John is a very personable and curious young man who loves all forms of transport – especially trains – and enjoys being out and about in the community. In fact, he loves trains so much, he even has his own laminated map of the CityRail Network.
He was born with a rare condition where the area between the hemispheres of the brain fails to develop, leading to intellectual disability.
John also has a lack of muscle tone, along with issues with his gait.
He has difficulty walking over long distances so he alternates between using a wheelchair and walking.
After completing his education at a Sydney high school with an integrated support unit for students with disability, John began participating in Day Programs with Achieve Australia.
Now 34, John has been attending Achieve’s Araluen Day Services Centre for the last sixteen years. He participates in day tours of Sydney and enjoys going on picnics – in addition to enjoying music, art and sensory sessions at Araluen.
Every Wednesday he heads off on an excursion in and around Sydney, using public transport and accompanied by Achieve Social Educator, Tania O’Donnell.
“John loves going out,” said Tania. “He particularly loves trains so most of our excursions involve rail travel in some way.
“When out in public, John is very friendly and outgoing. He is non-verbal but actively engages with the people we meet in his own way – waving, saying hello with his own set of sounds, and using body language such as face touching (his language for happiness) and fist-pumping. He makes friends wherever we go!”
Following each excursion, Tania emails photos of their adventures to John’s family. They then enjoy reviewing the day with John – seeing where he went and what he most enjoyed.
The Araluen team also writes social stories for John about his excursions. These help him link where they had been with what they have seen and done together.
John’s communication skills have developed as a result of being treated as a full and participating member of a family which includes three siblings – a sister and two brothers.
“John’s brothers and sister have always been fantastic, but also practical. Their brother did not receive any special protection or favours, and all the kids grew up together as equals,” said his father Warren.
“John has an innate intelligence. He reads body language really well, and has developed his own physical and vocal indicators which make it clear what he wants and needs. In particular John has a photographic memory for labels – he is able to remember and indicate anything he needs that has a brand on it.”
“He’s not shy about telling us what he does and does not like. If he wants to go out, he’ll bring me the car keys. If he wants something to eat or drink, he’ll lead us to the fridge. When he’s in his wheelchair and wants to change direction or walk, he’ll take control.”
Glenn Townsend, now Team Leader at the Araluen Day Programs hub, supported John before Tania O’Donnell assumed that role. He emphasised that intellectual disability is absolutely no barrier to a person engaging with their community.
“It’s really wonderful to see the effect John has on people when he engages with them during his travels,” said Glenn. “When people first encounter him they tend to be cautious and hold back. However once they see how friendly and outgoing he is, and how willing he is to communicate in his own way, they really warm to his personality.
“On one of our days out, a young father come over to introduce his baby to us. On another occasion, a woman approached to chat with us. When she was leaving, she was so delighted that she gave John a kiss on the cheek!”
John’s father Warren is a retired high school principal with a background in special education.
As both a father and an education professional, Warren observed: “If we segregate people with disability from the community, their behaviour tends to regress – they lose their ability to interact on an equal basis with others.
That’s why I am so pleased that Achieve Day Programs enable John to engage with his peers with disability, and also provide him with opportunities to participate in the wider community. It is essential for his individual development.”