Disability Rights

Until the 1970s many people with disabilities were cared for by their families, as there was little government support. Some people were cared for in the Royal Derwent Hospital, and from 1924 some segregated special schools, such as Dora Turner and Talire (Hobart), and classes in other schools, educated children with disabilities, but lack of recognition of the rights of people with disabilities meant it was difficult to gain access to services.

Attitudes began to change in the 1970s, with the United Nations Declaration of Rights of Disabled Persons in 1974 and the United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981. It is thought that Disabled People's International–Australia (DPIA) came out of the International Year of Disabled Persons. However, in 1980, People with Disabilities became activated after such people were denied a voice at a Rehabilitation International Conference, which comprised mainly professionals and nobody with disabilities.

Prime movers in Tasmania were Robin Wilkinson AM, Clarie Strochnetter OAM and John Newton OAM. As Robin had been involved in the International Year, she was asked to represent Tasmania on the interim committee to establish DPIA. Robin organised 22 people with disabilities to attend including a quadriplegic. Australia Day, 26 January 1983, was chosen deliberately for the first assembly of DPIA. Robin toured Tasmania in order to establish DPI–Tasmania in May 1983, and became inaugural president. The process was challenging as every type of disability had to be accommodated. The main issues to date have been advocacy, access, information and education. The focus has been to move from relying on professionals, to people with disabilities having more voice in their own lives. Dr Christopher Newell AM has been instrumental in lobbying in national and international arenas.

In the early 1980s, largely due to pressure, the Australian Government began a review of services which led to the Disability Services Act (1986). The Ministerial Advisory Committee for the Handicapped, comprising professionals and service providers, was abolished and a new Disability Advisory Council was formed, a revolutionary concept with four consumers, a representative of parents and a service provider. DPIT supported the idea of a non-medical model of personal care and Robin with assistance wrote the proposal, within a human rights framework. DPIA became insolvent in 1994 and the name was changed to Tasmanians with Disabilities. Changing attitudes towards inclusion and equality has been a long process. The main achievements have been: the establishment of Disability Advocates, personal care service and the Transport Access Scheme, a de-institutionalisation process, and establishment of Speak Out, advocacy for people with intellectual disabilities. Less tangible has been the changing of attitudes to 'nothing about us without us', the slogan at the 2003 Conference of Physical Disability Australia.

Further reading: C Newell, 'The disability rights movement in Australia', Disability and Society, 11/3, 1996; and 'End of the decade: what's changed?' keynote address, 5th National Assembly of DPIA, Tasmania, 1990; C Newell & R Wilkinson, 'Tasmanians together', Social Alternatives 18/1, 1999; and 'Encountering oppression', Disability and Society 18/4, 2003.

Yabbo Thompson