Multiple Paralympic gold medal winner Kurt Fearnley has given this year’s Australia Day address. He used the speech to demand a huge improvement in living conditions for people with a disability in Australia; you can read the full transcript of the speech below.
I’d like to acknowledge the traditional owners of the land we’re on today, the Gadigal people of the Eora nation. I’d also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of my birthplace in Central West New South Wales because I’m the man I am today due to the years I spent crawling around Wiradjuri country.
Thank you and good evening.
To say that I’m honoured to be invited to speak at this Australia Day address would be more than an understatement. The platform, the audience and the association with our national day, has made this one of the most memorable and daunting experiences of my life. I say this because representing my community of people with a disability, sport in general, and any association with the ‘Green and Gold’, or Australia Day itself are some of the most important things in my life. But as I can’t find a word that encapsulates surprised, excited, amazed and daunted, I guess ‘honoured’ will have to do.
I’m a proud country boy from Carcoar, New South Wales. When I was born I was missing half my spine and I wasn’t expected to live out the month. My family was encouraged to leave me behind at the hospital to facilities created to cater for people like me. Fortunately, my family only ever saw me growing up as their youngest boy and rather than leave me behind, they took me home and I took up my place as the shortest member of the Fearnley family.
When I think of my childhood and growing up in the bush, it feels like a story from the Fifties not the Eighties. I grew up with an abundance of love but money was pretty short. In a house the size of an inner-city apartment, my mum and dad raised their five children and cared for my granny. Thankfully the wood-fired oven kept the place warm in winter, but the outback toilet made a midnight trip to the dunny a terrifying experience.
My family never told me what I couldn’t do or what was off-limits. They just sat back and found out what was possible. Growing up with a disability doesn’t bring with it a sense of shame or self-doubt; it’s only when we learn to interpret the faces of the people around us, or when our environment offers no chance of interacting on an ordinary level, that we learn such things.
On the property I grew up on in Carcoar, concrete was a luxury that we didn’t have, so a wheelchair wasn’t much use. I didn’t see myself as a kid confined to a wheelchair; for a while I didn’t even know what a wheelchair was. If I was going to keep up with the rest of the kids in my town, crawling was going to be the way of my world.
Every day was fishing, rabbiting, swimming and finding trees that I could climb – and more often than not – fall out of. I’d follow my brothers through any number of paddocks. At times they would carry me for kilometres on end but at no point were they going to do it all for me. I’d be told repeatedly that I could do anything and they continually helped me build the confidence to give it a go. Before I was five I learnt how to keep up on the ground by climbing my way through and over barbed wire and electric fences; cross streams that from one foot high looked like raging rivers; or the worst, put my head down and belt through blackberry bushes.