The history of disability activism in the early 1980s culminating in the new Disability Advisory Council of Australia made up of people with lived experience of disability and advising the federal government. The speech touches on some major issues and the key importance of participation by people with disabilities in working towards equality and inclusion.

4 March 1984 – speech for a cancelled international conference in New Delhi by Richard Llewellyn as the representative of Australia’s DACA

Disability Advisory Council of Australia in 1984

During this conference, I intend as a disabled person to put forward the point of view of a person with a disability. This approach is supported by my sponsoring organisation, the Disability Advisory Council of Australia (D.A.C.A.) while at the same time acknowledging that the views of disabled people can vary as much as those of other people. It is also understood that conditions, attitudes, aims and aspirations in the developed world differ enormously to those in less developed countries. While giving these acknowledgements, I believe that it does not preclude particular generally held understandings and insights into many of the myths of “Western Development” and “Rehabilitation” in particular, which disabled people may hold.

The Disability Advisory Council of Australia (DACA) is a new Commonwealth Government advisory body which holds the exciting viewpoint that disabled people are their own best experts and leaders. The Council advocates that in matters concerning disability, it is essential that disabled people are involved in all four stages of new administrative processes from initiation, policy development, day-to-day administration through to evaluation.

Before moving ahead, I would like to mention the invaluable groundwork of the National Advisory Council for the Handicapped (NACH) which was abolished to make way for DACA. This Council established in 1974 under the chairmanship of the Hon C.L.D. Meares, CMG, QC, carried the banner in advising government on the needs of disabled people until its demise early in 1983.

Voice of disabled people participating with governments for change

The current Australian Government philosophy towards people with disabilities has been reflected by the Minister of Social Security, Senator Don Grimes when establishing D.A.C.A. This philosophy was developed by the general flow-on and lessons learned from the 1981, the United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP).

Australia welcomed the 1981 international year with great enthusiasm. The Commonwealth Government set aside $90m. and established a national committee to coordinate activities. All state governments eventually responded by establishing state secretariats and advisory bodies to coordinate and initiate local activities.

Initially, participation by disabled people was limited. However, the Australian government led the way and increased the numbers of disabled people involved on the coordinating committee. State responses varied from no involvement from disabled people to all official positions, including the paid secretariat workers, being people with disabilities.

History of disability activists in the early 1980s

During its travels the IYDP committee provided not only an important model which publicly showed disabled people participating equally but also allowed disabled people throughout Australia to meet one another and thereby establish informal networks. These informal networks were the only structures to remain when governments dismantled IYDP networks at the end of 1981. These informal structures then became crucial in establishing Disabled Person’s International (DPI) throughout Australia early in 1983.

A number of side benefits also flowed from the IYDP committee. Airlines were suddenly faced with the problem of transporting up to ten disabled people per flight. This congregation of disabled people soon showed the advantage of separate unisex toilets to even the thickest airport manager. Some hotels too, anxious to capture this disability dollar moved from an interest in access to quite major construction work in order to participate in providing appropriate accommodation.

The more disabled people got about, the more other people were forced to take notice of and actually see the problems people with disability face. This was especially noticeable when numbers strained the system. People quite enjoy helping one disabled person up a 10″ step, but faced with ten or twelve, the puffing helpers are more likely to do something about the original problem.

Another significant IYDP event was some 40 disabled Australians attending the inaugural conference of Disabled Peoples’ International (DPI) in Singapore. The Singapore experience at the end of 1981 convinced a number of active disabled Australians that a formal network was essential within our country, if we were to have a voice of our own and to build on advances made in IYDP.

As a consequence of this Conference a number of DPI State Chapters were established in 1982, leading to the Australian National Assembly being formed in January 1983. All states now have Chapters and already DPI boasts the largest membership of disabled people in the country.

National voice on disability to federal government – DACA

Membership of DACA, the advisory body which replaced NACH, reflects Senator Grimes’ belief that disabled people are their own best experts. Whereas NACH membership was mostly medical and rehabilitation leaders, all but four members of DACA have a serious disability and all fourteen have either a personal or close relationship to people with disabilities.

The Council is also equally represented by males and females with the balance of power being held by our chairperson, Ms. Laurie Alsop.

DACA through its membership has close ties with the grass roots of the disability area – disabled people themselves. It will continue to publish the national broadsheet begun during IYDP, “Breakthrough” and a revamped version of the NACH publication “Rehabilitation Review” to be known as “Disability Australia”. DACA intends to continue consulting widely with disabled people through public forums and other means in each capital city.

Extra costs of disability a major issue

The IYDP national coordinating committee played a most important role, through its consultations in every major city, of showing that extra unavoidable costs of living with disability was a major issue. It concentrated attention on the poorest of the poor in our country, the severely disabled person living in the community. Attention was drawn to the extra costs of disability and that adequate finance is the basis of dignity and participation in our society.

Our Invalid Pension of A$86 per week must seem a fortune to many but when the minimum wage is A$152 per week and the average wage over A$300 per week the financial disadvantage alone when trying to participate is obvious. Australian pensioners do receive some fringe benefits such as free public transport etc. For many eligible severely disabled people however the benefits source is inaccessible and therefore of no advantage.

Need for access to information and assistive technologies

Disabled people in the past few years have been asking for information which they can access and understand themselves. Why should this be so hard? Is that process in the basic interests of the professional bodies? Do they in fact gain power by controlling information? Technologists, in my experience, rarely listen to disabled people’s simple requests. Although much good work was done by engineers etc., their natural interests lie in the challenge of the bionic arm. Many of you who have worked in the rehabilitation field will have seen complex prothesis lying in corners covered in cobwebs.

It obviously would be good if that information could be obtained first of all from where everyone else obtains information and secondly that there be a central one stop source. However, it would be ridiculous to pay a high price for the luxury of one stop information if there is no money left with which to buy the required item. I believe that disabled people are becoming clearer on this issue, only because they are more vitally concerned than are some of the professional people working in the area.

When disabled people are involved in their own affairs, they have an understanding which is difficult for others to match. There is no more magic to this understanding than there is to those who love the sea or those who are attracted to rural communities. If that is accepted, disabled people must be involved in all levels of initiation (my jargon for this is “consumer-based policy instigation”) policy determination, administration and evaluation.

Empowering disabled people

In November 1984 Adelaide will host the final DPI Asia Pacific Conference. You are all invited. At that conference an attempt will be made to understand why disabled people are where they are on the totem pole and why they have never had a voice of their own.

DACA believes that only by empowering disabled people to eventually solve their own problems will we really progress their cause. The world has learned the bitter lesson that handing out food to starving people does not solve the problem. Unfortunately, we have yet to take the necessary steps towards a proper solution.

DACA also believes and will try and influence future directions in Australia towards disabled people being involved at all levels in matters concerning them. By following that process, national networks will grow which are related to those with the problems. Recently, I read an article in a development magazine (which I failed to note) which listed five reasons why outside development programs failed.

  1. The instigators and operators were outsiders.
  2. They failed to act as initiators and partners of the people.
  3. They failed to absorb the total situation.
  4. They lacked a people orientated philosophy.
  5. They lacked an ideology towards the liberation of people.

I believe we would do well to consider those points in relation to expertise and disability. More progress would be made if we kept them in mind during our deliberations and future actions. Disabled people acting as insiders, hand in hand with governments, could work towards equality and full participation. Our involvement could unleash a new energy in our societies as we push past old stereotypes of who we are and what we can do. Together, let’s break down the barriers!