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00:06 Douglas Connor: Hello and welcome to Choice and Control, a podcast celebrating the contribution people with disability make to our communities. In this series we are talking all things disability, social inclusion and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Throughout this series you will also be hearing some great practical advice for making the most of your NDIS Plan from local people accessing the Scheme. This podcast series is brought to you by the team at Carers Queensland, NDIS Local Area Coordination Partner in the Community. I’m your host, Douglas Connor, thank you for tuning in.
Today on the show, we're lucky enough to chat with Uncle Willie Prince. Uncle Willie is a man of Kalkatungu heritage who was born on Wakka Wakka country on the Aboriginal mission at Cherbourg in the early 1960s. Throughout his life, Uncle Willie has been ever-present in the Queensland disability activism scene and has fought for decades for a fair go for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability.
In this episode, Willie and I chat about his life, his journey to independence and his experiences as an Aboriginal man with a disability growing up in Brisbane. Uncle Willie, thank you so much for taking the time today.
1:22 Uncle Willie Prince: No worries.
1:23 Douglas: As I mentioned, you were born on Cherbourg, which for listeners who don't know is an Aboriginal community in the South Burnett district of Southeast Queensland. Cherbourg, formerly known as Barambah was a place where Aboriginal people from all over Queensland were brought, after being forcibly removed from their traditional land and communities. Willie, can you tell me a little bit about those early years for you on the mission and your eventual removal from the community?
1:45 Uncle Willie: I was born in Cherbourg in 1960. It was at a time when the Government of the day looked after and administrated the lives of Aboriginal people living on missions. There was an issue with me. I was in and out of hospital on several occasions, 16 times in fact before my first birthday. On one such occasion I became the attention of the state medical doctor.
They sat down at the table and deliberated my future without my family being present. No one. These two men decided my future, and with a strike of a pen my life changed and I was now the property of the Government of the day.
2:31 Douglas: Once the decision had been made for you to be removed from your community there at Cherbourg, where are you taken to next?
2:37 Uncle Willie: I was then transferred to the Royal Children's Hospital for further assessment and deliberation and consultation as to why I was still getting sick. I stayed there for a while. I was seen to by a visiting specialist from England, I was like a trophy on his belt, on his wall, you know? To sit down and try to figure out what was wrong with this poor baby.
3:08 Douglas: And Willie do you remember much of what life was like for you there in the time spent at the children's hospital?
3:12 Uncle Willie: I've got a file that I managed to attain and the file had information about me from the moment I was taken from Cherbourg. I had to get permission to go from one place to another.
“Wilford Prince has permission to travel to here for his appointment and must be met at the other end and escorted back and forth.”
Even when I was a child, you know, there was a Government official with me all the time.
3:44 Douglas: And once you'd receive treatment in the hospital Uncle Willie, what was the next step for you? Was there talk of a potential return to Cherbourg for you?
3:53 Uncle Willie: I was still in the hands of the Government of the day and they didn't want me to go back to Cherbourg or anything like that, so they tried to adopt me out. Reading my file further I found out that my mother actually never signed release papers. Had she signed release papers, I would have been on the open market for adoption.
I did find out who was interested in me, I later found out it was the same doctor, an English doctor that diagnosed me. He was interested in me, to take me back to England. Had my mother signed them, I would have been in England to this very day.
4:32 Douglas: Wow. So your Mum didn't sign the papers and you then weren't able to be adopted out. So what was next for you then?
4:41 Uncle Willie: As I mentioned, I was removed by that state medical doctor and transferred to the Royal Children's Hospital. And from there I went straight to an institution, to Xavier Home for crippled children.
4:55 Douglas: And what was that experience like Uncle Willie? I can imagine going from Cherbourg into an institution for children with disabilities must've been a big culture shock for you?
5:05 Uncle Willie: The home at the time was a mixture of young children with disabilities, and children who were not able to fit into society. My life was controlled by the nuns who ran this home.
5:23 Douglas: And at that time, Willie, were there any other Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander kids in the institution there with you?
5:30 Uncle Willie: My early years there, they weren't. I was the only Aboriginal child in the home. So, therefore, I didn't even know about who I was or what I was, you know, being Aboriginal. The only thing I knew was that I had a disability.
5:50 Douglas: I've heard a quite interesting story about the way that you discovered the fact that you were from an Aboriginal background. I believe there was a number of years there in the institution that you weren't fully aware of your cultural background. Can you explain to me a little bit about how you came to realise, where you from?
6:07 Uncle Willie: I was in the playground with all the other kids and we were just mucking around, like kids do in the playground. One of them mentioned to me that I was different and I said to him, ‘how's that?’
He said ‘you're Black’, and I didn't know what he was talking about.
I said to him ‘I'm no different than you. We’re both in wheelchairs, all the kids here in this playground are all in wheelchairs. So what makes me different?’
He still said ‘you're Black, you're Black.’ I didn't know what he was saying until one of the nuns explained it to me. I was told by a nun, not an Aboriginal, not a member of the Indigenous community, that I was Black, an Aboriginal.
7:06 Douglas: Willie I really can't imagine how difficult that must have been to not be provided with that understanding of where you'd come from and where your cultural background was and where your family is from.
So then you spend a couple of years then in the institution for kids with disability after that what was next for you?
7:22 Uncle Willie: I left the children's home when I was just coming into my teens and I went to another place called the Queensland Spastic Welfare League. As I grew older and wiser, I left the Queensland Spastic Welfare League. To my luck, the friends that I made while living at the hostel and at the Spastic Centre, as it was called back then, I became friends with some people and we then came up with the idea of ‘how about we all band together and live together?’. There were four of us with disabilities, who rented a flat in the suburbs of New Farm and I stayed there for quite some time. They taught me independence, cooking, all that type of thing, which I didn't get much learning when I was growing up.
8:30 Douglas: After living in such controlled environments, you know, even from Cherbourg and having your life sort of administered to you by the government and then in the hospital and then in the institution and the next care home, it must've been an incredible feeling to get out into the community, live independently and make some decisions for yourself.
8:53 Uncle Willie: It gave me that sense of freedom. I could come and go. I got a room of my own. I’ve got my own clothes, I don't have to share, and I had responsibilities. I had to think for myself instead of other people like the nuns and the Government thinking for me. Hard at first because once I left that type of environment, and was suddenly thrust out into the outside world, I really didn't know how to survive.
9:28 Douglas Connor: So you left in the institution, you were now living independently with some of your friends, your peers, you're enjoying all that Brisbane had to offer. How did you go about getting started on your journey towards employment?
9:42 Uncle Willie: My first job was a process worker. I was working in a sheltered workshop. At the time I thought to myself, there must be something that I could do, so I started looking around. One of those things was selling newspapers in the Brisbane city area. I used to sell about 200 or 300 papers a day at 15 cents each. Then when I lost an interest in selling newspapers, I then went to the CES, the Commonwealth Employment Service, in Fortitude Valley.
There wasn't really much going for people with disabilities. I was at the CES, I fronted up there and said ‘I was wondering if you could help me. I'm looking for a job’.
Took one look at me and said ‘You’ve got a disability, you might be better off speaking to a disability employment officer.’
I went down to the disability employment officer, that person took one look at me and said, ‘I'm not quite sure we are able to help you – you're an Aboriginal aren’t you?’
I said, ‘yeah, that's right’.
They said ‘It might be helpful if you speak to our Aboriginal employment officer’. And from one desk to another, like a yo-yo back and forth. No one was wanting to the responsibility.
11:23 Douglas: And how did you respond to that?
11:25 Uncle Willie: I got a bit annoyed going back and forth. I said to myself, ‘I'm an Aboriginal person first and a person with a disability second’.
I pointed it out to the Aboriginal employment officer, and they said ‘Yeah, you're right. I think we can help you here.’
And it was while he was going through the job list he found that there was a training job available. It was an employment scheme that put Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in Government jobs for 12 months.
I was placed at the State Library. The section that I worked in at the time was called the public libraries division, and it was not far from where I lived at New Farm. I went there on the first day, spoke to my boss, he said, ‘When can you start?’
I said, ‘Oh, tomorrow, next week, whenever you want me to.’
So that was right back in 1983, and I recently retired from work. I worked at the library for 33 years.
12:50 Douglas: Among your various roles at the State Library, Willie, you worked for some time in the Kuril Dhagun section, which is a place within the library that celebrates Aboriginal culture and tells Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander stories. In your time there at the library, we were able to learn a little bit about your Aboriginal heritage?
13:08 Uncle Willie: I was in a position to find out a little bit about the culture, and the people, and where I was from, Cherbourg. I was born in Cherbourg but my cultural heritage is Kalkatungu, from Mount Isa. I acknowledge myself as a Kalkatungu person, but I'm also, I was born on Wakka Wakka country. So I’ve got two cultural heritage, being Kalkatungu and Wakka Wakka.
13:48 Douglas: The National Disability Insurance Scheme arrived in Brisbane in 2018, and you now receive support through the Scheme. What impact has the support you received through the NDIS has made to your life? I believe that you have been able to re-engage with some old passions?
14:01 Uncle Willie: Before my NDIS, the only support I had was friends and family. I was mainly living independently in my own place., going about my business, and it didn't really occur to me that I needed help because I obviously I’m used to being independent.
As I grew older, my disability started to deteriorate a bit, and when the NDIS came about it gave me the opportunity to see if the NDIS was for me and how it was able to help me in my everyday living and employment situation. I was still at work when I got the NDIS, and that helped me greatly at work. Instead of relying on work colleagues to do this, do that.
It gave me the opportunity to do some of my passions that I've been so long thinking about, like ten pin bowling. I used to go ten pin bowling a while back in my early days, and I hadn't bowled since.
Getting back into bowling was good for me because I was able to get out and about and meet people as well.
15:22 Douglas: You were a founding member of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Disability Network of Queensland. Since 2005 the network has given Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders with disability in Queensland a platform to share their stories and to connect to others. Can you tell me a little bit about how that network got started?
15:43 Uncle Willie: The word ‘disability’ in our community means many things. It doesn't particularly allude to one disability. You can have mental illness, you can have alcoholism, you can have a disability, you can be blind, you can be a person with a loss of a limb. Disability in our community is many things.
It's very, very hard when you're trying to educate people about the issues that we face, because we have many. I got involved in the disability movement because of the fact of what happened to me as a child, and during the time that I was growing up in an institution and being looked after by the Government of the day, being removed from family and culture. I joined the disability movement to understand, to learn more, and so I could tell people about my experience and endeavours and how my situation back then is able to influence some decision makings of the day.
The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Disability Network was founded by three people purely out of the frustration that we all had. We all had things in common: being institutionalised, we’re Aboriginal and we have a disability. There was no platform for people like us to speak and to be listened to.
17:33 Douglas: It's an incredible legacy for you to leave behind. Thank you so much for taking the time to chat with me today. I always love the opportunity to listen to what you have to share, and you have a real gift for storytelling, which I'm sure our audience will enjoy as well. That's all for today, but I hope to catch up with you again soon.
17:53 Uncle Willie: No worries, you take care, Doug.
Thank you once again for tuning into Choice and Control, the Carers Queensland podcast. For more information about Carers Queensland, the National Disability Insurance Scheme, or the Local Area Coordination Program, please connect with us online at carersqld.com.au. Or you can catch up with us on Facebook at facebook.com/CarersQueenslandNDIS.
We hope this podcast can become a place for people with disability to share their experiences and their stories. So, if you have a story you think we should know about, please contact us via the Carers Queensland Enquiries Line at 1300 999 636, or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Until next time, thanks for listening.