Many of you have seen or heard about Des Orr – he is a legend to those who know him. He is the founding member of YellowBridge QLD and has a remarkable story of courage, hope, selflessness and determination. It is a story that must never be forgotten because it helps us to understand his incredible contribution to our organisation and wider community.
Des Orr was born in 1947 with Cerebral Palsy. As a young lad he was put in various children’s homes in Brisbane. During the school holidays, for two weeks in August and six weeks at Christmas, he would return to his parents who lived in Chinchilla.
Des said his childhood was quite challenging particularly as his cerebral palsy affects his speech and ability to walk. But, he quipped “you soon get over all that”.
Living in the children’s homes was not all bad as it gave Des the opportunity to do things he might not have had the chance to do otherwise. In those days, anything to do with a disability had a stigma attached to it but he was lucky to have had people in his life who encouraged him.
As a young man Des could see that most people with a disability were being excluded from the community due to a lack of understanding, facilities, and acceptance in both public and private enterprise. He believed the solution lay not with sympathy but one based in self-help, respect, and the valuing of a diverse community.
He had a big idea of how this could happen, and in 1976 he started a self-help project which became known as HHELP (Help Handicapped Enter Life Project) as a social group. It was challenging at first, but in 1981 Australia Post issued a limited stamp collection in celebration of the International Year of Disabled People with the HHELP logo printed on it.
Then Channel 10 in Toowoomba held a telethon to celebrate their 21st Birthday. HHELP was one of two organisations that the telethon chose to support. They received $60,000 from the telethon and the Toowoomba Council agreed to let them use the old gardener’s cottage at 46 Hill Street beside Laurel Bank Park as their home base. This cottage continues to be used by YellowBridge QLD to this day and has recently undergone a major renovation to make it a pleasant and comfortable disability day centre.
Once HHELP had a place to call home it quickly evolved from being a small social group to an official service provider with government funding and a manager and staff. It became Queensland’s first disability support organisation to be certified against the new disability standards. The service expanded and in 2010 the name was changed to ASSERT Services (Accommodation, Support Services, Education, Respite and Training). In 2015, it was renamed once more to YellowBridge QLD.
Des was never one to feel sorry for himself. Instead, he challenged himself to get out into the community as much as possible. It wasn’t easy because he couldn’t walk and had to rely on a manual wheelchair to get around. Because he only has use of one side of his body, the only way to manoeuvre the wheelchair was to push it backwards with his right foot, down the street and everywhere. When you have to rely on a wheelchair you become very aware of things like footpaths and gutters and how difficult navigating these can be. Whenever he goes out on his own, Des describes it like an obstacle course.
Instead of complaining, Des took it upon himself to improve awareness and access. He began writing articles for the local paper on highlighting the awareness of inclusiveness in the community by sharing his personal experiences. He was persistent, and lobbied the council and the newspaper to highlight the inconvenience he had in negotiating shopping facilities and curbs and street crossings. It took a few years to see any changes but eventually it started to happen.
Finding employment was difficult so Des became involved with a number of disability committees in Toowoomba and Brisbane instead. He knew he had a lot to offer and was determined to improve the status quo and attitudes towards people with disability. In 1990, Des was appointed as a director of the Cerebral Palsy League, a position he held for 21 years. He was a committee member of Queensland Advocacy Incorporated as well as the Commonwealth Disability Advisory Committee in Queensland. He has also made important contributions to Disability Awareness Week, Personnel West Employment Services, Warrina Disability Services, and Toowoomba Regional City Council Access Advisory Committee.
In 2021, Des received the prestigious Judy Antonio Memorial Award at the Business Disability Awards for his lifetime achievements and contribution to a more just and inclusive society.
Without Des’ tireless work and dedication in the early days with HHELP, YellowBridge as we know it would not exist today. As you would expect, Des continues to help wherever he can and volunteers at the Collectables op shop which provides work and training for people with a disability.
Des says there is still much more to do to make our society inclusive for all abilities, but we definitely have come a long way and we can thank Des for his significant role in that progress.