Although barely 21 at the launch of Ramp Up, Carl Thompson was one of the original writers Stella Young tapped for the job. Like Carly Findlay he had previously been writing for Divine – an initiative of the Victorian Department of Health and Human Services – where she noticed his work. And so, after a quick chat, he found himself on the ABC’s roster of go-to writers for the site. Of course, Young is not around to ask what she saw in Carl’s writing, but his light touch on touchy subjects quickly earned him steady commissions.
The conceit of Ramp Up was that people with disability have a lived experience that gives them a unique perspective. And it’s in one of Carl’s early pieces I begin to really understand why this conceit is well justified. In “An unlikely confession” Thompson makes a startling revelation: “I am,” he wrote in 2011, “horribly bad at communicating and interacting with disabled people in person, to the point where I sometimes try to avoid them.”
“There, I’ve finally got that off my deformed chest,” he adds, breaking the tension on this otherwise unsettling admission. He goes on to elaborate how he expects as a disabled guy to be treated inclusively but that sometimes, well, he finds it hard to extend the same humanity to other disabled people.
It’s an intriguing set up to the story that ends with one of those ‘of course’ slap-in-the-forehead realisations that suddenly moves the story away from one of personal foibles to make a point we cannot hear too often. Carl is uneasy with disabled people for the same reason many non-disabled people are: the answer “lies in my total lack of meaningful exposure to, and interaction with, other disabled people.” It turns out that even many disabled people find the phenomenon of disability pushed to the margins of their day to day experience.
For his part, in a phone conversation he explains the appeal for him of working with Ramp Up: “In mainstream stories, the viewpoint of the disabled person, if it is heard at all, is in the form of a little quote inside the article, whereas with Ramp Up, people with disability were writing and editing the whole piece – and that was a very different way of doing things”.
Often, those stories were compelling and well put together enough to re-enter mainstream media. Especially if he put some skin in the game. On the 31st of March 2012 Carl and a dozen or so protesters, many of them in wheelchairs, parked on Melbourne’s tram tracks and brought the line to a halt. Melbourne’s trams of the time were anything but accessible – most had stairs to enter and nearly 85 percent were off limits to wheelchair users. Carl’s write up was typically amusing and poignant. While protesting was clearly not his favourite way to spend an afternoon, he was happier writing the press release and interviewing fellow protesters, he concludes: “In brief, and being quite partial to alliteration, I believe that policy, protesting and promotion are equally important.”
“I think I won an award for that article,” he tells me as he pauses to bring back the memory. “It was definitely one that made a bit of a splash.” The protest itself also gained some notoriety and clips were included in the film “Defiant Lives”, a documentary tracing the history of the disability rights movement from the 70s until the present day.
Thompson credits Ramp Up, and its relentless focus on the NDIS, as helping fine tune the legislation. “It definitely helped ensure that some parts of the NDIS were better than they could have been, so I think we can claim that, which is important as it was a pretty major piece of social reform.”
Like many of the writers of Ramp Up, Thompson is keen to continue the work of breaking down the stereotypes of the disabled person as hero. “If we keep telling people that disability stories are inspirational, it just becomes that much harder for people just to live a normal life, where they are included and respected.”
And so, 29 year old Thompson, who holds a marketing degree is living that normal life. He lives in his own house in the Melbourne suburb of Macleod, and works for a firm that advises disability organizations working with the NDIS to, in his words “make sure it works as well as it should do and could do.”
When I ask if he is still writing, he tells me he is, “but it’s (business) writing for other people, unfortunately, not for myself.” Unfortunately for us as well.
Ramp Up closed on the 30th of June 2014. In this series of articles, Warwick Forster traces the history of Ramp Up through the voices of those who wrote for it. Next: The Alumni