come home from TAFE on occasion and cried in his bedroom because nobody there wanted to talk to him.Roughly 3 percent of all Australians have an intellectual disability yet they are rarely truly welcome in mainstream society. Send them to work in a sheltered workshop, because surely that is good enough, we seem to say. Why should they have any ambition beyond this?It is not just the people with intellectual disabilities who face this problem. Try making friends if you have cerebral palsy, or are an amputee. A friend of mine is now facing up to life in a wheelchair after having had a motorcycle accident: he will soon sadly discover how small your world can be if you have a disability.It shouldn’t be like this.Our unconscious neglect of those with disabilities deeply challenges the liberal values on which our society is bui…