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One of our own shares their story

Recently Doug McGinn a Disability Adviser at the University of Tasmania, spoke to Peter Greco on Vision Australia Radio. Doug talks about his life and his work as a Disability Adviser. 

Here is the link to the interview.

Transcript of the interview.

Head and shoulder photo of Doug McGinn sitting at his work desk

PETER: Hello and welcome to Vision Extra coming to you from Vision Australia Radio. Peter Greco with you and with us is Doug McGinn who recently was awarded a Certificate of Appreciation by Blind Citizens Australia at their convention in Hobart. Doug welcome and congratulations.

PETER: Must be nice on your home ground if you like to be recognised.

DOUG: Thank you very much for having me tonight Peter.

DOUG: Yes very much so. Obviously people realise that Blind Citizens Australia has been going for 44 years and this is first time we have had the convention here in Hobart, here in Tasmania. So it was very nice to have to have a home convention yes.

PETER: Terrific. Well congratulations on your Certificate of Appreciation. We’ll talk a bit about your advocacy work in a second but you lost your sight in your twenties?

DOUG: Yeah, about twenty. Just before my 21st birthday I was involved in a car accident but I’ve got a genetic eye condition that probably would have happened anyway. So, a bit different to a lot of people I was already driving and playing sport and driving forklifts for a building business. It’s a bit of a different situation. I had to go back and retrain, learn Braille, learn how to type even. Most boys at my age, back in the seventies, didn’t type at all so that was a skill I needed to learn. So I had to go back and retrain at university. So I was lucky enough to get a degree and I fall into a position that I’ve now been in for over 25 years.

PETER: I’m not quite sure about you falling into the position. We’ll come to that as well in a second. What about, at that time then, losing your sight. You know, obviously very active and doing a job where sight would be so important. How difficult was that to adjust to?

DOUG: Yeah, very difficult. I had very supportive parents but my mother kicked me up the butt and said ‘no, you’re going to need to get out and still do the housework, your fair share of the housework’. She made me walk into town to go and do my Braille lessons. And there was a fair level of depression I suppose because as a 20 year old you live to drive and you live to play sport and it was a big change in life. I had never met a blind person before I went blind and that was a fair shock to the system and a lot of average young people don’t and it’s a different situation for them to contemplate.

PETER: What about learning Braille. I mean, I guess, a lot of us might have learnt from a young age, particularly if we lost our sight early, you know it’s almost like, well it probably is another language in a sense to learn at 20 or so. That’s pretty challenging.

DOUG: Yeah, and the difference for me is I was already at an age where I’d already learnt to read and write fairly well. I could certainly sight read Braille under a closed circuit TV and a lot better than I can actually read it properly. It was very good for things like labelling items around the house but I hadn’t kept my skills up and that’s the difference between somebody who can read or write already and, I suppose, being able to type fluently makes a big difference. But certainly, yes, getting those Braille skills earlier on for being able to label things and possibly going down that track was an option yes.

PETER: And you said then that you went to uni and got a degree. Was it difficult to work out what you wanted to do at uni, or indeed after uni?

DOUG: Yeah, it’s kind of funny, I was there in the late eighties and computers were taking off, programming was all the rage. I had a strong maths background and everybody said get into computers. And I did a little bit but I must admit my mathematics was my strength and I actually did a degree that I excelled at rather than look for a defined career. In a way I was probably a bit of a bias, don’t always have to do the career thing. Sometimes, you know look at the training or the education pathway that fits your situation. So certainly, I was very good at the mathematics, I got a good strong degree in that area but unfortunately I wasn’t able to obtain a graduate position when I finished. There was a lot of discrimination around at that time but when I was going through university I was a strong advocate for students with disabilities rights and as a result we lobbied our own university for many resources and positions and as a result one of those positions I went for when I finished university, just as a short term six month contract until I could find a proper (in inverted commas) position and that was some 25 years ago.

PETER: It’s a long six months.

DOUG: That’s correct Peter, yes.

PETER: So what about your position now. Obviously the lived experience of what’s happened to you with your life and your sight must hold you in good stead and, I guess, give you a lot of cred if you like amongst your students that you are working with.

DOUG: It’s kind of interesting because I have a reasonable amount of residual vision and I’ve got good peripheral vision I get around the office and the waiting room quite well. So I’ll actually go and greet a student, bring them into the room, have the usual icebreaking discussion to start with. Talk a little bit of stuff and then 10 or 15 minutes into the appointment I’ll then say ‘I’m just going to take some notes now and by the way I’m blind so my computer is going to start talking’. Because I think if you start off with saying ‘I’m blind’ suddenly the conversation becomes all about me when really the appointment is all about them. But you are correct Peter, having that lived experience, it certainly does, there are many times where a student will think, ‘Ok, well here’s a person who can empathise with my situation, probably more readily than some other people’. You should never compare apples and oranges because obviously somebody’s situation is always different, individual. But certainly having some lived experience of having a disability, having a change of life experience as well, not that I would necessarily get down to that much nitty gritty in an appointment with a student. But obviously having a vision impairment, yes students do identify with that, yes Peter.

PETER: Yeah, sure. What about the fact that you approach it that way, as in get to know you a little bit first then say ‘look by the way I’ve got a vision impairment’? Is that an approach that you’ve worked out for yourself? Did you come up with that idea off your own volition or was that something that was sort of, maybe an idea that came from somewhere else?

DOUG: No, I think it certainly, everybody has a particular style. Because I’m not a counsellor as such, I’m more a senior administrator, we certainly don’t sit down in counselling chairs as such. We sit in an office type situation behind a desk and I've got a computer there and we're sort of doing tangible tasks straight away but certainly the getting to know you type of situation you really do need to get to know the student because you're about to ask them some very hefty questions within that 50 minutes and we’ve had to go through a lot of nitty gritty. The majority of the students that we work with do have disclosed mental health situations and obviously you are asking them some fairly intense questions on how their situation does inhibit their study or participation at the university. So you do certainly need to get a certain level of understanding and empathy with that student fairly quickly yes.

PETER: And as we've touched on of course you've had the experience of having a vision impairment and having come through it quite successfully. What about identifying or understanding other students, or students with other different disabilities?

DOUG: I suppose that’s come with experience. Obviously as I've mentioned there’s a large proportion of mental health, there’s a large proportion of students on the spectrum now, people with medical situations. Yes there are times where I'll need to hop on Google before I see a student to find out about a certain terminology that I'm not aware of. Certainly that, and obviously the best experts to ask is the person I'm sitting with. If I don't know about a certain situation I’ll ask the student themselves, ‘how does this situation affect you in these sorts of scenarios?’ And you might have a student who comes to see you with arthritis who needs an access parking permit and they think that's all they require but then you sit down with them and you say have you thought about how are you’re going to take notes in class or how you’re going to sit for 60 minutes without moving or even writing up your exams at the end of semester. So it's all about preventing the different scenarios of participating at the university whilst marrying it up with the conversation that the student’s had already with regards to their disability or health condition.

PETER: You have mentioned the advocacy work that you did when you were at uni. How much have things changed now do you think for students with disabilities? I guess in particular you can talk about your situation at University of Tasmania. Things a lot better, always room for improvement?

DOUG: Spot on Peter, both. Things have markedly changed in all universities around Australia in the last 25 years. We have a lot better resources that we're able to use far more quickly: staff, just about every university would have permanent staff like myself; transcription teams; accessible computers with assistive software; tactile paths around campus. So certainly things have improved vastly. There are still some things that need improvement, probably learning management systems online, and it's probably the most difficult area for students who use assistance software including those that are blind or vision impaired. Changing management systems, we’ve all come across websites that change you know from the last month to here and suddenly the layout has changed totally and because it is so visually intuitive to work out where to go next and I think that’s the same for students with online learning management tools.

PETER: And what about the tutors and lecturers. I guess they’re much more aware of some of the opportunities and some of the challenges but also better ways to meet them.

DOUG: Definitely. I think certainly 25 years ago there was a lot more discrimination. That was our major role, was quite often to talk to staff to provide them professional development on, you know, it’s not their call as to why this student is at university whereas that hardly ever happens now at all. Most staff have a personal situation or they know of somebody who has a disability and they’re much more inclusive in the way that they produce their material or teach their classes or work with those students in particular.

PETER: Well Doug, unfortunately that clock on the wall has gone so quickly. Because you're a family man we could have chatted a bit about that and also your advocacy work that you do for BCA in Tasmania but the clocks beaten us so we'll have to maybe do that at another time. But again congratulations, it was great that you were recognised and thank you for sharing a little bit of time about your role at the University of Tasmania and the work that you do and again congratulations and we wish you well for the future.

DOUG: Thank you very much Peter.

PETER: Alright that's Doug McGinn there. Obviously a very richly deserved recipient of the Certificate of Appreciation from Blind Citizens Australia. If you missed the other results, Sondra Wibberley also received a Certificate of Appreciation and Sondra did a fantastic interview on Leisure Link last week so if you have access to the website and go to download Leisure Link from last Saturday the 13th of April. Sondra is towards the end there and pays a beautiful tribute to the late Dianna Braun  who we sadly lost late last week so if you have access to that please avail yourself of that opportunity. Well deserved by Sondra, as well as Doug, but a great tribute paid to the late Dianna Braun  and of course the aspirations award named after Dianna. That's about it for the program. If you've missed some of it, maybe you would like to hear it again, you can go to our website The program to look for is Vision Extra, that’s the name of this one, back on this radio station at the same time next week

Recorded 17 April 2019.

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