Recorded by disability pioneer, Richard Llewellyn, before his death in 2004, Richard recounts his memories that started as a country boy in South Australia, through contracting poliomyelitis in 1957 and his search to create a meaningful life now 95% paralysed.

In spite of very negative community attitudes, Richard married twice, ran several businesses and travelled to the US. There he met people with disabilities who planned to make a year about disability by people who lived with it. This became the influential UN International Year of Disabled Persons – IYDP 1981. He returned a changed person and began working for the government in an early home care service for aged and disabled people. From this base, he became actively involved in the Australian Council for Rehabilitation of the Disabled.


1. Richard Llewellyn’s story

Richard recounts his memories that started as a country boy in South Australia, through contracting poliomyelitis in 1957 and his search to create a meaningful life now 95% paralysed.

In spite of very negative community attitudes, Richard married twice, ran several businesses and travelled to the US. There he met people with disabilities who planned to make a year about disability by people who lived with it. This became the influential UN International Year of Disabled Persons – IYDP 1981.

He returned a changed person and began working for the government in an early home care service for aged and disabled people. From this base, he became actively involved in the Australian Council for Rehabilitation of the Disabled.

Richard with Bob Todd, co-inventor of his lifting machine

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2. The birth of access in Australia

Richard Llewellyn, provides an overview of his disability advocacy in the 1980s and 90s. He convinced Senator Margaret Guilfoyle, Minister for Social Security, to have people with lived experience represent themselves as a new voice for disability at the national level.

When appointed, the National Committee for the UN International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP 1981) travelled extensively to consult people in every major Australian city and hear their issues. Their presence in hotels and airlines began a new market, with baby steps towards access. Later Richard had a leadership role in South Australia as Adviser to the Premier and was able to make progress on transport, kerb ramps and access toilets.

Richard also reflects on the experiences which shaped him growing up on a farm and going to sea and what he has learned about making change. He left government to set up Disability Consultancy Services with his wife Becky and was able to make real lasting change as access consultants working with architects on major buildings and streetscapes.

Australian delegation in Singapore at the birth of Disabled Persons’ International – 3 Dec 1981
Richard, Jeff Heath and Becky at the DPI formation conference in Singapore

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3. Voice for Change – Disabled People Set Priorities in IYDP

In this third podcast, disability pioneer, Richard Llewellyn, provides some history of what was wrong in the way Australia locked disabled people away in charitable institutions for life. The disability movement started from that base. No one expected government services to be available for people who were ‘different’. That all changed in one fertile year, 1981 when State and Federal governments made a commitment to people with disabilities running their own Year – IYDP – and setting their priorities after consulting with people who until then had no voice. This provoked an explosion of change that began to dismantle old restrictive practices and attitudes of institutionalisation and charities set up for various diagnostic groups being in control of people from cradle to grave.

Richard details the South Australian government departments committee which he oversaw and tells some of the long-lasting progress they made. He congratulates everyone involved in IYDP for giving Australia the mantle of the country that took up that opportunity and used it as a lever to make significant improvements

International Year of Disabled Persons’ 1981 – Australian national committee
Report of progress during IYDP 1981 by all 52 departments in SA in advancing equity for disabled people

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4. Disability Adviser to the Premier of South Australia

In this fourth podcast featuring disability pioneer, Richard Llewellyn, we learn more about South Australia’s efforts after IYDP 1981 to improve the lives of people with disabilities through state government.

Richard’s appointment as Disability Adviser to the Premier of SA, John Bannon, was a key leadership role to kick-starting initiatives, including with the introduction of Access Cabs. Until then, there were no transport options with public transport, just charity buses. Access Cabs started with a new fleet of stretch Falcons built to make an accessible vehicle that was more ‘mainstream’ than vans, with many innovations from SA to ensure easy access.

Richard in a stretch Falcon Access Cab developed for South Australia
SA Premier John Bannon and Richard visiting a special school
Senator Yashiro and delegates to DPI’s Asia Pacific Adelaide conference Nov 1984

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5. Creating Disability Policy for the Future

In this fifth podcast featuring disability pioneer, Richard Llewellyn, we learn about the challenge of disability language and Richard’s efforts to move it from away negative, charitable connotations. He campaigns on the unavoidable extra costs of disability based on Justice Woodhouse’s Royal Commission to establish a no-fault compensation scheme in Australia, learning from the New Zealand experiment with its Accident Compensation Corporation scheme. 

These ideas represent some of the early seeds of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) that came to fruition many decades later in Australia.

Richard at home with his aids and equipment
Disability Adviser to the Premier of SA from 1985-1991

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6. Disability Pioneers of the 1980s

In this final in a series of six podcasts featuring disability pioneer, Richard Llewellyn, he pays tribute to many of the Australians with disability and other allies who were significant fighters for human and legal rights of people with disabilities. He tells stories of ideas and movements that happened in the 1980s growing in momentum to the introduction of the Australian Disability Discrimination Act (DDA 1992).

It is always a mistake to underestimate who will need access, and Richard tells some key stories of people doing just that. No wonder he fought tirelessly for universal access so people were free to go where they liked without barriers. The podcast concludes with Becky reading the final ideas that Richard wanted to share but was too tired to continue telling the story himself.

Opening of Disabled People’s International Asia Pacific Adelaide conference Nov 1984
Jeff Heath, Andrew Kyprianou and other advocates in Adelaide

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Coming up

Disability History Month
Disability in History Month – Resources and Information (twinkl.com.au)
November 16 – Dec 16 2023

Further reading

Overview of Australia’s disability movement highlights IYDP 1981 as watershed
History of Australia’s disability movement – People with Disability Australia (pwd.org.au)

Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability
Exclusion, discrimination and maltreatment experienced by people with disability in Australia throughout history highlight the history of disability for the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability
Disability in Australia: Shadows, struggles and successes | Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability