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Agents of our own destiny: Activism and the road to the Disability Royal Commission

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Agents of our own destiny – Activism and the road to the Disability Royal Commission


The Disability Royal Commission has published a report called ‘Agents of our own destiny – Activism and the road to the Disability Royal Commission’.

This video is a short summary of the report.

The report is about the disability rights movement and the history of activism and advocacy in Australia that led to the Disability Royal Commission being established in 2019.

The report is divided into 3 sections.

Activism era

The first section of the report outlines the history of disability activism from 1971 to 1991. 

It talks about the United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981. At this time there were powerful advertising campaigns and high-profile protests.

One important example of these protests occurred in 1981 at the Miss Australia Quest, a beauty pageant to raise money to support children with cerebral palsy. Activist Lesley Hall went on stage holding a sign saying ‘Spastic Centre oppresses women’. She felt there was a contradiction at the heart of the beauty pageant: it raised money to support children with cerebral palsy but promoted physical perfection and excluded people with disabilities.

During this period new advocacy groups were formed, including People With Disability Australia in Sydney and the Disability Resource Centre in Melbourne.

Advocacy era

The second section of the report focuses on advocacy by the disability rights movement between 1991 and 2011.

The Commonwealth Disability Discrimination Act passed in 1992. This Act created a legal avenue for people with disability experiencing discrimination.

An example of this discrimination was the struggle against forced sterilisation. During this period it became illegal to sterilise a child without approval of the court. But forced sterilisations continued.

The report refers to a woman’s experience of the requirement to be sterilised in order to play in the disabled netball state team. The woman couldn’t play because she hadn’t been sterilised, which she said was discrimination and blackmail.

Many reports were released during this time about physical and sexual violence against people with disability.

In 2007 Australia ratified the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Laws and policies were also introduced to prevent violence, abuse and exploitation of people with disability.

There were some victories for the disability rights movement in this period.  But governments cut funding for advocacy, and in general not much was done to address the concerns of people with disability the 1990s and 2000s.

Mainstream era

The third section of the report looks at the period between 2011 and 2019. This period covers the campaign for the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) which raised greater awareness about disability.

In this period, successful grassroots campaigning helped get the NDIS going.  An important report said the NDIS would have economic benefits by creating a lot of jobs.

During this period there were also lots of scandals, reports and media stories about violence, abuse and neglect of people with disability. In 2015 there was a Senate Inquiry into violence against people with disability in institutional settings.

These things raised the profile of disability as an issue of public concern which led to calls for a Disability Royal Commission.


The report says that once the NDIS was introduced and disability became a mainstream concern, the Disability Royal Commission was unavoidable.

It says the continuous and tireless work of activists and advocates since the 1970s helped make the Disability Royal Commission happen.

To read the full report, visit the ‘Publications’ section of our website.

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