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"Disability and History": Commentary by Joan Hume

Following her reading of Radical Sydney, Joan Hume emailed us in 2010 drawing attention to an aspect of Sydney’s radical history absent from our book (part of her correspondence is published below). Point taken; at the time we wrote the book, we were not aware of the disability struggle/material Joan outlined. And agreed, it is part of the story of radical Sydney. People make history in a radical way whenever they pursue human dignity and social justice beyond the limits preferred, tolerated and prescribed by the systems imposed by the rulers of their societies, and in doing so variously draw upon the manifold tactics of dissent, protest, civil disobedience and resistance.

We note that the US-based journal Radical History Review devoted its Winter 2006 issue to “Disability and History”, the editors expressing their hope that it would stimulate “further intersections between radical historiography and disability studies”.

At our request Joan compiled a list of sources relevant to disability activism, culture, history and philosophy, selected for their clarity, accessibility, and for being relatively recent works. This list is appended below.

Joan Hume (1947-2017) was educated at Brigidine Convent, Randwick and Sydney University where she graduated with a BA Dip Ed and subsequently an MA in English Literature. She taught for three years in the NSW state school system and was injured in a car accident in 1971 leaving her with quadriplegia. After a year’s hospitalisation she returned to teaching, the first classroom teacher in NSW to use a wheelchair. She later worked as a senior policy advisor on disability for the NSW Department of Health and as a teacher/consultant to students with physical disability in TAFE NSW. She became active in disability organisations in the late 1970s and in the burgeoning disability rights movement, edited and wrote for the magazine Quad Wrangle for several years. She was awarded an OAM for her work in disability activism in 1982.
Rowan Cahill and Terry Irving.

Joan Hume wrote: “……..Thank you for the book [Radical Sydney], I have enjoyed it immensely and it has taught me much about early 19th century Sydney of which I was unaware. I have, however, an issue I wish to raise with you about your coverage of radical activism in the late 20th century. I was disappointed to see that, yet again, the role of disability activism and the disability rights' movement in Australia in general and Sydney in particular was ignored. Perhaps this era was omitted because of your unfamiliarity with the issue, perhaps it never occurred to you and your co-author to include it. I must acknowledge my partisanship in this area because of my own involvement over several decades. Some of this I would like to share with you.

In 1971 at the age of 23 I was injured in a car accident a block or two from the school where I was then teaching. This accident left me with quadriplegia and thereafter paralysed and a permanent wheelchair user. As you would no doubt remember, the Department of Education adopted a very punitive attitude to disability, however slight or insignificant and developed a list of prohibited conditions which precluded otherwise extremely dedicated and capable people from pursuing a career in public education. This list included such relatively trivial conditions as myopia, colour blindness, scarring, disfigurement, short stature, obesity and then conditions such as quadriplegia, amputations, multiple sclerosis, cerebral palsy, deafness, blindness were unthinkable as being compatible with teaching.

When I was injured there was no precedent for someone with my degree of disability working as an ordinary high school teacher in the regular classroom. One of the major obstacles I had to overcome was the appalling general attitudes to people with disability, also rife in the teaching profession and especially the Teachers Federation . This was in addition to dealing with the personal grief and loss associated with a body that no longer functioned with the ease that I'd previously taken for granted. These raised identity issues as powerful and fraught with difficulties which rival, indeed surpass in my view, the challenges of homophobia, misogyny and racial vilification any day. The struggle to return to work amid unchecked discrimination and prejudice, the difficulties in getting around a totally inaccessible community, not to mention lack of transport, educational apartheid in our public schools for children with disabilities and the sheer invisibility of people with disabilities in all aspects of life galvanised me into action.

After returning to work in a wheelchair in 1973 with a wonderfully empathetic principal, my activism began in earnest when I was asked to edit and write for a disability focussed journal. This introduced me in the late 70s to other people with disabilities who were also impatient for change, not only in their local communities but at the state and federal levels regarding access to all services as well as legislative change. The whole thrust of our burgeoning movement was based on a human rights perspective as opposed to the prevailing charity and medical approaches to disability.

One of the memorable people I met at this time was an amazing man, John Roarty (1921-1996), born with cerebral palsy, cruelly denied access to any education, institutionalised for 50 years, a radical, fearless, fiercely intelligent person and passionate reformer, whose story is recorded in his autobiography, Captives of Care (1981). This book was made into a powerful film, which won numerous local and international awards and was screened at least twice on the ABC in the early 1980s. I don't see this book or film listed in your bibliography.

The site of John's radicalism was the institution officially known between 1906 and 1954 as the "Home for Incurables", 'Weemala', part of the Royal Ryde Homes, Morrison Road, Ryde. This place was run like a prison with strict rules for behaviour management, outings, fraternisation with fellow residents and staff. The only "crime" of the inmates was the severity of their disability and the inability of their families through poverty, old age or inaccessibility of premises to accommodate them at home. In the early 70s John and a group of fellow residents made a list of demands to the 'Weemala' management including more flexible times for outings, going to bed, the right to use electric wheelchairs. Not only were the demands refused outright but the residents were threatened with being thrown out if they didn't desist. The threat to the paint on the corridor walls was deemed more important than residents' dignity and independence. Where would a group of severely disabled people go? There was no community housing or home care. They had no money to pay people to look after them. Their very livelihoods were at stake.

Undeterred, John and his intrepid band took their concerns to the media: Mike Willessee's television show "A Current Affair" and to the Council for Civil Liberties. The resulting exposure embarrassed and shamed the 'Weemala' Management into capitulation: their stupidity, folly and repressiveness held up to justified public ridicule. This courageous act of civil "disobedience" in 1973 by a group of profoundly physically disabled and poorly educated people ultimately revolutionised the management of institutions for people with disabilities throughout Australia. Not only were the oppressive rules gradually eased and discarded but within a decade and a half community housing became the preferred method by state and federal governments for accommodating people with severe disabilities. Many years later after much more cheeky activism, John was awarded an AM for his services to disability.

This story is deserving of an honoured place in any book about radicalism in Sydney.

My own involvement is of a more modest nature. I organised the protest about lack of wheelchair accessibility at the opening of the Eastern Suburbs Railway in 1979, the first of its kind in Australia. At this protest we (a group of about 15 people in chairs and about 10 of our non disabled supporters) were jostled, abused, spat at, told we were spoiling the view and to go home to our nursing homes where we belonged. Premier Neville Wran, who presided over this opening, admitted in 1981, the International Year of Disabled People, when he was the first to introduce the wheelchair accessible taxi service into Australia that he was inspired to do so because of that protest. The background of the railway protest is recorded in the film produced by Kim and Genni Batterham, Pins and Needles (1980) directed by Barbara Chobocky. Although the film is predominently about Genni's multiple sclerosis, the protest features prominently in the story. Pins and Needles was screened on Channel Nine and like the film version of Captives of Care won many national and international documentary awards. Today wheelchair accessible railway stations throughout Australia are a matter of fact as are wheelchair accessible cabs and buses. Although not every single bus train and station is accessible as I write, Commonwealth law (based on the Disability Discrimination Act 1992) stipulates that total accessibility of all public transport is to be achieved within the decade. As the Paul Kelly song asserts: "From little things big things grow......".

In later years I was involved directly or indirectly in several protests which led to radical social change. One protest against the Miss Australia Quest in 1983 I remember fondly. That particular year, the crowning of Miss Australia was to be held at the Sydney Hilton Hotel A trusty small group of the usual suspects with me as chief stirrer turned up outside the Hilton. The organisers of the Quest smelled trouble and forbade us entry into the hotel even though it was a public space and we obviously weren't carrying weapons of mass destruction. I don't think we looked very dangerous (nearly all of us were in chairs). Besides our protest was meant to be symbolic. People with cerebral palsy were pointedly not encouraged (read not permitted) to enter a quest designed to raise money on their behalf. They were not considered beautiful or socially acceptable enough. Nor would the Spastic Centres around Australia allow people with cerebral palsy to be their own spokespeople. Like 'Weemala' there were strict rules about being either a student in their schools or a client of their services. Their organisations were repressive, restrictive and based purely on the charity model of victimhood. They encouraged their clients to sell pens at railway stations. Their methods of fundraising were deeply offensive to people like me.

As we waited politely outside, the glamorous limousines began to roll up and out spilled the socialites in their beautiful ballgowns. Suddenly one of the Spastic Centre buses pulled up emblazoned with symbols of disability. The electric door snapped open and one by one exquisitely coiffed and dressed women stepped out with their tuxedoed partners. Not a cerebral palsied person in sight!! Except for us. I noticed amongst this elegant group my local state member [of state parliament], who'd gone to school with my brothers. I caught his eye and he made a nasty crack about us being ungrateful spoilsports. It was the best laugh of the evening. Our protest was peaceful; we made the late evening news and so our point was made.

The next morning at Cleveland Street High where I was then teaching I was berated by my boss, the head teacher of history. She'd seen me on the late news and was particularly offended because her daughter had previously been a Miss Charity Queen NSW for the Miss Australia Quest (she'd raised the most money that year). She thought I was mocking her daughter's efforts. And in a way she was right but on the other hand she was incapable of understanding my point of view. About 20 years later we had lunch together some time after she had been diagnosed with MS. She admitted then that she now understood why I had become an activist and that she was very grateful for the services she now enjoyed (including disability parking spaces) because of the efforts of our groups over many years. It was good to hear that.

Within the next decade or so the Miss Australia Quest finally died unlamented . Now the Cerebral Palsy Association (note the name change) raises its funds by other means. No. Nobody was arrested, nobody jailed. No great blaze of publicity. No sassy beautiful young lady making a career in public relations and making a wonderful marriage on the backs of people with disabilities. Radical action. Yes.”

Further reading:

Barnes, Colin, “Disability Activism and the Price of Success: A British Experience”, Intersticios, Revista Sociologica de Pensamiento Critica, Vol. 1 (2) 2007 (Article available online)

Barnes, Colin, Oliver, Mike and Barton L (editors), Disability Studies Today, Polity Press, Cambridge, 2002

Campbell, Jane and Oliver, Mike, Disability Politics: Understanding Our Past, Changing Our Future , Routledge, London, 1996

Charlton, J. I. Nothing About Us Without Us: Disability Oppression and Empowerment, Berkeley, University of California Press, 1998

Clear, Mike (editor), Promises, Promises: Disability and Terms of Inclusion, Federation Press, Sydney, 2000

Crossley, Rosemary and McDonald, Anne, Annie’s Coming Out, Penguin Books, Melbourne, 1980

Goggin, Gerard and Newell, Christopher, Disability in Australia: Exposing a Social Apartheid, University of NSW Press, Sydney, 2005

Johnson, M, Make Them Go Away: Clint Eastwood, Christopher Reeve and the Case Against Disability Rights, The Advocado Press, Louisville, Kentucky, 2003

Meade, Teresa A. and Serlin, David (editors), Disability and History: A Special Edition of Radical History Review, Duke University Press, May 2006

Morris, Jenny, Pride against Prejudice: Transforming Attitudes to Disability, Women’s Press, London, 1999

Norden, M.F., The Cinema of Isolation: A History of Physical Disability in the Movies, Rutgers University Press, 1994

Roarty, John, Captives of Care, Hodder and Stoughton (Australia), Sydney, 1981; republished by John Roarty 1990

Russell, Marta, Beyond Ramps: Disability at the End of the Social Contract, Common Courage Press, Monroe MA, 1998

Shakespeare, Tom (Editor), The Disability Reader: Social Science Perspectives, Continuum International Publishing Group, London and New York, 1998

Corker, Mairian and Shakespeare, Tom (editors), Disability/Post-Modernity: Embodying Disability Theory, Continuum International Publishing Group, London and New York, 2002