Information about the United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons IYDP 1981 and the key issues for people living with disabilities

14 May 1981 the Catholic Diocesan Pastoral Council Southern Cross Newspaper

The UN International Year of Disabled Persons – IYDP 1981

This is the United Nation’s International Year of Disabled Persons – IYDP 1981. It was very carefully chosen by the United Nations. So many people get the title wrong:

  • If you talk about the International Year of the Disabled, you are talking about a conglomerate group.
  • If you talk about the International Year for the Disabled, you are talking about other people doing things for disabled people.
  • But if you talk about the International Year of Disabled Persons, you are talking about individuals. And that is extremely important.

IYDP symbol and theme

The symbol for the year shows what looks like a little upside-down A. This represents two people supporting each other in perfect equilibrium. Around these figures are the laurel leaves of the United Nations. I assume the broken lined figure represents a disabled person and the other represents an able-bodied person.

The theme the United Nations is promoting to Australia is, ‘full participation and equality.’ Disabled people are meant to be taking part and sharing in the year equally with other people. Unfortunately, that concept, to my mind, is being realised only in SA. I would be one of very few disabled people employed in the running of the year. And there are several others in our State in leadership roles around the year which is being organised under the Attorney General, not, as in other States and territories, welfare departments.

Who are disabled people?

When we talk about disabilities, it is important to remember that my group — those sitting in wheelchairs — are really the very obvious, and often vocal minority of disabled people. We are only about 1 per cent of the disabled population out of an estimated 10 to 12 per cent of the population who live with some serious disability.

For every death on the road now there are 30 serious disabilities that may not end up using wheelchairs.
By far the biggest group is those with mental disabilities. Next would probably be those with arthritic conditions, followed by people who have had strokes. Then there are people with hidden disabilities, such as people who are hard of hearing, epileptics, diabetics and people with vision loss.

On the other hand, medical knowledge is reducing some disabilities. It is also allowing people to live longer than they would have. This raises some profound questions that we must face up to:

  • How long should people be kept alive by machinery?
  • If someone is alive merely because he is hooked up to a machine — and if their heart would stop if you switched the machine off — can you say that person is alive?
  • How much of this extremely expensive treatment can be justified when three quarters of the world is hungry?

How people cope with disability

The other aspect of prevention is, I feel, more interesting. What drives me on is a whole lot of things that have happened to me in the past and the way I see my life today. Once a person has a disability, how can you help him cope so that other handicaps are not added as well?
You can have two people with almost identical disabilities. One will do one thing, the other will do something totally different. The response to a disability depends on the individual. The fascinating thing is this:

  • Just how much will society disadvantage the disabled person further?
  • Will society make life still harder?
  • Or will society give him what he needs to live with his disability?

We should remember that not all disabled people are able to represent themselves. Not all of them can take part in the International Year. You have seen those bumper stickers: “Your attitude is our handicap.”
We must change society’s attitudes.

Major issues to fight for in the International Year of Disabled Persons

There are four major issues I would like to take up during this global year to raise progress and awareness of disability:
• Income security.
• Employment.
• Self-help.
• Nomenclature.

Extra unavoidable costs of living with a disability

Firstly, disabled people are concerned about having an adequate income. A paper has been written by my wife, Becky Llewellyn for our national IYDP Committee which discusses the present conditions under the Social Services Act and a number of systems which are being looked at overseas.

At the end of this paper, we put forward a new concept — that disabled people face higher costs than any other pensioners. They face higher costs at every turn. If you are disabled, you cannot use public transport: you have to use expensive private transport. If you have a house, you have to get someone in to cut the lawns or drive a nail into the wall. These are all the simple things most people take for granted.
We talk about disadvantaged people. The disabled are even more financially disadvantaged than anyone else by these extra unavoidable costs.

Issues of employment

Second, employment. I guess having employment is the ultimate in income security but employment for disabled people is not much of a possibility these days. There are lots of fit, well-qualified people who are also unemployed. Employers see the additional problems disabled people have — and it does not get much further than that.

One of the biggest problems is the present Workers’ Compensation Act. If you feel like doing something for the disabled, get hold of the recent three-party report on the State Workers’ Compensation Act and ask your local MP to see that it is discussed publicly. The present Act helps no-one – except lawyers and insurance companies.

Full participation

The third issue is around self-help and representation. Under this heading I include disabled people representing the disabled and advocating for the cause of the disabled. During this Year especially, it is important that disabled people be consulted about their own affairs. Disabled people are getting sick of other people telling them what is good for them, what they need, how they should run their lives.

We hope that this year a network of self-help groups will be formed to give the disabled a voice -preferably a national voice — one which can speak to Government — in our affairs.

It is amazing that in lots of areas dealing with disability, in most areas, in fact, no disabled people are employed. The Department of Social Security sends out people to tell employers how they can employ disabled people. But they themselves do not employ disabled people to do this. In addition, there are no disabled people on the boards of concerns like employment services like Bedford Industries, a sheltered workshop or the Home for Incurables, institutional residential care.

This must change. We need some help, certainly. But we want to have a share in the decision-making that touches us directly.

Issues of language and definition of disability

Fourth, I see issues around nomenclature as being vital. Some people do not see this as important. You hear all sorts of words, like ‘handicapped’ and ‘disabled’ being used as though they were interchangeable.
There are about 65 derogatory words used in South Australian legislation to describe disabled people, ranging from invalids to feeble-minded. Some terribly old expressions keep turning up.

We must know precisely what we are talking about. If the legislators use words like ‘handicapped,’ they automatically include almost everyone. Everyone has a handicap of some kind.

Words are important, too, when you are distinguishing between various types of disability. The definition of ‘disabled’ I like is those people who have suffered a physical impairment, or loss of bodily function, or anatomical loss. That includes a mental loss. Your head and your brain are part of your body.

Disabled people usually suffer a handicap as well as the disability. The ‘disability’ is the loss they have suffered. The ‘handicap’ is the social consequence of that loss. And that handicap can usually be removed, if society wants to provide disabled people with the tools they need to overcome their problems.

We had a US President who contracted polio, Franklin Delano Roosevelt. He carried on the presidency extremely well, because society gave him the tools he needed. It would be interesting to know if society would have done this if he had had polio before he established himself in his career.

Disabled people are handicapped by social attitudes, by society not providing them with the essential aids needed to overcome their disabilities. I cannot walk. But I do have a wheelchair and I can get around. Without that wheelchair, my tool, I would have to stay in bed all day.

The ”too-hard’ basket left behind

It is not enough to legislate for the disabled: you must target in on specific problems. If you do not do this, the tendency is for all the money and resources to go to those who are easiest to help. The “too hard” group can be left out.

One group in the “too hard” basket at the moment are the young, and not so young, people who have had serious head injuries and lost a lot of their mental faculties through acquired brain injury. Nobody wants to know about them. They are often physically active, but unable to take their place in society because of the behavioral changes, the violence and other problems caused by malfunctions in their brains. These people are living in quite terrible conditions in institutions.

Another group we need to target are the severely intellectually disabled children. Some are living what could hardly be called a life. Who is going to be a voice for these children so they can have a future?

Ironies of prevention of disability

I would also like to talk briefly about prevention. There are two angles to it. The easier to understand is prevention through immunisation programs, wearing of seat belts and so on. There is an interesting sidelight there. Most people think seat belts prevent disability. In fact, in a way they help create them. But without seatbelts, most people who now suffer a disability would have died at the scene of the crash.