How a little boy lost put disability in the spotlight

William Callaghan, who has autism, spent three days and two freezing nights lost in the bush near Mt Disappointment, Victoria, before he was found. Photo: Supplied
William Callaghan, who has autism, spent three days and two freezing nights lost in the bush near Mt Disappointment, Victoria, before he was found. Photo: Supplied

Being lost in the bush is a particularly Australian nightmare. Paintings, songs and movies have all captured the fear that the country which Europeans once subdued by force might still be waiting to pick us off one by one. Being lost in a place called Mount Disappointment just rubs it in.

The worse our fears, the greater our relief if they prove to be unfounded. William Callaghan, a 14-year-old Melbourne boy with autism, was last month found alive - with little more than a few abrasions - after spending three days and two freezing nights lost in the bush.

The police and emergency services personnel who'd been combing the bush around Mount Disappointment were not, in fact, disappointed. They'd called on the community for assistance, and they got it, with 400 ordinary people joining in the search while singing the Thomas the Tank Engine theme song, a favourite of William, who doesn't speak. Congratulations all round.

Country people are a fine lot - though, to be fair, city folk don't get as many chances to look for people lost in the bush.

As with being a CFA volunteer, there are geographical constraints. We don't get bushfires in inner Melbourne (although I did hesitate a moment after writing that sentence, just in case 2021 proves me wrong).

In the absence of an immediate threat, there's no real system for rounding us all up to lend a hand helping our neighbours.

I'm not saying we wouldn't be there if we were asked. I do think, though, that it's harder to feel needed in a big city. You may not know the names of your neighbours. You may not notice whether they go in and out.

The story of William Callaghan cheered us up - and we could do with a good news story about a person with a disability after hearing about Anne Marie Smith, a woman with cerebral palsy who'd been living alone in an Adelaide suburb.

A police detective said, "Unable to care for herself, she was living her days and sleeping at night in the same woven cane chair in a lounge room for over a year with extremely poor personal hygiene.

That chair had also become her toilet and there was no fridge in the house and investigators were unable to locate any nutritional food in the house."

She died soon after surgery to remove rotting flesh from her pressure sores.

And Ms Smith's is not the only case of horrific abuse of people with disability that's come up in the past two months. In Brisbane in May, police found two teenagers with intellectual disabilities living in a locked room of a family home in filthy conditions, wearing only soiled nappies.

The boys had autism and were without speech. In another Brisbane suburb around the same time, Willow Dunn, a four-year-old girl with Down syndrome, was found dead, severely malnourished. Her father and stepmother have been charged with her murder.

Not all people with disabilities have 400 other citizens looking out for them. And there are a surprising number of Australians who can't speak; about 100,000 all up, or one Australian in 250.

They all need to be out and about in the community, like William. You can't wrap people with disabilities in cotton wool. Under the NDIS, they can be supported to join the community - if we let them in.

People with severe disabilities are no longer packed into institutions to keep them out of sight. My late friend Anne McDonald left one such institution, Melbourne's St Nicholas Hospital, in 1979 to tell people what life was like for the children who starved a short walk away from Parliament House.

She died in 2010, but she lived to see Victoria's institutions closed and the residents moved into houses in the community.

Communities, though, aren't automatically hospitable, particularly towards people who look different.

Someone (preferably with government funding) has to organise links to community organisations, recruit volunteer co-ordinators, and pursue outcome measures in service of a community integration plan. It has to be a collective effort.

Rights for people with disabilities need to be seen as core human rights. Ms Smith's death should be a watershed, arousing outrage in the same way as did George Floyd's death in the US.

Here, too, communities need to recognise the depth of prejudice that pervades our society and boils up irregularly into fatalities. The goal must be full integration of all people - in the schools, in the sports clubs, in the shopping centres, in our hearts.

William Callaghan's story shows what can be done. If he is to have the life he deserves, though, we'll have to keep it up for the next 70 years. I'm looking forward to it.

This story How a little boy lost put disability in the spotlight first appeared on The Canberra Times.