By Paul Dobbyn
INTERNATIONAL Disability Day on December 3 is a date of great potential in the eyes of West End’s Mike Duggan.
Because the 67-year-old born with cerebral palsy, and passionate advocate for the rights of people with a disability, knows “the majority of the world still don’t get it and that so much more needs to be done”.
Talking with Mike, who uses a powered wheelchair for mobility in his unit and is accompanied by a support worker, Rob, is confronting, challenging and enlightening.
At times Mike will stop the conversation.
“I can see you don’t understand what I’m saying,” he’ll say.
Then it’s a matter of coming to a halt, the three of us going back over that particular part of the conversation until I understand what Mike’s been telling me.
I learn that Mike has been living in his apartment for 25 years, “give or take a couple”.
He spent much of his younger years with his family in Pinkenba.
“When I was born, doctors told my mum to put me away in an institution and also that I would die before I was 20,” he says.
“But I’m 67 so they got that wrong, didn’t they?”
A person defeated by the condition, the feisty Mike is definitely not.
From the outset, he puts his disability in perspective.
“I say we’ve all got some sort of disability or other,” he said.
“It’s just mine’s more visible.
“And there’s this wheelchair … I can’t put it in my back pocket … I’ve tried but it won’t fit.”
As he says this, his hands convulse uncontrollably, as they will on other occasions during the conversation, and slip off the wheelchair controls.
This lack of mobility is an increasing problem for Mike.
For example, he goes to 5pm Mass every Sunday at St Mary’s Church, South Brisbane, as he has done for many years.
“I used to go on my own but it’s getting too dangerous,” he said.
Rob explains: “He needs help to manipulate the control stick these days.
“If his hand comes off the stick, the wheelchair stops and he needs help to get it back on.
“On his own once, he got stuck in the middle of the road as he was trying to cross over to St Mary’s.”
Mike gives the situation from his viewpoint.
“People often don’t know what to do when they see me in that situation,” he said.
“But in many ways that’s a minor thing.
“Before I get to any of that there’s the matter of getting myself out of bed to start the day.
“Not that I want to dwell on my problems.
“I’m much more keen to talk about disability in general rather than focusing on my own situation.
“I certainly don’t want pity; I need understanding, compassion and good will.
“I need people to know I still have purpose in my life.
“Every day, I’ve got a clear picture of my situation.
“I don’t just jump out of bed every morning and say everything’s okay but it’s not just about my world but the wider world too.”
This concern for others led him to become Brisbane co-ordinator of Luke 14.
Luke 14 is a CBM Australia initiative to create disability-inclusive Christian communities across the nation.
It’s about equipping churches to be places of welcome and belonging for people and families living with disability.
Mike, in an email introducing himself as the group’s co-ordinator, includes some personal information.
“Just to tell you a little about myself: I type by using a pointer attached to a steel band around my head,” the email says.
“Today I have pain in my neck – there’s a joke in there somewhere, but won’t go there.
“I live by myself in a Department of Housing unit, with both paid and unpaid supports.
“I’m currently on five management committees, or is it just four?”
The email also lists his qualifications which include a Bachelor of Social Science (QUT, 1988) majoring in Gerontology and Counselling; a Diploma of Community Welfare (QUT, 1985); and completion of a counselling course (Institute of Pastoral Care, Archdiocese of Brisbane, 1982).
“I love buying books especially theology, philosophy, psychology,” the email said.
“I’m a people’s person, a people watcher.
“I love a joke; and love music, especially jazz.”
Mike’s love of books and learning is clearly visible in his West End unit, with stacked bookshelves in every room.
“At last count there were some 7000 books here,” the voracious reader said.
“I’ve read a fair few of them, though not all from cover to cover.”
So how is this reading accomplished?
Mike fits to his head “the pointer”, a sort of long prong combined with a leather band, which he says does “all sorts of tasks including moving pages and operating a desktop computer”.
“Last night I stayed up really late writing a job description on my computer for one of the five committees I’m on,” he said.
“Actually, I’m generally up quite late … although all the support workers have to go to bed sometime of course.”
Inevitably the discussion turns to the place of faith in Mike’s life.
Mike’s favourite scriptural verse refers to “the fact that God is love”.
“If there is no God there wouldn’t be any purpose,” he said.
“Why am I in a wheelchair? It just wouldn’t make any sense.
“Sometimes I wonder why, of course, but I don’t get angry about my lot.
“If Jesus didn’t suffer and die on the cross…”
Even in his worship, Mike has striven to overcome disability.
He has a custom-made device on his wheelchair – a stem topped by a loop – to help him distribute Communion in his role as Extraordinary Minister of Holy Communion for five years.
There’s sadness as well as joy when he talks of this ministry.
“When I was younger I wanted to be a priest,” he said.
“That didn’t happen but I still feel a very deep part of the Church.”
The St Mary’s parish community is important to Mike.
“I like that the Capuchins are now in charge – St Francis is one of my favourite saints; and Fathers James and Dean, I talk to them a lot.”
Mike admits, as a person living with a disability, “sometimes it feels hard to belong to the social part of the Church”.
“At gatherings afterwards I need help with simple things, even like getting a cup of tea,” he said.
“Then after this everyone goes home.
“Still, I always try to hang onto a belief that there is a purpose and it’s all worth it.
“I accept that my life is in God’s hands; and that I’m not God – I can only try to do His will.”