By Carolyn Tate
It is a devastating truth that people with disabilities are often judged by mainstream society before they’ve had a chance to share who they are and what they can contribute.
Their intelligence – and sometimes value – can be called into question in a way other people will never experience or understand.
This is something people with disabilities learn to live with to a certain extent, but it’s not something Meredith Allan accepts.
Since she was a child Meredith has lived with a disability that affects her ability to speak and walk.
For the past 50 years, she has spoken via alternative and augmentative communication (AAC).
In July, Meredith became president of the International Society of Alternative and Augmentative Communication (ISAACC) – the first president to use AAC.
AAC is any means that helps convey meaning without talking, and in Meredith’s case that means using devices that translate type into speech.
“I use an iPad with the flipwriter app, I also use the ProLoQuo4Text app for speeches. Apps are taking over the world,” she said.
Meredith said she had seen first-hand the positive effect augmented communications have for users.
“Over the years, millions of hours have been put into developing AAC vocabularies throughout the world, bringing language to people who use AAC,” she said.
Perhaps the world’s most famous user of AAC was the late Nobel Prize winning astro-physicist Stephen Hawking, who as it turns out Meredith is not shy of comparing herself to.
Meredith once told a dinner party companion that she was smarter than Hawking.
“My conversation partner doubted my claim,” she said.
“I told him Stephen Hawking had the best education any person could have, and lost his voice after he had completed his PhD. He never had to prove his intelligence or authorship and he had the resources of Cambridge University to back him as his disease and disabilities progressed.
“I, on the other hand, lost my voice aged 10 and had to fight damn hard to be educated beyond year 8.
“If Stephen Hawking was born with his degree of disabilities, we all know he would have barely obtained a primary school education, his frustration would be interpreted as challenging behaviour, and his quality of life would be at the mercy of NDIS planners.”
Meredith says she didn’t share this story to pat herself on the back, but because there is a message for others.
“The message to all the young people who use AAC is that if you have the opportunity to be educated, take it. Use your AAC and fight all the way,” she said.
“When you know you are loved, the fight is easier knowing you are loved.
“The voice of the next Stephen Hawking must be heard.”
Meredith’s own schooling is an example of the determination needed to overcome what some judge impossible.
“My teachers at the special school I attended told my father, ‘That girl has unrealistic expectations, she wants to go to university’,” she said.
“Forty years later, I can say I embraced the 26 letters of the English language, I worked hard, I pushed my body through every pain barrier. Only we know the never-ending pain our bodies put us through.”
Meredith is writing a thesis on disability and identity as part of her Masters degree at Deakin University.
Unfortunately, Meredith says, for every story of hope, there are many other stories of discrimination and rejection for people of disability.
“It’s something personal we rarely share. We hope we forget them, but we never do,” she said.
Meredith can tell one such story from a recent trip.
“Last October, I flew to Brisbane for work,” she said.
“Three of the four taxis I took did not want to take me. The first taxi driver looked at me and swore in my face.
“The second taxi driver actively protested with the warden on the taxi rank and pointed at the maxi taxi, insinuating I should be taking that taxi instead.
“The third taxi was similar, he only took me because the taxi stand warden made me show him where I had to go and made the taxi driver take me.
“You can only imagine the pain and hurt I feel that I am made to feel so very unwanted to travel for an hour in those taxis.”
Meredith recently retired from her 30-year career in the public service but continues working as a communication assessor and disability educator for Scope Victoria.
A member of Highfield Rd Uniting Church, Meredith said church had played an important role in her life.
“My faith in God has always been with me,” she said.
“My inner strength comes from that faith.”