ABSTRACT

A recent visitor to Australia, who came from the UK, commented to me on their return ‘I looked in vain for the disability rights movement. Can you tell me where they are?’ (Newell, 1996, p. 1)

The Australian disability rights movement was difficult to locate because a confusing, seemingly inconsistent picture of the movement was initially located. This is probably what the commentator to Newell meant when he said ‘tell me where they are?’. As I searched for a coherent vision – a unified plan of action – I was disappointed. Disability rights, as a new social movement in Australia, did not display the level of cohesion attributed to new social movements in general (Melucci, 1989; Oliver, 1996) and to the women’s liberation and Indigenous rights movements in particular (see Chapter 5). Voices within the disability rights movement at different times in history appear contradictory. Piecing together their messages revealed a picture of a movement torn between two platforms: one focusing on ‘Ability not Disability’, and the other on ‘Disability Pride’. These platforms and the tensions between them were illustrated by Parsons (1999), who framed two dilemmas for movement participants, one concentrating on fighting for service improvement, and the other on social change:

[There is] an enormous dilemma for disability rights activists. Should their efforts be geared towards fighting for more and better services, and for funding arrangements to ensure their long-term security? Or should they instead be focussing their attentions on the sort of social change which will ultimately remove the need for ‘services’ at all? (p. 42)

I came to understand the two platforms as two streams of the early Australian disability rights movement that have run concurrently through the movement’s history, often merging to share the same socio-political space whilst simultaneously presenting competing or even opposing views regarding the rights of Australians with disability. These streams shared the same local context of economic rationalism, and were launched as a new social movement for disability rights in Australia around the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981 (Clear, 2000; Cooper, 1999). They diverge to present different visions and converge to share events and voices.