Jean Madden from Street Swags – Young Australian of the Year and a Wheelchair User


Jean Madden is the founder of the charity Street Swags and the 2010 Queensland Young Australian of the Year. This is her candid story of trusty wheels and a pink silk dress. Copyright 2011.


“I have spent the best part of two years in my wheelchair. Each time the doctors told me I would never walk again. I am very grateful to say I am walking now, and I have a great appreciation for those who get around on wheels.

I have a very rare condition where my body slowly comes apart when I am pregnant. When I had my first baby no one knew what was wrong with me. I was in incredible pain but my Doctor kept telling me I was fine and to go back to work. I tried, and by morning tea I was a bleeding mess on the ground. That was the first time I rode in a wheelchair. I was so embarrassed. I was lying on the floor of my office in the staff room when the school nurse came down with the chair. In all my pain and fear of losing my baby I was wheeled across the playground while all the children gasped and whispered.

I spent the next 7 months in the hospital, using my wheelchair to get from my bed to the bathroom. If I had to go further the nurse would call an orderly. Once after the Doctor had forced me to try to swim, the orderly forgot me. In my wet fat togs, exhausted, in pain, and alone by the pool I cried for an hour. With my second pregnancy I was cared for at home by my family. But I’d still have to go out occasionally for doctor’s appointments and some other things I really had to do.

If it wasn’t so exhausting and frustrating, you might say shopping in a wheelchair is a funny experience. In order to get a dress for the Australia Day awards I went to Myer. Dress racks are not designed at wheelchair height, so I took to flicking the dresses to try to get them off the racks, with limited success. I was so exhausted from trying to maneuver myself through the racks and crowds that I settled for a not so maternity, pink silk dress, it was short so the rack was closer to the ground.

When I flew to Canberra for the Australia Day awards, I was very sick and flying when you are in a wheelchair is horrible. Firstly they take your chair away from you. Then they give you one of theirs, which has little wheels so you can’t push it yourself. When you are pregnant and in pain this is a terrible thing. They take you to your gate and leave you. You can’t get a drink of water or even get to a bathroom. I was in such bad shape at Sydney airport that to save myself fainting I leant forward until I could get to the floor just so I could lie there for a few minutes.

Eventually a young guy asked could he get me something. Knowing I had to muster enough blood pressure to get up, I asked if he wouldn’t mind getting me a coffee and some water. This sparked the attention of a cabin crew member (also waiting to board) so I then had to convince her to let me get on the plane! Up to this point she had quite happily ignored the pregnant woman in the pink silk dress lying in front of the wheelchair. They gave me oxygen on the plane.

Qantas left my wheelchair behind so I had to go to the function that night in one of their wheelchairs. At dinner I was seated next to Qantas’ Regional General Manager. He asked why I had stolen his chair……..”

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