The ABC’s real-life look into disabilities
“Flying the nest is a right of passage for young people in Australia today. But for some, that simple step is not so simple.”
These are the opening remarks on the ABC’s daring new documentary series that takes a raw and honest approach to life with a disability in Australia, The Dreamhouse. It follows the progress of three people with disabilities who are learning to share a house together and lead a life of independence.
So, just how do people with disabilities cope with ‘flying the nest’? It may well be asked, just how does anyone cope with flying the nest? The answer seems to be in direct connection with their abilities (or disabilities), but much more so in connection with their personalities. That’s exactly what we find in The Dreamhouse. People with disabilities are often stereotyped, ignoring the characteristics of the individual. But watch The Dreamhouse for long enough, and the presentation is aflood with personalities, and the disabilities fade into a small feature in the far distance. It’s here we begin to learn about people with disabilities, and perhaps, we learn some things about ourselves.
So who are the fledglings?
Meet Sarah. Sarah is 24 years old and has Down Syndrome. She also has a visual impairment. Sarah is conservative and peace-loving.
Meet Kirk. Kirk is 21 years old and has autism. He also has a big personality with plenty of energy and voice to match. As with a lot of people who have autism, routine is very important, and change can be very difficult to cope with.
Meet Justin. Justin is 32 years old and has Down Syndrome. Justin has a laid back personality, loves a good laugh, and isn’t backward when it comes to being forward!
It’s worth noting that, apart from Sarah’s visual impairment, and the mild speech impairments they all have, there are no physical disabilities involved. Sarah, Kirk, and Justin all walk, and have good gross and fine motor skills. Physical disabilities would completely change the dynamic of the house.
Three people, three personalities, one house, and ten weeks to see if they can make this work. If they do, they can all stay. I was most interested in seeing how this would play out!
Early in the series, the concern of their parents were voiced. Kirk’s mum expressed concerns over Kirk’s energy levels and incessant talk would be too much for the other two housemates. In the first two episodes Kirk’s high energy levels and awkward social interactions (which were sometimes inappropriate) were apparent. While Justin, who quickly assumed a leadership role, tried in vain to keep Kirk in line. In turn, this ruffled peace-loving Sarah. I thought there was there was no way Kirk would last the 10 weeks, as though I was watching a disabled version of ‘Big Brother’ (not that ever I watched that show!).
What a surprise then in the third and fourth episode to see how Kirk had grown in just a few weeks. He got to the point where he was pulling Justin into line, and succeeding! Not only had Kirk managed to learn appropriate social etiquette, but he was now showing empathy, insight into other people’s emotions, the ability to intercede for others, and the ability to negotiate and deal with unexpected developments. These are areas which people with autism often struggle. Yet, Kirk is excelling in all these in an extremely short space of time. Along with this, his own ability to communicate and express his own thoughts and feelings has dramatically improved in this short space of time.
It seems to me to be very easy to look at the medical aspects of a person’s disability, and make assumptions about their limitations thinking they are fixed for life. For instance, I don’t know how many people I’ve shocked when I tell them I drive. Then the question invariably comes, “Is my car modified with hand controls?” This is usually asked when I’m standing unaided! We can be so quick to assume the limitations people have because of their appearance, and not give them the same opportunities as others. (For the sake of the readers, no, I do not have hand controls in my car!).
Yet, when we give people with disabilities opportunities, and entrust them with responsibility, they can function far above and over what is often assumed. I have seen it myself when I went to New Zealand to work in a disability ministry as part of a training placement. I saw a space where people with disabilities were given the opportunity to grow and develop, serving one another as Christians. This would be a fantastic thing to be happening in churches: to see people with disabilities not as a burden to carry, but as a person to be developed and grown in Christ for the service and witness to others, far above what is often assumed that they are capable of.
Yet, people do not always make progress. Justin seems to have taken a few steps backwards as he repeated plays practical jokes in the middle of the night. Now he’s the one looking like he may not last the ten weeks. Sarah is learning to become more flexible in her conservative nature, but is struggling with the house dynamics as she progresses slowly.
Following the documentary series has indeed been very insightful and surprising. There are two episodes to go in this series, and I’m very much looking forward to seeing how things develop. I highly recommend the series. It can be seen on ABC Thursday’s nights, or the last 3 episode are available on iVeiw. Take a look at http://www.abc.net.au/tv/programs/dreamhouse/
Rev Jason Forbes
Jericho Road Disability Advocate