Hopes for the founding of Disabled People’s International (DPI) in Singapore on 3 December 1981 after Dr Ed Roberts raised this rallying cry. The organisation aimed to reclaim the rights of speaking on behalf of disabled people from Rehabilitation International, an association built on the medical model.

January 1982 – report to Club of Physically Disabled in Adelaide on the founding of DPI

‘Vegetables of the world, unite!’ This call came from a very paralysed speaker, Dr Ed Roberts, at the Disabled Peoples’ International (DPI) first World Congress recently held in Singapore. It ushered in what we hope will become a global movement strengthening the voices of people with disabilities and has become the first International Day of Disability – December 3.

At the time of getting polio, Ed had heard his doctor telling his family to face the fact that their son was a ‘vegetable’. Many of us have heard similar disparaging language and low expectations about what we could amount to in life. Ed is now the Director of Rehabilitation for the state of California and has succeeded in introducing personal care support in that state, something no one else in the world has so far managed to achieve. How is that for being a ‘vegetable’?

The important message for us from DPI is not to act as carrots, onions and cauliflowers (differing groups based on condition or diagnostic groups), but to unite as vegetables to fight the battles of disability. It has suited the rehabilitation industry based on the medical model to keep us all segregated, building isolated charity fiefdoms for those in charge, creating dependency and identities for us that are not helpful. We need to break out of this mold and shape our destiny for ourselves as disabled people.

People with disabilities rarely have financial power or the power of status, but we do have the power of numbers. There are millions of disabled people in the world, with a large number coming from developing countries. The recent Australian Bureau of Statistics survey showed that over 13% of the Australian population considered themselves handicapped. That’s a lot of votes.

If we continue to complain from diagnostic and other small groups, carry on childish state rivalries and destroy our publications and leaders (or allow others to), then little will change. Should we overcome these difficulties, not being afraid to ‘rock the boat’, and unite together for support, then people with disabilities will be a power and force to be reckoned with.

All of these problems and more were present with the delegates from 51 countries at the DPI founding conference in Singapore, but we managed to overcome and forget our differences, working for the common good. Now DPI is a reality.

The recent formation of Disabled Peoples’ International now gives us in Australia an opportune world platform on which to build our national structure and united voice. DPI is run by disabled people for disabled people, meaning all disabled people including those with intellectual disabilities. A number of intellectually disabled people played an important role at DPI, taking their place and having their say.

The challenge for us in Australia is to form local chapters of DPI in each State and territory from the smaller self-help groups and other groups to be run by and for disabled people.

Local chapters would come together as a National Assembly of people with disabilities to speak loud and clear in this country and internationally on our behalf.

Let’s use the DPI structure now to build a strong united voice for people with disabilities in Australia — a voice which truly reflects our concerns, and one which government will not be able to ignore. Let’s change V for Vegetable into V for Victory!