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Opening of the 'Life Without Barriers' Centre, Newcastle, 15 October 1997 : address.

This is my third visit to Newcastle in this its Bicentenary year. In January, Helen and I came here for the rehallowing of Newcastle's wonderful Cathedral on the hill - Christ Church Cathedral - on its restoration after the devastation of the 1989 earthquake. It was an unforgettable service. It seemed to mark the end of times of trouble and sadness and I can recall thinking that hopefully it marked the beginning of a year of unqualified good news for this great city. I am sure that Dean Lawrence can confirm there were many others at the service who shared that thought. Unfortunately, we now know that, in so far as the fight against disadvantage in the form of unemployment is concerned, that was not to be.

My second visit was in July when Helen and I were here for 2 days. As some of you may know, at the time my appointment as Governor-General was announced, I indicated that I hoped, while I held office, to focus upon the most vulnerable and disadvantaged of our society. Our July visit was in pursuance of that resolve. We visited a number of centres and organisations serving the disadvantaged and met representatives of some of the leading organisations, including representatives of Life Without Barriers, at a Civic Reception generously hosted by the Lord Mayor, Councillor Heys. In the course of that 2 day visit, I had first hand contact with the great problems caused by unemployment and other forms of disadvantage in this community. At the same time, I became increasingly conscious of the strength of spirit of this city and of the extraordinary generosity and goodness - there is no other word for it - of those who work in it to serve the disadvantaged. Today's opening of this Life Without Barriers Centre is a powerful demonstration of that strength and that generosity and goodness.

By any standards, this Centre represents a great community achievement. I have read the history of its development since its beginnings in early 1995 when newspaper advertisements appeared to the effect that the Newcastle City Council was prepared to make the former National Park Bowling Club available for community activities.

That history is truly an inspiring one. At all stages, the motivation of those who have been involved has been to help those suffering from disability. There have been many difficulties in translating the concept of the Centre into reality satisfying the Council that the lease of the premises and financial support should be made available for this project, raising the necessary finance to enable the project to be carried forward, the innumerable difficulties involved in establishing an integrated centre and in working out effective programs. All have been faced and remarkably overcome.

At all stages the efforts of individuals have been encouraged and supported by the Newcastle community, particularly the business community. There was the initial initiative of Mr Roy Duffy. Then the involvement of Mr Mike Chapman and the members of the inaugural committee, under the chairmanship first of Mr Denis Ledbury and then, at Mr Ledbury's suggestion, of Mr Chapman. The burden of the work involved in raising the necessary finances has been a heavy one but has been rewarded through the generosity of local corporations and individuals. Others have contributed generously in kind. Partly through the efforts of some members of the Committee, the support of the Newcastle media has been steadfast and invaluable. For its part, the City Council has made the premises available at a nominal rental while the overall project has been assisted by some Council funding and government programs. And the commissioning and operation of the Centre has involved both the staff and an ever increasing number of people working voluntarily through the Centre to help those suffering from disability.

Already, the extraordinary contribution which the Centre is destined to make to the lives of many of those suffering from disability in the region is becoming apparent. So often, people with disabilities are required to go out to the broader community to participate in sport, in other leisure-time activities, in job-seeking. Here at Life Without Barriers, in a concept known as "reverse integration", the community comes to them - sharing, helping, taking part together in all that goes on. This is very much an innovative approach. If the programs continue as successfully as they have begun - and I have no doubt they will - Life Without Barriers will be a model for others to follow.

There are many other aspects of what is happening here which might be mentioned. The "Drop In" programs; the respite care; the support groups; the camps; "Kindi-Gym"; the adventure club; the youth group and discos; the writers group; "Life Theatre" which has for many months been rehearsing the play "The Riddler" which will have its first public performance on Saturday, 25 October as part of the City's Bicentenary program. And, of course, all the sporting activities. Time permits me to make more detailed reference to but one aspect of the Centre's work. That is the work done by the Life Without Barriers employment and accommodation committee.

As the people of this region know better than most, probably the single most important challenge that we as a nation have to overcome is that posed by long-term unemployment, especially among our young people. It is great to know that, with the strong contacts that Life Without Barriers has developed with the local business community, more than 45 people with a disability have been placed in employment in recent times. Here indeed, as in all the other aspects of the Centre's work, one sees the barriers really coming down.

The primary benefit of the worth of the Centre will, of course, be enjoyed in the Hunter District. The advantages of the Centre will, however, also be felt at the national level. The ultimate test of the worth of a democratic nation such as ours is how we treat our minorities and our most disadvantaged. This Centre will not only remind us all of the importance of that test but will make a significant contribution to satisfying it.

Finally, let me thank and congratulate all those people who have in one way or another been involved in the founding and development of this Centre. Mr Duffy, Mr Chapman, Mr Ledbury and the members of the original committee. All those who have served on subsequent committees. Ms Blayden, all the staff, the Architect, the Builders and those who have worked with them. All the volunteers - I understand that there are currently more than 125 of them. The City Council under Mayor Heys. And, not least, all those people with a disability who have not only received from the Centre but have contributed to making it the success it is. And all those whom I have forgotten to mention specifically.

And now, with great pleasure, I declare the Life Without Barriers Centre to be officially open.