People with disability in Australia and their allies have long undertaken advocacy and activism to gain improvements in independence, inclusion, access and services. Early movements in Australia secured changes for various groups, including First Peoples, war veterans, and children with polio. During the 1970s the nature of campaigns began to shift as people with disability came to the forefront.
Inspired by the civil rights and identity based social movements that arose in the United States, United Kingdom and continental Europe, and the national and indigenous liberation movements against colonisation in other parts of the world and in Australia, disability activists sought to address their outsider status. No longer simply calling for services, they struck a note distinct from many families, professionals and service providers by claiming their civil, political and economic rights. – Lorna Hallahan, 2021
Disability activists have fought for their rights, and to protect gains, through a variety of means. These have included running organisations, carrying out research, writing policies and submissions, circulating petitions and statements, talking to the media, lobbying politicians and public servants, and holding public meetings. They have also led and taken part in collective and publicly disruptive forms of action such as demonstrations, occupations, strikes, and blockades. The following is just a sample of many such events that have occurred since the late 1970s.
People with disability discovered the social nature of their condition and became united in claiming self-determination and self-representation to overcome their social oppression as a group. –People With Disability Australia
Please note that the timeline includes some language which was used historically but is not acceptable today. See the PWDA Language Guide for up-to-date terms.
April 1978, Melbourne: Ten members of the Disabled People’s Action Forum blockaded the entrance to a Medibank claims office for an hour. Spokesperson Geoff Bell informed the media that “Medibank was used as an example to show the architectural barriers we have to put up with. Medibank is supposed to be a service and yet it is stopping our needs to transact our personal business. We will be taking action against other organisations that put up barriers. We are going to let the bureaucrats who make the decisions know!” Signs held by demonstrators read “We don’t need to a stairway to paradise, We want ramps to independence.”
21 November 1978, Melbourne: Highlighting the lack of access they experience every day a group of wheelchair users blockaded the entrance to the Hoyts Cinema in Bourke Street during the screening of the film Coming Home, which was about a disabled war veteran. Placards read “We haven’t got any legs, so we can’t see” and “Don’t keep us out!” Protest organiser Rob MacNamara told the media, “Disabled people have been turned way for years and not many of them go out because of stairs, doorways and lack of toilet facilities… The Health Department should be able to do more than tell us we’re not allowed to go certain places. This film is something with special interest for us.”
29 September 1978, Canberra: 100 people with disability protested outside Parliament House against moves to tax their government allowances. The demonstration and allied campaign caused a revolt within the federal government to the point where then Treasurer John Howard was forced to rescind the decision and inform the protesters that he had done so.
24 June 1979, Sydney: Disability activists disrupted the official opening of the inaccessible Eastern Suburbs Railway. Railway planners had earlier rejected making the facilities accessible on the basis of cost. After footage of the protesters being abused and jostled by attendees was aired on the media, the state government and Premier were highly embarrassed and began moves to introduce transport subsidies and accessible taxis. In the video clip below Genni Batterham recalls her experiences that day.
11 October 1981, Melbourne: As part of a host of activities carried out during the International Year of the Disabled Person members of Women with Disabilities Feminist Collective (WDFC) crashed the Spastic Society’s Miss Australia Quest. Demanding autonomy for people with disability, and an end to the sexist spectacles supposedly held in their name, the demonstrators took to the stage disrupting proceedings and garnering widespread media coverage. Lelsey Hall, a founding member of WDFC and the Disability Resource Centre, held a placard in her hands reading “Spastic Society Oppresses Women” with the letters ‘S’ styled to resemble those from the Nazi Schutzstaffel.
We are challenging the notion of beauty and we reject the charity ethic… Beauty quests that raise money in the name of disabled people do us a double disservice. Through patronising fund raising activities, the community is shown again and again that we are ‘inferior’ people. Disabled people will only gain an equal place within society when our services are fully integrated. People in the community must be allowed to develop positive attitudes towards us. The abolition of beauty quests will be a significant step towards this end. – Lesley Hall, 1980s
10 November 1981, Sydney: 300 people with intellectual disabilities and supporters rallied outside NSW parliament demanding control over their housing and living conditions. One banner displayed read “Institutions Out. Independent Living In!”
25 February 1982, Canberra: 200 members of the Sheltered Workshops Employees Association and other workers with disability rallied outside Parliament House demanding improved wages and the right to earn as much as other pensioners.
26 May 1982, Canberra: A rally held outside Parliament House demanded additional car parking spaces for drivers with disability.
August 29 1982, Melbourne: Activist group Reinforce broke into a disused health department property at 112 Drummond Street, Carlton and, after changing the locks, occupied it. The property had previously been use for a service for people with intellectual disability but had lain empty for six months. Reinforce had applied for it to be used as emergency and transitional accommodation, and sent rent money to pay for it, but the government refused to do so, preferring to sell it. Activist Collin Hiscoe later recalled thinking, “That’s not good enough. Bugger you. We’re going to do something.” After five days of occupation the state government gave in and the Minister for Health subsequently signed over use of the property to Reinforce.
October 1983, Melbourne: In the third such action 200 people protested outside the annual Miss Victoria beauty quest, calling for an end to its role in fundraising and arguing that it demeaned people with disabilities. Claiming that little of the money raised reached intended recipients, one protester, Fiona Campbell, argued that all the resources that went into hosting the quest “could be used for a community education program which would be more productive in the long-run… we can’t be self-reliant if we are treated as charity cases.”
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… Our protest was peaceful; we made the late evening news and so our point was made… 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… – Joan Hume recalling a 1983 protest outside the Hilton Hotel, 2010.
July 1985, Melbourne: Workers at the Royal Victorian Institute for the Blind (RVIB) began a campaign for fair wages, proper treatment and the introduction of complaints mechanisms. Forming People for Equality Not Institutionalisation (PENI) they staged a number of protests, including a sit-in of the RVIB’s Executive Director’s office. They also allied with the Blind Workers Union to hold workplace strikes.
One protest by the group during the Royal Melbourne Show, to highlight RVIB’s underpayment to people for packing showbags, saw six members violently removed by police for handing out leaflets and using a megaphone. One member Romana Marsh told the media, “They used a full nelson on me and now I’ve got ripped muscles around the shoulders.”
The group’s persistent action eventually led to industrial arbitration which resulted in improvements in wages and conditions and back pay for stolen wages. Later interviewed by Anja Homburg, activist Martin Stewart recalled, “It was after speaking to other workers that I knew something had to be done. This was affecting all workers. (We) set about forming a collective and had a meeting… and the rest is history. Good history.”
14 August 1985, Sydney: Members of 40 disabled, parent, teacher and community groups held a demonstration at the Opera House. This protested a state government decision to reject the recommendations of a report it had commissioned about how to properly support children with disability in schools. They condemned the Minister of Education’s description of needed changes as “too costly” and “beyond the bounds of reality.”
10 September 1986, Melbourne: 40 clients of the Glen Waverly Rehabilitation Centre set up a daily street vigil between 10am and 3.30pm outside the healthcare centre to protest the government’s decision to close the service. The group held up signs reading “People Not $$” and “It Stinks for Future Patients.” One protester said that if the centre closed they would have to re-enter a psychiatric hospital which “means I will be segregated again instead of learning to interact with all sorts of people, as I do here.”
18 November 1986, Melbourne: Four protesters, together with their guide dogs, were arrested during a large protest against the Miss Victoria beauty quest. They denied they had attempted to cross a police line and the charges were later dropped. One of the arrestees, Martin Stewart, criticised the contest arguing, “We’re trying to gain equality and get a decent job. The same time you’re trying to get a job from someone, they’re being educated to feel sorry for you.”
12 February 1986, Canberra: 60 people with disability and supporters rallied outside Parliament House against cuts to funding for personal care attendants. Following a meeting with the Minister for Community Services the government agreed to extend the existing scheme for at least six months.
22 January 1987, Sydney: A demonstration was held outside the Gazebo Ramada hotel to protest the use of the Miss Australia beauty contest to raise money for charities associated with people with cerebral palsy. Steve Hurd, spokesperson from the group People For Equality Not Institutionalisation, told the media, “It’s a farce and an insult to the dignity of all disabled people around Australia… Little more than the cost and wages of one professional is accounted for by the quest. What is it that we are supposed to be grateful for?”
18 September 1988, Sydney: Disabled activist Martin Stewart and his partner Helen Stewart celebrated their honeymoon on Bondi Beach in front of a flag reading “Sexual Equality for Disabled People Worldwide.” They had announced to the media a month earlier that they would make love as part of the event. Outlining the rationale behind this, Martin stated “This is no mere exhibition… The only reason we are doing this is because we want to put an end to the ignorance of society… Nobody should be judged based on disability. There seems to be a widespread assumption that Helen, who does not have a disability, is either my social worker, volunteer driver or nursemaid… People don’t seem to understand that you also have sexuality. The reason why deinstitutionalisation has occurred is that people have seen that we can do things like other people.” Helen argued “We feel the time is long overdue for a provocative protest to confront society’s ignorance.” After drawing a crowd of 300 people, the pair were arrested. After generating widespread media coverage they went on to give lectures about sexuality and disability at universities and other educational institutions.
25 January 1990, Canberra: 50 people with disability and their supporters, including members of the Building Workers Industrial Union, gathered inside the Woden Valley hospital to protest plans to close the only accessible cafeteria in the complex.
Sydney, 1991: Members of Citizens for Accessible Public Transport (CAPT) blocked traffic in the central city as part of a protest over the high cost of taxis and the lack of options for people with disability.
13 March 1992, Adelaide: The Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Health, Housing and Community Services Brian Howe was heckled by 100 protesters over inadequate funding for disability support. This occurred during a demonstration outside a breakfast held at Jubilee Hall as part of a health care expo. Later in the year, following further campaigning and a demonstration of 70 people with disability outside Parliament House, Howe agreed to honour a federal government promise to expand the National Attendant Care Scheme.
1992, Melbourne: Reinforce and other advocacy groups protested outside state parliament demanding the government fully close the Caloola Mental Health Facility and provide more community housing. Placards on the day read “Houses For All”, “No Moves to Other Overcrowded Institutions”, and “Bee-bop Caloola, We Don’t Mean Maybe.”
23 April 1993, Melbourne: When State Treasurer Alan Stockdale arrived at court to defend his government’s public transport cuts against accusations of discrimination he was greeted by, and forced to walk through, two rows of black-clad disability activists maintaining complete silence.
23 September 1993, NSW: 3000 people rallied in Sydney against state government cuts to disability services, including Adult Training, Learning and Support (ATLAS) and other programs for school-leavers with disability. Rallies were also held in Wollongong, Armidale, Port Macquarie and Lismore, with the latter featuring “Karaoke Against the Cuts.”
30 November 1994, Sydney: People with intellectual disability and their families rallied outside state parliament to demand proper funding for supported accommodation. The campaign, which included 10 public meetings across the state, had already forced the government to commit to paying for extra places. Activists continued to push for full funding however, and constructed a tent city in Hyde Park between November 24 and 26 to highlight the rising risk of homelessness for people with disability.
16 June 1995, Melbourne: Members of Disability Action on Rights and Equity (DARE) carried out five hours of blockading in the city to demand improved access to public transport. One group handcuffed and thumbcuffed themselves to a tram heading down Swanston street while another secured themselves to one in Collins Street. A group of wheelchair users also shut down an intersection for 30 minutes by forming a line across the street. Group spokesperson Katie Ball told the media, “The technology exists to provide wheelchair access in Victoria today. All we are lacking is government will to provide it.”
1996, Melbourne: Video of a tram blockade in Melbourne
September 1997, Melbourne: Disability Liberation Front members gate crashed the launch of the Disability Services Directory for the City of Brimbank by Youth and Community minister Denis Napthine to demand full funding for services. The following year this received the Most Daring Action gong at SKA TV’s Activist Awards.
27 September 2000, Melbourne: Eighty wheelchair users and their allies blocked city trams during lunch hours in a protest organised by the Catch A Tram group to demand improved access to public transport.
18 June 2003, Canberra: Members of the Totally and Permanently Incapacitated Disabled Soldiers Association protested outside Parliament House over changes to Centrelink rules which cost them up to $200 a week in income. Association president John Ryan criticised Prime Minister John Howard telling the media, “He said in Parliament that our payments are adequate, he’s somebody who has never had the time to speak to us… he cannot find the five minutes to walk down to disabled veterans outside Parliament House.”
12 August 2004, Lismore: 300 people with disability, their carers and families rallied against cuts to Adult, Training, Learning and Support Programs and other services. A week later the NSW Opposition’s Aging, Community, Disability and Youth Services spokesperson was met with a demonstration when he arrived in Albury. These were part of rolling protests against the state government, including a rally of hundreds of people in Newcastle, which had already seen the state government back down on changes to the Post-Schools Options Disability Program.
25 September 2007, Canberra: Members of the organisation People With Disabilities and 70 others protested outside Parliament House to demand the government commit to long term funding for services.
28 October 2010, Sydney: People with disability joined support workers in the Opera House’s forecourt for a rally of 2000 people calling for the NSW state government to guarantee service funding.
9 January 2012, Sydney: Members of the Disabled Surfers Association of Australia (DSAA) and supporters rallied at Bondi Beach. They were protesting a decision by Surf Life Saving Australia (SLSA) to direct clubs to return beach wheelchairs to donors or ”have them destroyed or dumped” because of concerns about insurance liability. DSAA spokesperson Jim Bradley told the media “Surf Life can insure jetskis, helicopters, 4-wheel-drive vehicles and even dangerous national surf carnivals. It would be laughable to suggest that beach wheelchairs present anywhere near the same level of insurance risk.”
30 May 2012, Melbourne: More than 500 people marched silently to Parliament House to protest the discontinuation of Victoria’s only Diploma in AUSLAN, the national language for the hearing impaired. This occurred during privatisation and restructuring which upended public adult education provision in Victoria as part of $300 million in education cuts.
17 April 2012, Melbourne: 60 people with disability rallied outside Parliament to demand accessible transport for all Victorians with signs reading “We are part of the community”, “1 in 5 Victorians have a disability” and “We Deserve a Fair Go.” In a separate action they also drew attention to the fact they were denied entrance to the majority of trams by parking electric wheelchairs in front of one on Elizabeth Street for 20 minutes.
Public transport that is inaccessible lets down far too many public transport users around Victoria… We have a right to demand a transport system that works for everybody. – Accessibility campaigner James Carter, 2012
30 April 2012, Australia: Up to 20 000 people with disability and their supporters rallied in six major cities across Australia as part of ‘Make It Real’ protests calling for state and federal governments to speed up the introduction of the NDIS. This followed 15 months of concerted campaigning, including community forums, visits to MPs, the holding of a National Disability and Carer Congress, Disabilitea gatherings, and more, under the banner of Every Australian Counts. EAC deputy director Kirsten Deane told the media that the rallies were held to tell politicians, “We know you all think the NDIS is a great idea, now we’re really counting on you to all work together to deliver it.”
18 August 2013, Melbourne: 200 blind and vision impaired people and their supporters marched through the city to protest the closure of supported employment programs in Victoria, NSW and Queensland by the charity Vision Australia. Three days later a protest was also held outside Queensland parliament.
On 17 September hundreds rallied outside the Vision Australia Enterprises factory in Kensington. Linking white canes they created a chain which ran for over 200 metres, doubling the length of the workplace. Chants included “People before profits” and “Have some vision, change your decision.” Blind Workers Union spokesperson Martin Stewart told the rally, “Hands off the most vulnerable workers in Australia, hands off people who are blind and vision impaired. We say change your decision and have respect for the donations you receive… We are standing with our canes — not as a guiding implement today, but disgracefully as a protection against our own organisation… Vision Australia let me tell you, charity begins at home, it won’t end here.”
July 4 2014, Melbourne: 20 people gathered outside ABC offices to protest against the axing of RAMP UP, the national broadcaster’s disability website, as part of broader funding cuts. One protester, Dr George Taleporos, was threatened with arrest and removed from the foyer. In response he stated, “I’ve just been escorted out of the ABC premises by the police, I was hoping to have a say to the ABC execs that they should not cut our only voice at the national broadcaster. We think it’s unfortunate that people with disabilities had to be the first to suffer and we think that the decision should be reversed.”
4 November 2015, Newcastle: 150 people with disability and supporters rallied against the state government’s plans to privatise services and close Stockton, Tomaree and Kanangra residential homes. Chants during the protest included “NDIS yes, privatisation no”.
April 2015, Canberra: Members of the Bolshy Divas dressed in funeral garb and handed out white roses while reading the stories of over 40 people with disability during a Senate Inquiry. These had been collected in their document The Uncounted. This formed part of the campaign which eventually forced the federal government to hold the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability.
We took long-stemmed white roses and dressed in funeral garb and we had veils and we just read these stories [from The Uncounted] – and we had to have a braille conversion done for the blind women – but we just said, ‘We bear witness for these people.’ And we would go through their stories. As we did it, we lay down a white rose a bit performatively on the table – all these long-stemmed white roses. It was very emotional, I guess, that you had people talking with uncontrolled rage and emotion about dead people … because a lot of them were people we knew. – Samantha Connor, 2020
24 February 2019, Sydney: Hundreds of disability rights activists and supporters rallied in the city as part of the #Standbyme campaign to demand the NSW government properly fund services.
25 April 2019, Sydney: A rally organised by the National Union of Students (NUS) Disabilities Department protested outside Immigration Department offices against the threatened deportation of Kinley Wangchuck, an 18-year-old hearing-impaired student who was living in Queanbeyan, NSW.
24 March 2021, Rockhampton and Brisbane: Protest rallies gather outside Queensland Parliament House and an MP’s office to successfully demand the state government extend its funding for disability advocacy services.
24 March 2022, Victoria: Rallies were held in five locations across Victoria as part of a state-wide day of protest demanding accessible public transport. Groups gathered at V/Line stations to sing songs, give speeches and display signs. In Brunswick dozens of disability activists and supporters blocked trams to highlight that a 5.5km area along Sydney Road had no accessible tram stops. Disability Resource Centre campaigner Ally Scott told the media, “Since 1981 people with disabilities in Victoria have been campaigning for public transport they can use. But over 40 years later very little has changed. Our community and public transport system should be accessible to everyone, yet right now people like me who use a wheelchair or other mobility devices are effectively locked out of getting around Sydney Road by public transport. The Victorian Government has a responsibility to allow every member of our community to get to where they need to. They need to live up to this responsibility with urgent action.”
- Making Advocacy Accessible Collection in the Commons Library
- The History of Campaigns in Australia by People With Disability
- From Little Things Big Things Grow: Events That Changed Australia
- Timelines in the Commons Library