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18 March 2014
Ann Sherry (pictured above with her son, Nick) is one of Australia’s most accomplished chief executive officers. The CEO of Carnival Australia, the cruise ship line, Ann has been a former Westpac executive, head of the Bank of Melbourne and the first woman to run a bank in New Zealand.
As one of Australia’s top businesswomen, Ann has real experience of the responsibilities and problem solving involved in successfully ‘running the show’. She also understands the challenges that come with the role.
Married now for 39 years to Michael Hogan, who is semi-retired from a career in public affairs, Ann and Michael’s only child Nicholas (Nick) is 37 and has Down syndrome.
Intensely private, Ann has only recently begun to speak about her family’s life and the very real challenges having a child with a disability can pose.
As Ann notes with great honesty and a matter-of-fact laugh, “Everything else is easy after that.”
When Nick was born in 1976 it was at the end of the era in which families were “offered the opportunity” to have the child disappear, says Ann, her voice still tinged with horror at the very idea.
“There’s a lot of ignorance, a lot of assumption, a lot of stereotyping that accompanies all disabilities, but particularly Down syndrome because it is such an identifiable disability,” says Ann.
However, the prospect of institutionalization was an absolute anathema to her and Michael.
“We were in a system, an environment and still in an era in which the norm was exclusion,” says Ann.
“We had to fight to get Nick every opportunity he deserved.”
Nick is part of an ongoing study at Queensland University. Ann remembers meeting other parents in the early days of the study and realising many of them were trapped in the “low expectation environment” that operated at the time.
Schools did not integrate children with disabilities and the opportunity to really create capacity and test capability, were very few and far between. Those parents who made the choice not to put a child with a disability into care or an institution often found themselves trapped at home because they didn’t know what else to do. With little, if no demand on the system the system remained exclusionary.
“From the day Nick was born I was already on a path of deciding to be demanding,” says Ann, the memory of that resolve still evident in her voice.
“I wanted to test if the opportunities were available, whether Nick could take them. If he couldn’t take them that was fine, but that didn’t mean I accepted they weren’t available.”
So, at every juncture, Ann, Nick and Michael tested the system.
“I never wanted to be a stay-at-home mother. We were also under no illusions that to give Nick the opportunities he deserved and to make sure he was going to be as capable as he could be we needed to focus on him,” explains Ann.
When Nick was about three and ready for preschool, Ann approached the local kindergarten, asking them firstly, if it was true “they were a state government facility providing care and early education for children of a certain age?”
The answer was yes.
“I said, ‘Good. I’m just letting you know my son will be starting and he has Down syndrome.’ I could see their eyes widening and I said, ‘So, there’s nothing in your constitution that excludes him, is there?’ ”
The answer was no. Ann knew she’d cornered the system. The kindergarten had no right to “chuck him out”, but what she hadn’t expected was the reaction of the other parents who did try and shut Nick out.
“I was so angry at the time I didn’t even think about why they didn’t want Nick there. Bias and prejudice are about fear and they are not logical,” she states.
From there, Ann and Michael took Nick to primary school where he was again a first. However, as it turned out, he was not the only person in need of the resources for which Ann fought to enable Nick to be accepted into the state primary school system.
“There were a whole lot of other kids at the school who needed assistance and we ended up pooling the funding across the broad spectrum of kids with disabilities,” explains Ann.
“Nick had the identifiable disability. The other kids had learning disabilities or less identifiable disabilities. At each point in the transition from preschool to kindergarten to school, in the world in which we were operating at that time, Nick was the first to break down that barrier.”
Whether it’s in the workplace, or just life, Ann finds people’s propensity to make assumptions around capability the “biggest hurdle to overcome”.
“Nick’s not passive about his disability. He knows he is disabled and that he has a known disability. He’s often very humorous about it. If we go shopping and we see the disabled car park is free, he’ll say, ‘Park in there, mum. Go on, I’m disabled.’ ”
Ann knows, as do those who know Nick and count him as a friend, that this young man has capability, independence, humour and irony.
“The great exclusion zone is the workforce,” admits Ann, who believes workplaces are where prejudices - against women, against disability, against diversity - get entrenched.
For most adults, and it’s certainly no different in Nick’s case, Ann believes working helps define who they are, providing social networks, identity, financial independence and self-esteem.
Nick has had a steady job working at Harris Farm for 12 years now. The confidence and independence it has given him has helped the family focus on him becoming even more independent. Recently, Nick moved into his own apartment, albeit within the confines of the family home, which is large enough to accommodate his separate living facilities.
Nick also has a steady girl friend. A significant reason for him wanting to have his own space is so that he and Ruth, who works at Westpac and has Down syndrome, can live together.
“They’ve been together seven years and already stay with one another on weekends,” says Ann. “They’re both very capable in different ways, which, as we all know, makes for good relationships.”
Outside of work, which he loves, Nick’s a mad footy fan and a Swans’ member. He belongs to the Up club, which is Down Syndrome NSW’s club for adults. He goes bowling with friends, has a local pub he goes to in Balmain, and regularly travels interstate to visit friends.
“It’s what we all hope for our children: that they have a space in which to flourish, that they’re safe and able to be good at the things where they have gifts. I think it’s important for children to have challenges - to be allowed the opportunity to give things a go,” says Ann, who acknowledges that it is also important to assess the risk but not to try and “de-risk” every situation.
“We tried lots of things with Nick that failed. I remember he wanted to do ballet. We sent him off to give it a go. He had a great time but it was clear he was not going to be good at it, so we stopped and moved on to other things,” says Ann.
“Nick,” she continues, “is actually a very good dancer. He has all the moves and he’s great to take to a party because he is a dancer.
“He is also a very engaging social beast. He can move in any social environment and find his way, which is a great gift,” exclaims Ann, proudly pointing out with a smile that Nick would probably think he was good at a whole lot of other things but she can definitely vouch for those two.
“I want the barriers to people being able to give things a go removed.
“If you create opportunity, people will come in and find you. Of course, you need a catalyst to create the change and there’ll always be someone who’s a catalyst. Look at something like e.motion21 for example,” says Ann, who believes e.motion21’s been the most fantastic challenge to public perception of people with a disability in contemporary times.
e.motion21 is an organization begun by Melbourne woman Cate Sayers. It provides dance and exercise classes specifically tailored to the needs of Down syndrome children and young adults.
Beginning the organisation was partly personal for Cate - her second child has Down syndrome – but, as Ann points out, instead of accepting society’s “lack of ambition for her daughter,” Cate turned that out on society and into an opportunity for an entire group of kids.
“In the new world in which we live, you have to turn stuff on its head. You don’t turn it in you turn it out. Cate’s done a wonderful job of doing just that,” finishes Ann.
In February 2013 we featured Cate as one of our Women at Work. Cate’s organisation has been going now for five years and she is determined to grow the group nationally.
Currently, e.motion21 is the face of the Westpac Community Grants Foundation with a picture of one of Cate’s dancers on every ATM around the country (pictured below).
e.motion21 is hosting an event in Fed Square in Melbourne to celebrate the 7 million people around the world with Down syndrome on World Down Syndrome Day, March 21 starting at 12.30pm.
Get along down and join in the celebrations.