The International Day of People with Disability (IDPwD) is held annually on 3 December. The occasion aims to increase public awareness, understanding and acceptance of people with a disability and to celebrate their contributions to society.

As Pope Francis reflected in 2019, ‘We are called to recognize in every person with disabilities, even complex and serious disabilities, a unique contribution to the common good through their original life stories.

Recognizing the dignity of each person, knowing that it does not depend on the functionality of the five senses ... The Gospel teaches us this conversion. We need to develop antibodies against a culture that considers some lives first-class and others second-class: this is a social sin! — to have the courage to give a voice to those who are discriminated against due to their disability, because unfortunately in some countries, still today, people struggle to recognize them as persons of equal dignity, as brothers and sisters in humanity.’

The theme for this year’s IDPwD is “Building Back Better: toward a disability-inclusive, accessible and sustainable post COVID-19 World”. This year of the pandemic has presented a number of challenges in terms of keeping communities connected, and people with disabilities have been among the hardest hit. The United Nations states that even under normal circumstances, ‘persons with disabilities are less likely to access health care, education, employment and to participate in the community. An integrated approach is required to ensure that persons with disabilities are not left behind.’

It is undeniable that much work still needs to be done to ensure that our places of worship and work become more inclusive environments for people with disability. In practical terms, this might include ensuring that buildings, churches and schools are easily accessible to those in a wheelchair or with mobility issues; placing hearing loops in churches and public spaces, and providing captions and plot descriptions on videos. And, importantly, as we work towards becoming a more inclusive society, we must ensure that the voices and stories of people with a disability are heard and given the opportunity to participate in the creation of this future.

Earlier this week, non-profit aged and disability services organisation VMCH shared the beautiful story of four of its residents at their Specialist Disability Accommodation (SDA) in Glen Waverley.

This December marks 12 months since Lara, Matthew, Andy and Wayne moved into their own accommodation. The story behind how the four came to live together is unique, and a testament to the love and tenacity of their parents, who advocated for more than 15 years to ensure their children were able to live together in a home that fostered friendship, fun and family.

Lara Wayne Matthew and Andy
Lara, Wayne, Matthew and Andy

The families – Sue and Colin Chinner, Jill and John Cole, Kitty David and Karen Everett – met at Glenallen specialist school when their children were aged six. Over the years they became friends and discovered they shared a dream of seeing their children live in a place that was more than supported accommodation, but rather a home surrounded by people with similar values.

The process hasn’t been simple. Ordinarily, people with disability need to apply for accommodation that, while practical, doesn’t necessarily provide for their social and personal preferences.

The four, now aged in their thirties, had been attending VMCH’s day program and staff knew of their dream. With support from VMCH and the introduction of the NDIS (making the process for finding appropriate accommodation easier) the dream became a reality in December 2019.

Andy, Matthew and Lara were like the rat pack at school, they were thick as thieves. I’m really happy because I never thought it was going to happen,’ says Sue, Matthew’s mum. ‘It’s (the move) been incredibly positive and I would love to see this for the future; for friends to be placed together.’

Lara’s mum, Jill, says living with her friends and having the support of their families is invaluable for her daughter.

Lara loves it because she’s very social and when the other families come in and talk to her, they know what’s going on in her life. They’re not saying ‘hello’ to be polite, they have meaningful conversations.’

Kitty says her son Andy, who loves horror movies and the Bombers, is “very happy” at the Glen Waverley home. ‘They’ve known each other since they were little so he’s very comfortable and very happy there. I couldn’t ask for more.’

Living with his mates is incredibly important for music-lover Wayne, says his mum, Karen.

‘This is his extended family. He was quite proud to move out of home and live there.’

Ensuring their children are safe and happy as they age is also a motivation for their parents. ‘One of the best things is the siblings of the four friends also know each other as they’ve been to all the celebrations over the years,’ Jill said.

‘The next part of the dream was knowing there would be support there when we’re not, through their siblings.’