Rex Bellotti Jr was 15 when he was hit by a police car in Albany, 400km south-east of Perth. The accident almost tore off the talented Aboriginal footballer’s leg.
More than six years later, Bellotti has limited use of the leg and is still fighting to avoid amputation through treatment and rehabilitation.
About half of Australia’s Indigenous population are affected by some form of disability or chronic health condition, according to Aunty Gayle Rankine, who chairs the First Peoples Disability Network.
“It’s very bad numbers for our people,” Rankine says.
“A lot of our people haven’t connected with agencies for a variety of reasons stemming from colonisation, for example the intergenerational trauma of the stolen generations. Many have fears of engaging with agencies and having a child removed from them and growing up institutionalised.”
The stories of 30 of them, including Bellotti, have been captured by Australian artist and photographer Belinda Mason, as part of her latest exhibition, Unfinished Business, which will tour Australia from January.
All the Indigenous people she photographed have acquired a physical or mental disability due to an environmental, social or community factor. And they are all captured from a perspective of strength, dignity and pride. Alongside each photograph are quotes from each person, allowing them to tell their story in their own words.
“Absolutely, there are people working toward it. But we are not there yet. Most Indigeous people face double or triple the discrimination, and the discrimination that they face is complex and woven into our social history.”
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, census data suggests Indigenous people are up to three times more likely than non–Indigenous people to need assistance with the core activities of daily living, including self-care, communication and transport.
Also featured in Mason’s exhibition is Wotjobaluk Uncle Kevin Coombs, a former wheelchair basketball player who in 1960 became Australia’s first Indigenous Paralympian. His face framed by a wheel from his chair, he stares straight into the camera with his arms crossed over his chest, his Order of Australia medal grasped in his hand.
“He represented Australia in his sport at a time when he was not recognised as a person, but as flora and fauna, rather than as an Australian citizen,” Mason says.
To be able to compete at a time when Aboriginal people were not legally considered a part of the broader Australian community, Coombs was given an honorary British passport.
Almost 40 years later, he was inducted into the Australian Basketball Hall of Fame.
In becoming a champion, Coombs overcame overwhelming hardship. There was no specialised care for him when, at the age of 12, he was shot in the back while out hunting and became a paraplegic. The Austin hospital in Melbourne was his home for 10 years, because there was nowhere else for him.
Then there’s the story of Aunty Patty Mundine, from Baryulgil in rural north-eastern New South Wales. In the 1940s, locals from the Bundjalung and Banjalang people were employed at the Wunderlich factory by James Hardie to mine asbestos from Baryulgil, exposing them to the toxic fibres and leaving many with chronic pulmonary conditions, fatal cancers and asbestosis.
Mundine was one of them. She has a quarter of a lung left following cancer, and is permanently hooked up to an oxygen tank. She is photographed holding her mask to her face, wrapped in a gown.
Tjandamurra O’Shane was six and playing with friends at a park when he was approached by a stranger, Paul Streeton, who doused him in petrol and set him alight. O’Shane, a proud Murri man, bares his scars for Mason’s camera, marks which fill his back and run up to his neck and down his arms, and which he has covered with tattoos of flames.
Now 25, O’Shane has forgiven Streeton, who has been jailed for life.
Mason travelled throughout the country, to big cities and to rural and remote areas, to take the photos and hear the stories of those she has featured in the exhibition.
“I don’t think there’s any one person whose story didn’t strike me, and for very different reasons,” Mason says.
“I feel very, very honoured that I’m able to create a platform for those who in the past may not have been given the opportunity to have a voice at all. There’s nothing like the firsthand account of somebody’s story, and the power that is behind that.
“And I think this exhibition expresses diversity in the range of and experiences of disability, which can sometimes seem invisible to the outside world.”