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Jane Rosengrave

You Only Live Once!

By Jane Rosengrave

Jane Rosengrave is a proud Yorta Yorta woman and disability advocate. After many years of disconnection, institutionalisation and abuse, Jane was supported to reconnect with her tribe. Jane is a sought after public speaker and often appears in the media. Jane is on the Boards of First Peoples with Disabilities Network and People with Disability Australia. Jane was awarded the Tony Fitzgerald Memorial Award at the Australian Human Rights Awards 2016. 


Social inclusion is about acceptance. It’s about not getting called names in the street. But it’s also strange because sometimes only people with disabilities are asked about social inclusion! Why don’t people WITHOUT disability get asked about it?!

But it is important to me to have lots of friends. To feel free to do what I want. Because I wasn’t allowed before. But today I’m free as a bird.

From One Paddock to Another

When I was a kid I was taken to the jail that’s what I called it. It was an institution. I would have liked to have gone out meeting other people but you weren’t allowed to. I was sexually abused there.

I left at 21 and went to a CRU in Stawell. CRU means Community Residential Unit. The CRUs were better in some ways but you were still connected to the institution. Just moved like a bunch of sheep from one paddock to another! In one CRU residents still didn’t even get a key! And no one got to choose who they lived with. We didn’t get a choice.

I started to have the opportunity to take risks. And if you do take risks, each time, you learn, as the days go by and you get older. Going on trams, catching the buses. You’re learning as you’re going. You are finding your way and meeting people, saying hello to anybody – people who you don’t know! – but it’s freedom. You need to go out into the community and learn.

Today, I’m free as a bird. I live by myself in a unit in the city, run by Winteringham. I love living in the city. I feel like a millionaire. I don’t get stressed. I make my own choices. I’m free as a bird at last.

I Could Say A Lot More

Things started to change a lot when I sorted out some health problems. I was having fits. But I was too scared to go and tell people. I didn’t think they’d believe me. Because people wouldn’t believe you in those days. They thought you were making it up. Even after I left the institution, I still had that instinct that people were not going to believe me. But I finally got surgery in 2004. The surgery fixed up all of it. And that’s when I started to go out lots more.

What gave me the courage to talk about my health? I started to go to these lawyers about what happened to me, and after that, that’s when they were listening to me. That’s when I started believing that I could say a lot more than what I was sharing – and I did. That’s when I started to tell people a hell of a lot more of what was going on.

I had been living with an abusive partner for 22 years. After my surgery, I gave him three chances. And it was on the third chance that I left him for good.

I Went Looking

In 2009, I found out that I have Indigenous heritage. I went looking for my family. Even today, I still meet relations I didn’t know I had. I’m in contact with my little niece now. My tribe is Yorta Yorta.

I go to the Aboriginal Health Service. I go down there for the dentist, and the doctor, and to catch up with my relations, and to have a cuppa.

I go to the Woor-Dungin.1 I’ve been on demonstrations. I’ve even got tattoos. A turtle, which is based on my tribe up in Shepparton—Yorta Yorta. And an Aboriginal flag.

Connecting with other Aboriginal people makes me feel welcome. And it makes me feel wanted, and not ignored. I can catch up on a lot of things. I can find out things about my background and childhood that I had never been told.

My spiritual life is important to me. The spirit is always in me. That especially helps me connect to my family.

Contact with family has made me a lot stronger and more powerful. Because we own the land, we will always own the land, for thousands and thousands and trillions of years ahead!


Connecting Pieces

Someone taught me to crochet when I was a girl. When I lived in the institution, I used to find small bits of wool on the ground. I rolled them up and connected them to other pieces, into one long piece of string. I found enough to make a whole blanket! And then when I’d finished I’d pull it out and start again. I finally gave that blanket to one of the girls in the institution, one of the senior girls, and she’s still got it today. She was one of us.

I still do crocheting now and sell it. I make rugs. I’ve been giving rugs and photos to my relations. Because how I see it – money’s not everything.

But what you do in your hands, with the rug and painting, that stays on for generations and generations. And it can go down in the genes to other people, to look at when you’re under the ground. But even today. It connects me to people who are related and who want to know more about me.

I make art. Painting was always in me, but I didn’t know. I painted this, which is about being free as a bird.

The birds represent women flying away from domestic violence. The birds have to ask:

‘What will happen if I stay?

What help do I have?

Where can I go?’

The bits of grass represent organisations and community groups. Some are for people with disabilities, and some are for others. It might be services for health, counselling, housing. And for me, AMIDA, SARU, Reinforce, the Aboriginal Health Service and Open Place were important.

My art work helps me to connect to other people. It really does. It helps other people read their stories on my art. Helps me put my stories down, and share them. I go and see other artists.

Things Have Changed So Much Now

I’m a very strong self-advocate, and I demand the government close down institutions. When the old institutions were open the government thought they were running smoothly. They weren’t.

What about if we did a swap over and had the government living in the institutions! And having us indigenous people and people who are not indigenous who were kids there, to run these institutions to tell the government and the staff what we went through! Physical abuse, sexual abuse and traumatised.

I took a photo of me giving the finger to the old institution!

I go to Open Place still, which is a service to help people who have been brought up in institutions. The things that happened to me – with domestic violence and the abuse in the institution – just wouldn’t happen today. Why? Because I’m a very strong powerful self-advocate and I can stand up on my own two feet. I do not let people take advantage of me and try and use me.

I’ve got heaps of friends who I can go to for support. All those connections make me feel safer. If there’s any problems or if anyone tries to pick on me or tries to say nicknames to me, there’s always someone out there who will support me and will back me up.

So I’m a strong self-advocate. But I’ve also got the backing of lots of friends if I need it. You only live once on this planet. I want to try to help women to leave abusive partners, so they are not scared to go for help. Because you only live once. Make the most of it. That’s how I see it.


1 Woor-Dungin is a coalition of Aboriginal community-controlled organisations, philanthropic foundations and donors, and pro bono service providers. It is based in Melbourne and works in partnership to enable Aboriginal organisations to access the resources and support they require, and to achieve self-determination.

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