Archives of the disability rights movement

On 28 March, the University of Melbourne Archives with the Arts Faculty and Scope co-hosted the launch of the Geoffrey Bell Archive, with support from the State Trustees Australia Foundation.

The Geoffrey Bell Archive is a useful resource for researchers interested in the history of the disability rights movement in Australia and may prove a useful aid for future debates and discussions on disability rights issues. It is the first collection held at UMA that documents the disability rights movement and the lived experience of Australian’s with a disability.

At the launch, Geoff’s friend and fellow disability rights advocate, Maree Ireland gave a beautifully moving account of the contribution made by Geoff and the importance of his archive. We are delighted to be able to publish it. 

Maree Ireland speaks at the launch of the Geoffrey Bell Archive
Maree Ireland speaks at the launch of the Geoffrey Bell Archive, 28 March 2019

Maree Ireland has been working with Field, a Registered Training Organisation, for 10 years, assisting with the training of disability support workers and maintaining Field’s Learner Guides and resources. Maree also writes Field’s Student Newsletter and blogs about various disability issues. Maree has a Law/Arts degree, and prior to working at Field, worked in the disability advocacy sector. Maree enjoys live theatre, movies, reading autobiographies and going on holidays.

An article on the collection by Maree’s fellow presenter Professor Keith McVilly is also available online.

To access the archive, see the online finding aids (collection indexes) and information about accessing material.

For those who may not know, Geoff Bell was born in 1944.  He loved fast cars, a beer, rock’n’roll and people.

He was an ALP stalwart who was passionate about politics and the welfare of others.  It would be these two passions, politics and people’s welfare that would lead him to become one of the greatest disability activists in Australia’s history.  Geoff was also, according to his partner of 8 years, Mary Burgess, “wise, kind and generous and wonderfully wild and passionate”.

After a swimming accident in 1965, Geoff lived with a high level spinal cord injury for 43 years. However, he did not let his disability get the better of him and wanted others to have the same opportunities so Geoff set out on a journey which led him to become a well-known and important figure in the development of the disability rights movement in Australia.

There are 4 points I want to make this evening about Geoff Bell.

The first, is to get across Geoff’s fundamental vision and ideas for people with disabilities

In the 1970’s and 80’s, as part of the disability movement, Geoff believed in and advocated for self-determination, independence and equality for people with disabilities.

Not only did Geoff have a deep passion for the rights of people with disability, he also believed in the rights of all workers.

You will see from his Collection, that Geoff held a number of formal roles including:

  • Welfare Officer at the Trade Union Clinic, Footscray
  • ACTU representative on the International Year of the Disabled National Committee in 1991; and
  • President of the Attendant Care Coalition

With his vision and passion for people with disabilities and for workers in general, Geoff targeted in on a number of key themes and campaigns including:

  • The emergence of the disability rights movement in the U.S. and Australia in the 1970s
  • Policy debates around housing and employment for people with a disability from the 1970’s
  • The rise of self-help organisations in the disability sector in Australia in the 1980s
  • The role of people with a disability during International Year of the Disabled – 1981.
  • The emergence of in-home attendant care schemes firstly in the U.S. and then in Australia across the thirty year span of the archive  (Geoff was the recipient of one of the first packages of home attendant care support in the 1980’s)
  • And last but in no way least, the experience of actually living independently with a high level spinal cord injury in the late 20th Century.  Geoff was a pioneer not only in what he said but in how he lived. The archive contains numerous brochures, instruction manuals etc for various aids and equipment used by Geoff as well as some great personal correspondence and some medical and care records which evidence his day to day life with his disability.

Secondly, I want to make mention of Geoff’s delivery – that is, the way he got his ideas across – Geoff was a past-master at effective activism

It’s fine to have great ideas and we have all sat at demonstrations with a sign but heading home you can sometimes wonder if you have made a difference.

But what set Geoff apart was;

  1. his ability to get his ideas before politicians;
  2. his ability to get politicians to understand those ideas; and
  3. his ability to then get those politicians to effect change on the basis of those ideas and his continued activism.

Not many can achieve that and struggle with getting any of their ideas before decision makers and as such their legacy is limited.

But not so in Geoff’s case.

From my reading of Geoff’s archive collection, he was a prolific letter writer and it becomes clear that Geoff had a determination to ensure that politicians became aware and understood the plight of people with disabilities and their right to have attendant care to be able to live in the community instead of nursing homes.

An example of this can be seen when, during Tom Uren’s stint as Urban and Regional Development Minister in the Whitlam government, Geoff developed and co-ordinated the Disabled Action Forum, which focused on advocacy techniques and state-wide planning for better services for people with disabilities.

Geoff’s writing is poignant, clear and well-reasoned.

While I was reading through Geoff’s handwritten and typed correspondence, I remembered myself how, back then in the old days, the advocacy movement thanks to people like Geoff only existed at a personal and direct level with politicians and government.   Without those direct connections and the ability to get a politician to take up your cause and concerns there was no action.

Geoffrey Bell at disability rights protest 1978
Geoffrey Bell at a protest about the lack of access for people with disabilities to public buildings, c1978. Photographer unknown. Geoffrey Bell collection, University of Melbourne Archives, 2018.0075.00069

Once that direct contact with politicians created an awareness of the issues there developed a role for Professional Advocacy organisations.  Those were a step in the right direction although  people with disabilities were often included in a tokenistic way on committee of managements and the advocacy work was done by “professional advocates”.

I’m not saying these advocacy organisations didn’t do excellent work or achieve some great change in the disability sector, but I think they were not as effective in many ways as the trail blazers like Geoff who preceded them.

After having worked with those advocacy organisations and now having read through Geoff’s archive collection, I began to feel that the key to the effectiveness of people like Geoff and ‘his mates’ as advocates was their sense of connectedness:

  • Their connectedness to the issues they were advocating – after all they were experiencing those issues first hand;
  • Their connectedness to the people with the power to change the status quo; and,
  • the connectedness and grit determination to keep pushing and pushing until actual change was achieved and they could personally enjoy and feel the product of their activism first hand.

Like advocacy being taken over by ‘professional organisations’ we saw that in the early days the delivery of attendant care was through individual grants to people who could then employ people of their choice.  Of course there were some rules to follow but on the whole, the system was based on a mutual understanding, respect and caring for the needs of the person with the disability and a mutual respect for each other’s rights.

But then once the delivery of attendant care services was taken over by service providers, the direct relationship between the workers and the people with disabilities they were supporting slowly became eroded by the numerous administrative requirements, the overused excuse of ‘duty of care’ and the corresponding plethora of  rules enforced by government and service providers alike.

Geoff was aware of the importance of maintaining that ‘connectedness’ between the person with the disability and third parties whether it be politicians, the community or carers.  It was that connectedness to the issues that Geoff worked so well to his advantage and that of all people in Australia with a disability.  He was the ultimate advocate.

I think if I have taken something from reading Geoff’s archive collection it is that we in the disability movement today both formal and informal need to maintain our connectedness to the issues that affect us.  In surrendering that connectedness to advocacy agencies, organisations, care providing services etc we have lost the key that often ensures the effectiveness of what we seek to advocate.  Geoff got that link and was a master at using it to get change.

That notion of achieving change in the disability sector is a nice segue to my third point tonight about Geoff Bell. That is, to consider Geoff’s legacy  – and what great change has come from Geoff’s ideas, his advocacy and his connectedness to the issues he was seeking to change.

Undoubtedly, the beliefs and advocacy work undertaken by Geoff and his mates lay the early foundations for the establishment in recent years of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. The fundamental idea and motivation behind the development of NDIS is very similar to the development of attendant care by Geoff and his mates all those years ago.

Unfortunately the delivery of attendant care through support agencies became overly administrative and bogged down with legalities and ‘due of care’ dramas that ultimately affected the delivery of the care service that it was meant to provide. So too, the delivery of services under the NDIS, although great when you receive them as I do, is often slow and many people still need to fight for the services they really need.

I think Geoff is looking down tonight saying as he did on many occasion and I quote: “we still do not have complete control over our lives and are being held back by bureaucracy.”

However, we now have thousands and thousands of people with disabilities living actively in the community with disability supports or varying times.  That would not have occurred without people like Geoff Bell advocating effectively for that basis right of participation and inclusion in the broader community.

And Geoff’s legacy is not just in Victoria but all of Australia and the concepts have spread up into Asia.

So in many ways regardless of how the NDIS system is currently working, when we look at the basic principle behind the NDIS it is to enable people to live in the community and live the life they want to live notwithstanding their disability.  This was the vision of Geoff Bell and his mates and if they are looking down on us tonight, I trust they are all having a beer and celebrating their significant legacy.  Geoff and his mates managed to influence hundreds and thousands and ultimately millions of lives by changing the paradigm of our decision makers around the provision of disability services.

But saying someone influenced many people’s lives sounds wonderful but it is a faceless achievement. So, my fourth point about Geoff is to ask you all look at me and see one direct example of what Geoff Bell’s legacy was.

From memory, I think the first time I actually saw Geoff “and his mates” Les and Frank Hall-Bentick, Rob McNamara and Frank Stevens, to name a few, was in the early 1970’s. Geoff was talking about Self-Help groups; being able to live in the community; and developing and advocating for the concept of attendant care.

Unfortunately and regretfully, at that stage of my life I had just completed 11 years of segregated education, and had just started at a Scope (Spastic Society) sheltered workshop where I would be for the next thirteen years.

So my headspace was then not very receptive to Geoff’s wonderful ideas of being able to live in the community with daily disability support to assist me. It was something I could not have even imagined then. But Geoff imagined it and acted on it.

I remember I did meet Geoff on several occasions through the years at forums, meetings and social occasions.  I thought of Geoff’s conversations to be direct, to the point and delivered with a wicked sense of humour.

At that time of my life, I was using a communication device called a Canon Communicator where I would type out what I wanted to say and it would print out on a tiny piece of ticket type thin paper.   After a few hours of conversation I would end up with quite a pile of paper in front of me.

Geoff would pop up with a smile on his face and say he’d hope I would take my papers with me and not be a litterbug.  Only Geoff with his cheeky smile and tone could get away with that and now imagine with our political correctness.  Fortunately technology has progressed and I hope Geoff is pleased I no longer need to be a litterbug

When I was asked to speak about Geoff, I wasn’t sure what I could say. Then I realised how I live my life today with disability support workers is all due to the never ending advocacy work done by disability activists such as Geoff.

As I said before, in the 1970’s I was continually being told I would only be suited to segregated employment and special accommodation and to work each day in a sheltered workshop. The concepts of “attendant care” and “living in the community” were foreign concepts to me.  It wasn’t until the early 1990’s, when attendant care was fully operational, that I looked into it for myself.  I also looked into studying Law at Melbourne University where, again, I was able to get disability supports to assist me with my studies (and even cutting up my lunch in the café and downing a cheeky cappuccino between contracts and constitutional lectures).

So I, and many, many people with disabilities must say thanks to Geoff and “his mates” for their untiring work which now enables me to be a lawyer and advocate and not stuck in a sheltered workshop and to travel home to my own home with disability supports rather than living in an institution.

In closing, I urge and encourage, students, bureaucrats and others to come in and read through Geoff’s Archives to gain an understanding and appreciation of this wonderful man, the history of disability advocacy in this country and the keystone issues that Geoff was fighting about and the wonderful advocacy he showed in achieving real change.

Thank you, Geoff Bell, for everything you have done for the disability movement and for people with a disability like me, and thank you all for coming tonight and listening.


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