Sandy Blythe once fronted up to an airline desk before flying overseas. The visibly nervous clerk, after processing his ticket, tagging his bags and stamping his passport, bent down right in front of him and patted him on the head.
Sandy’s insight into the lot of the disabled has been taken from many perspectives. He grew up on a large farm at Derrinallum in central Victoria and, like many country boys, was strong and tall and mad-keen on sport. ‘At that stage sport was everything,’ he says. ‘Football was the dream. My goal, right from when I was eight years old, was to play league football.’
And Sandy was right on track, even studying to teach physical education at Ballarat University College to back up what he hoped would be a career in sport, when a three car pile-up changed his plans forever.
‘I had played Teal Cup football for Victoria, (for age 17s and under) and was doing some pre-season training with St Kilda,’ Sandy says. ‘I actually got a phone call from Geelong about two days after my accident. Obviously it was quite hard.’
But after nearly six months in the Austin Hospital in Melbourne, Sandy went back to college, crammed his studies as much as he could and graduated as though the accident and rehabilitation had not happened.
But of course it did happen. And Sandy says it can be surprising how long it takes for the change in perspective, ‘body image’ as he puts it, to sink in. ‘I remember the first time I went to the basketball,’ he says. ‘I was on my own and got down there in a taxi. I went in, and I looked up and saw these people playing wheelchair basketball, and my first reaction was: ‘I don’t belong here, they’re all in wheelchairs’. Then of course I looked down and it was ‘oh – so am I’.
‘Self image takes a long time to adjust,’ he says. ‘You know, you grow up and say: ‘I’m six foot two, and I’m a good footballer, and I’ve got these legs and I’m this and I’m that’ – and then suddenly you’re not six foot two, you’re not a good footballer and you haven’t got good strong legs. It’s difficult to get used to that. You think like you’re walking around, but the physical fact is that you’re wheeling around.’
Basketball has in fact taken on a central role in Sandy’s life. He has represented Victoria since 1986, and represented Australia at the Seoul Paralympics, at the World Cup championships in Belgium, the Kentucky Pre-paralympics, the Barcelona Paralympics and the World Cup championships in Canada.
The battle of perspectives on disability, it seems, never really goes away. ‘In some ways, the Arthur Tunstall thing had a positive effect and raised people’s awareness,’ he says. ‘It was an awareness jolt, and made people think and address it. But I think that if everyone came to see a wheelchair basketball game, which would help greatly with the stereotype of disability. Top level ball is well worth watching. You get 10 athletic players, hurtling around a court on specially built chairs, and it really is a top game.’
Partly in response to such stereotypes, but also due to a perceived need in the general community, Sandy set up his own consultancy, Disability Dynamics, to advise and educate a range of organisations, government departments and private companies on what to do to meet the needs of disabled people. Now teamed up with two others who were doing similar work, his firm Morris-Walker Disability Management is also involved in rehabilitation programs and public speaking to raise the profile of the disabled community. One of the more daunting tasks, however, is attempting to change people’s attitudes.
Sport ties in neatly, he says, with the role and aim of disability management. Being involved in top level sport – first of all football, two Paralympics and two world championships, and building up to Atlanta (‘we’re sixth in the world’) and captain/coaching a national wheelchair basketball team Ñ brings it all together. ‘Having fit, vital and positive people, that happen to be in chairs, really gives people an insight that in a lot of cases is simply missing.’
‘I mean I’ve seen life in one way, bouncing around playing football. I had no interest in disability, no knowledge at all,’ Sandy says. ‘Suddenly I end up in a chair.
‘The disability discrimination act, from 1993, means corporations have to adjust to disability. The Bureau of Statistics says that 18 per cent of the population have a disability, and with age and demographics that’s going to increase,’ he says.
‘But I think the days of grouping people with disabilities together as one is gone. We need to emphasise ability, not disability.’
Sandy makes no bones about it – had he the option, he would love to be up and walking around. ‘But look, you’ve got two choices,’ he says. ‘You can sit in the corner or you can get your bat and ball and go out and play.’
This article first appeared in Good Weekend magazine