Defying the Disabled Label

16 February 2017

Defying the Disabled Label

Defying the disabled label

A disability restricts a person’s mental, sensory or mobility functions. A disability does not restrict a person’s hopes and dreams, talents, goals and achievements, potential and individual abilities.  

Language is a powerful thing. With over four million people (that’s one in five) in Australia with some form of disability, it’s surprising that anyone is still labelled as a ‘sufferer,’ ‘not able,’ or defined by their disability.

19% of men and 18% of women have some form of a disability. We are all simply people, doing the best we can with what we have. That’s what makes us all the same.

Some people however, are not ‘special,’ they’re extraordinary. Here we explore some inspirational stories for everyone, and their messages about overcoming the disabled label.


Daphne Hilton

“They told me I would never walk again and that I probably wouldn’t live very long, and that was it.” - Daphne Hilton

A pioneering spirit for today’s Paralympic athletes, Daphne Hilton was Australia’s first female Paralympian and the only Australian female to compete at the first Paralympic games in Rome in 1960.

A talented all-rounder, the wheelchair master collected three Gold, five Silver and six bronze medals over three Paralympic games in five different sports. Daphne excelled in swimming, athletics, fencing, table tennis and archery. In athletics alone she was a medallist in javelin, club throw, shot put, 60-metre wheelchair sprint and the pentathlon. Her Paralympic games fourteen-medal tally stood for thirty-two years before it was surpassed by another athlete.

Daphne Hilton (nee Ceeney) became a paraplegic following a horse riding accident when she was seventeen. After being introduced to wheelchair sport at the Mt Wilga Rehabilitation Centre, she worked hard at her newfound talent. With the help of people in her hometown of Murrimburrah, she raised funds for her maiden Paralympic trip overseas through running food stalls and dances. Only a handful of people watched her collect six of Australia’s ten medals, including two Gold.

Among other sporting achievements, Daphne went on to win 18 Gold medals at two Commonwealth Paralympic games.

If all of that wasn’t achievement enough, Ms Hilton happens to be the first paraplegic to give birth to twins in Australia and possibly the world. 

Before she passed away last year aged 82, Daphne commented on how encouraging it is to see how the Paralympics have evolved.


Jean Dominique-Bauby

“I need to feel strongly, to love and admire, just as desperately as I need to breathe.” – Jean Dominique-Bauby

Forty-three years young, Jean Dominique Bauby was a well-known French journalist and editor of the fashion magazine ‘ELLE.’ The flamboyant father of two’s career was doing well and he was enjoying a glamorous lifestyle frequently attending fashion shoots and parties. There seemed little to worry about.

In December 1995 Jean-Do, as friends and family knew him, suffered a massive stroke. When he woke from a twenty-day coma, it was found that the stroke had severed his brainstem; that is, disconnected his brain from his spinal cord. Commonly known as ‘Locked-in Syndrome,’ Jean could not speak and was completely paralysed; but he remained mentally lucid with his intellectual abilities intact. The one movement he was able to muster was to blink his left eye. 

Confronted with this life-altering future, Jean chose to use his two remaining abilities, his intellect and his blink, to write a bestselling memoir. Bauby composed and edited the entire book in his head.  

After enlisting the help of Claude Mendibil, he wrote his book via a process called Partner Assisted Scanning, where Claude would speak the alphabet one letter at a time and Jean would blink when the correct letter was recited. A single word would take around two minutes to write.

The remarkable book was published in France in 1997 and became a bestselling account of what it was like to live with locked-in syndrome. Featuring the odd sarcastic eruption, the book's tone, in English translation, has been reported to carry a sweet and at times, even humorous lyricism. So popular, it was also made into a feature film in 2007.

While writing (blinking) the words, Jean’s prognosis was unknown; but he died ten days after it’s publication of pneumonia.

We’ll be adding “The Diving Bell and the Butterfly” to our reading list.

There are so many of these inspirational stories, it was difficult to choose just a few. Regardless of the extent of the achievements or severity of the disability, people with disabilities add to the diverse and rich culture of our society. A varied perspective, innovation, dedication, persistence, optimism and compassion all form a depth of human being that everyone should aspire to.

“Happiness cannot come from without. It must come from within.” – Helen Keller


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