Gary Williams, the winner of the lifetime contribution award at this year's Attitude Awards, has been at the forefront of change. His is a voice worth listening to. When accepting the award, he said he hoped he had built a foundation for the future. The secondary school he couldn't access would today be obliged to include him; the sheltered workshop he attended and the institution he lived at as a young man are closed. The bibs he was forced to wear there were dispensed with as a result of his hunger strike.
As a disability community leader, he has changed attitudes to disability. He led the shift from a medical, deficit-based approach to a rights-based approach on disability issues in NZ. He helped change the world with his role in the introduction of the United Nations Disability Convention. Alongside his wife, Ruth Jones, he continues to maintain leadership roles in many disability organisations and initiatives.
In a piece Gary wrote for the Human Rights Commission two years ago on Maori and Disability tapping the keyboard with his left foot, he started back in Tokomaru Bay --
Ko Marotiri te maunga
Ko Mangahauini te awa
Ko Whanau-a-Ruataupare te hapu
Ko Ngati Porou te iwi
One of the most priceless things in my world is standing on my mother’s front lawn and gazing out to the Green House and beyond to Te Mawhai. I can see the urupa at Ongaruru where my father, my maternal grandparents and some uncles, aunties and cousins lie. One day I will lie there too.
Standing behind me is Marotiri. Shortly I will join the whanau in the backyard where the adults are indulging in raucous one-upmanship and the kids are being kids. This has taken place countless times in the last 50+ years. It’s one of those rare moments when I can just be me. I am with my whanau and they see me as: a husband, a son, a brother, a nephew, a cousin, a father, an uncle, a papa, and an equal. These are all positive and respected roles. This is the life I was born to. It is where I don’t need laws and other instruments to protect me because being an integral part of my whanau does that."
The winner of the Supreme Award this year was 16-year-old Muskan Devta. She has written a book on her life journey to date from India to Auckland, the proceeds going to Starship Children’s Hospital where she has spent much time. Her next projects will support breakfasts for less privileged children in lower decile schools in Aotearoa, and a school for blind children in Orissa, India.
Muskan received her youth award from Robbie Francis, a previous youth award winner herself, and current Attitude TV researcher and PhD student who has already worked on the most challenging of disability issues in countries including Palestine and Mexico. She is studying peace, and the experiences of disabled people in armed conflict.
While the day was primarily one of celebration, our thoughts went out to the victims, families, and friends of the horrific shootings in the disability support centre in San Bernadino earlier that day.
The evening started and ended with disabled musicians performing a new Split Enz influenced song "Long White Cloud" about what it means to be a nation that supports each other and includes everyone.
I was seated next to Erin Gough, another recent winner of the Attitude Youth Award, and now disability specialist working at the Human Rights Commission alongside me. She began her life as a disabled child in South Africa. Earlier in the day visited "The Cube”, a disabled youth focused group of organisations to celebrate the International Day of Disabled people and the theme, "Inclusion Matters.
This generation of disabled people has rightfully high expectations of being included in schools, in education, in work, in communities, in cultural life, and in leadership roles. They expect to build an inclusive, peaceful world from Poverty Bay to Auckland's Viaduct Basin, from the Land of the Long White Cloud, India, Cape Town, Palestine, and San Bernadino, to the UN.