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Disability in Australia: Shadows, struggles and successes

  • Research program
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Disability in Australia – Shadows, struggles and successes


The Disability Royal Commission has published a report called ‘Disability in Australia – Shadows, struggles and successes’. This Auslan video is a summary of the report.

The report was written by Associate Professor Lorna Hallahan.

The report is a history of disability in Australia. It looks at different cultural and social factors that have impacted the lives of people with disability. It says that throughout history, society has viewed people with disability as different, and who do not fit in. And this has influenced the way the community and government treat people with a disability regarding access and needs.


Since colonisation many people have been affected by the spread of diseases including smallpox, measles and polio.

The report looks at the impact of diseases and illnesses and how these have left people with long lasting disabilities. For example German Measles, also known as Rubella, was a disease known to cause deafness.


The report looks at the set-up of asylums, hospitals and prisons for people with disability in the 19th century.

Many people with disability were placed in asylums and hospitals because disability was misunderstood. People were thought to be mad and unfit to live in the community. Many people were treated badly in these asylums.

Providing services ‘for’ people with disability, not ‘with’ them

In the mid-19th century, charities were set up to help people with disability. Some charities controlled the lives of people with disability, like their health care or education. At this time medical intervention and perspectives became more widespread. In some cases service systems took away the resources and opportunities for people with disability to run things themselves.

The report highlights one example when deaf people held important roles in groups and organisations. Deaf people established schools for deaf children. They taught at and led these schools. This helped the deaf community preserve its language and culture. Then hearing educators and medical professionals started taking over. They saw deaf adults as being incapable. They stripped deaf adults of resources and opportunities to run their own services. This made it hard for deaf people to access and preserve their cultural and community identity. The deaf community fought hard to control their organisations and community. By the end of the 1930s hearing people dominated the education and welfare of deaf people.

A step towards change

After the First World War wounded soldiers returned from battle fields with life-long injuries and disabilities. They highlighted how society treated them differently and encouraged society to recognise the ways people with disability can and do contribute positively.

Rights and an inclusive approach

The disability movement in the 1970s and 1980s influenced laws and reforms about things like discrimination, guardianship and the sterilisation of women.

In the 21st century a more inclusive approach towards people with disability started. This included supported community living and inclusive schooling.

In 2007, Australia signed up to the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability.

Later the Australian Government set up a National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). This allowed people with disability greater choice and control in identifying what supports they need and who they want to provide those supports. The NDIS ensures people with a disability have greater autonomy and decision making power over their lives.


The report says that while people with disability now live a more dignified life, they still struggle against attitudes such as racism, stigma and exclusion.

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