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Thursday, 18 September 2003
Page: 20586

Mr GIBBONS (12:36 PM) —I rise to inform the House of a wonderful program designed to assist people with disabilities. I am referring to the Assistance Dogs Australia program—or ADA—which was established as a nonprofit organisation in 1996 with a committed mission of enhancing the quality of life of people with physical disabilities. ADA provides daily assistance to hundreds of Australians through the use of canine support. As of this year, ADA has provided assistance and support to over 126 disabled people throughout Australia. Currently, they have 35 dogs at different stages of their training program, with the goal of training an additional 35 dogs per year thereafter. ADA obtains, trains and maintains dogs in community settings to assist people with their disabilities, give them more confidence and help them to achieve a greater level of independence.

ADA currently operates without government funding and relies heavily on volunteers and sponsorship. It costs $20,000 and takes two years to train a puppy and provide the necessary follow-up support. ADA services are offered to beneficiaries at no charge. Recipients include people with C4 quadriplegia, cerebral palsy and paraplegia. There are many disabled people on the waiting list for one of these unique dogs. ADA is in need of financial support to help fund the future training of dogs that will be used as service, companion or facility dogs. Service dogs are the most highly trained and are offered to recipients with severe disabilities. Companion dogs are often offered to children with terminal illnesses, to provide constant friendship. Facility dogs are placed in nursing homes, children's hospital wards and other such centres. These dogs provide a night nurse service for children as well as a lifting of their spirits. The service that ADA offers is not merely physical; it is also emotional. These unique dogs have the ability to change people's lives. An assistance dog can save the community significant moneys by reducing the attendant care needs of their disabled recipients. ADA has an ambitious training program ahead and has to rely on corporate, community and individual funding to achieve its goals.

The charity requires significant funding to achieve its goal of placing at least 30 dogs per year with disabled recipients. At the end of September this year it is anticipated that five puppies will be placed in Bendigo. Labrador and golden retriever puppies will be placed with volunteer foster puppy raisers for an 18-month period. They will then go into the assistance dog training centre for a further six months for intensive training. The assistance dogs will be trained over this two-year period to perform specific tasks that will help their disabled recipients. These tasks include opening and closing doors, turning light switches on and off, pressing pedestrian crossing buttons and retrieving and picking up items off the floor—tasks that are difficult or nearly impossible for people confined to a wheelchair. The dogs can also pull the wheelchair and bark for assistance if required.

Assistance dogs are already making a dramatic difference to the quality of life of individuals with physical disabilities. These special dogs not only assist the disabled physically but also relieve loneliness and social isolation, helping their owners integrate more with their local communities. This increases their independence and allows them to get on with their lives, often by attending college, getting employment or just mixing more. I am reminded of those wonderful words of former Prime Minister Paul Keating, when he once said, `If you want a friend in Canberra, get a dog.' A lot of disabled people are getting dogs and they are finding it very beneficial.

I will quote the case of Tanya, which is outlined in a brochure from Assistance Dogs Australia. It says:

Nine years ago, at the age of 19, Tanya Clarke was left quadriplegic in a road accident. With limited arm movement and no hand function, Tanya became completely dependent on her parents, unable to do anything on her own.

That's until January 2001, when she met Harry, who has been her Assistance Dog since then.

“Harry came into my life and made a huge difference to my level of independence. For the first time since the accident, my quality of life has improved ...” says Tanya. “And for the first time I can get out of my own front door, because Harry opens it for me!”

Tanya works in the field of website design, having completed two Diplomas since the accident. Harry helps with day-to-day tasks, fetching whatever is needed and calling for help if Tanya gets into trouble. In the evening, Harry and Tanya go to the movies, the theatre, concerts and even nightclubs. Harry breaks the ice—people stop to talk and offer help.

“Harry has improved the way I feel about myself. He's the very best friend that anyone could ever wish for” says Tanya with a smile. Harry seems to nod in agreement as he wags his tail.

I have written to several ministers who have portfolio responsibilities across the disability area asking them to seriously consider assisting this great organisation. I was raised in a home that treated our companion animals—and there were many of them—as equal members of the family, and I know how beneficial it would be for people with disabilities to have such a companion animal, not only for the physical assistance they provide but for the companionship and the trust that owning a loving companion animal can give.