Threats and opportunities for social change by disabled people in our UN International Year

12 May 1980 – United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP) Seminar at the St. Clair Youth Centre, Woodville, South Australia

South Australia – pioneer in human rights for disabled people

I believe South Australia has a great opportunity to make significant contributions to the UN’s International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP) in 1981.

It is the only State which has seen fit to officially disassociate the official running of the Year from either the health or welfare arenas. We are fortunate too that the Minister responsible, the Attorney General, the Hon. Trevor Griffin, MLC is not only concerned, but also knowledgeable about the problems of disabled people.

Over the past three years, the Bright Committee has been focussing on and holding public debates on the rights of disabled persons. It has already identified and researched many problem areas. Perhaps one of the most arenas of achievement of the Bright Committee has been the change of emphasis and language from the ‘needs’ for service provision to the ‘rights’ of individual disabled people.

Added to these advantages, is the South Australian tradition of working together to achieve consented change. Let’s hope that we can use this tradition for our cause and not enter into the bickering and division which is already plaguing the I.Y.D.P. efforts of some other States.

Consumer voices need to lead

For the Year to be a success, we must guard against a number of dangers. First, disabled and other concerned people must constantly monitor activities throughout the Year to keep the impetus towards action. Left alone and without strong consumer voices, the Year could turn into mere froth and bubble, which would neither change public attitudes nor benefit disabled people. Each issue and project put forward needs to be examined to see who will be the beneficiary. This does not, however, preclude projects by disabled people where the community is the beneficiary. If, on the other hand, there seems to be no benefit to the disabled cause, such a project should be scrapped.

Legislative, environmental and social barriers that handicap

Secondly, we must ensure that the basic thrust of IYDP continues towards community acceptance, not charity. While some fund-raising may be legitimate, advertising methods used should portray the environmental and social barriers as the handicapper, not the impairment. Advertising which concentrates on the impairment or disability hope that by tugging on the heart strings it will untie the purse strings. While this ploy may be successful, it is degrading and contrary to all the efforts which truly concerned people are making towards integration.

How an individual copes with his/her impairment is a private matter. What is of concern to the community should be the handicaps it adds to a disabled person through its own legislative, environmental and social barriers. If agencies use damaging advertising material which is derogatory to the image of disabled persons and contrary to the spirit of IYDP, then they should be publicly condemned.

Hidden agenda of the health/rehabilitation industry

Danger number three. As the last of the minorities to assert a claim for social justice, we must use this Year to form lobby and support groups to resist pacification by the system into thinking everything is alright. These self-help groups must give strength, confidence, and higher expectations to each other, assist people to become knowledgeable and aware of how the system works, as well as skilled in assisting one another to overcome the effects of institutionalisation.

We must demonstrate to each other, and then to the community at large, that together we can thwart the ‘planned helplessness’ which scientists such as Seligmann, Illich, Goffman and Zola describe as the hidden agenda of the health/ rehabilitation industry. This lesson may be the greatest contribution that disabled people can give to the larger community.

In the United States, the health and equipment industry is currently the number one growth area in the country, not only in terms of employment but also of profit. I have not seen figures for Australia, but it is safe to assume we follow the same path.

Passivity leads to greater loss of power. If we as individuals do not exercise the power our society has given us, then someone else will take up our power and use it. Perhaps one slogan for 1981 could be “Get pushy or keep pushing!”

Boycott research and surveys to force genuine consultation

Fourthly, one of the great pacification techniques of government is to postpone decision-making by undertaking research, surveys and endless enquiries. Personally, I feel there are already too many pigeonholes filled with research findings. I fail to understand the current obsession of trying to label and count disabled people. I would exempt from this criticism the need for good genetic counselling.

What we need is action and I therefore propose a boycott of all research and surveys unless authorised by the IYDP Committee. By actively refusing to take part or give information, we may force the planners from their ivory towers to consult with the people working at the grassroots. It is more likely that solutions for all disabled persons may be found by working on the problems of an individual.

Not one disabled individual has benefitted from the costly, time-consuming and meticulous studies into the transport needs of the handicapped in South Australia. The cost of the studies split amongst individuals may even have solved the problem.So far only one organisation has shown a willingness to share and rationalise, as suggested by the studies, the fleet of vehicles provided under the Handicapped Persons’ Assistance Act. This is but one example of wasted research. Let’s have no more and boycott all unauthorised studies.

Dangers of backlash

Finally on my list of dangers for IYDP, there is the inevitable backlash. The most serious could come from the inside, if different disability groups feel their case is not being sufficiently well-presented. There may even be some exploitation of this danger by those who do not have our real interests at heart. In any area of change there will always be a backlash and disabled people should not feel guilty in asserting their rights when challenged by outsiders who are often only protecting their own interests. If we don’t exercise our own power, someone else will take it and use it to become twice as powerful.

While it is true that any disabled person understands and therefore represents their own experience best, we must ensure that all disability groups have an opportunity to voice their opinions. Those of us who are vocal must be careful to see that concentration is not solely put on our problems to the exclusion of those who have even greater difficulties and are therefore not so vocal. The temptation to gallop ahead with the leaders rather than to travel at the pace of the slowest must be resisted.

Consumer voices needed at all levels of representation

It is my hope that by the end of 1981, no organisation or committee involved in the affairs of disabled people will dare to exclude consumer representation on their boards and planning structures. It is clear that there is plenty of work for all individuals, from monitoring, clipping articles, speaking, and influencing politicians and organisations, to publicising and just talking with friends and neighbours.

When the United Na,ons charter amended the title of 1981 from the International Year for the Disabled to the International Year of Disabled Persons, an important philosophical change was being acknowledged. The intention for action was changed towards the individual disabled person. That also suggests that individuals will be responsible for any change. IYDP is therefore your chance to effect change.

There is much community goodwill towards the Year and many individuals and organisations are eager to assist. The work of the IYDP Secretariat, government departments and the non-government organisations will be invaluable. However the spirit of the Year and its success can only come from you – the individual living with your disability.

The International Year of Disabled Persons will be what we make of the opportunity

This seminar is for you as individuals to record your commitment and ideas for positive action which will then achieve mutual goals. The issues have all been discussed ad infinitum. Today is a day for strategies and tactics and to elaborate your participation in the Year.

Having looked at the rainbow, what now is the pot of gold at the end of IYDP? The answer is that almost anything is possible. Let’s hope that this day of access of the community to the IYDP cause will foreshadow a groundswell of full community acceptance towards its disabled members.