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Among the most debated topics in PWDA’s membership is when and how the organisation began! There are a number of events which can be taken to be our starting point as we evolved over time from a series of events and trends built on each other. We welcome new information and insights about our past and hope one day all of this will be incorporated into a social history of our organisation.

One version of our beginning …

PWDA was founded in 1980, in the lead up to the International Year of Disabled Persons (1981), to provide people with disability with a voice of our own.

International Year of Disabled Persons 1981

The United Nations declared 1981, the International Year of Disabled Persons (IYDP). The celebration of IYDP across Australia in literally hundreds of events organised by Local, State and the Federal Government and by civil society organisations which brought people with disability together on a scale and with a focus which had not previously occurred.  IYDP particularly emphasised the rights of persons with disability and our participation within society.  At the  time, this represented a major shift in personal and social consciousness of disability away from understanding it in terms of individual pathology (the  medical model) to an understanding based in human rights and a focus on the elimination of barriers created by society. Our place in the community, in terms of our physical presence, social inclusion and civic participation, were also central to this new consciousness.

The First Handicapped Persons Conference

To bring focus to the celebration of IYDP in NSW, the NSW Government through the (then) Department of  Youth and Community Services established the IYDP Secretariat within its Handicapped Persons Bureau. A budget allocation of approximately $30,000 was provided for the IYDP Secretariat’s operation.  As IYDP events unfolded, one of the criticisms to emerge from people with disability was many of the events focused on or involved non-disabled people in identifying public policy priorities for people with disability. This included disability service providers, professionals working in the area of disability and family members of persons with disability.

To address this concern, the IYDP Secretariat decided to fund an event specifically for people with disability to identify priorities for public policy development. This event – which was called the First Handicapped Persons Conference – was actually held in early 1982, after IYDP had ended, so it was also an opportunity for reflection on the Year itself and what it had achieved.

A key issue discussed throughout the conference was the importance of people with disability having a direct voice in public policy development, rather than this voice being  filtered through other stakeholder groups. In the final plenary session of the conference, a motion was moved from the floor and carried unanimously, that a Handicapped Persons Union be established to create this voice. The organisation established as a result of  this resolution has eventually evolved into what is now called People with Disability Australia Inc.

The Handicapped Persons Alliance

The original concept for the organisation was that of a trade union – an organisation of people with disability providing a voice for people with disability.  Although this basic concept remained, in the months immediately following the First Handicapped Person’s Conference, the working title for the organisation was changed to the Handicapped Persons Alliance (apparently due to objections having been raised within the Trade Union movement about the use of the word 'Union'). To assist in the formation of this new  organisation, the NSW Government transferred to it the funds which had been used to operate the IYDP Secretariat.

In the late 1970’s the NSW Government funded an information and referral service for people with disability, known as Consumer Information for the Disabled. This Centre  operated with a similar ethos to the Handicapped Persons Alliance – being based in the self-help, independence model.  Key personnel at the level of both the  staff and Board were involved in both organisations. In 1982 the Handicapped Persons Alliance and Consumer Information for the Disabled merged and the original body was wound up towards the end of 1982. The information and referral  function was carried on under the new title of Disabled Peoples Resource Centre  which was operated by the Handicapped Persons Alliance.

Disabled Peoples International

International Year of Disabled Persons also stimulated disability activism at the international  level.  Up until the late 1970’s the views of persons with disability were largely filtered, nationally and internationally, through the voices of  service providers, professionals and family members. At the time the key international disability organisation was Rehabilitation International – the  international equivalent of ACROD in Australia Rehabilitation International. Rehabilitation International had a policy which meant, while people with disability were welcome to attend its periodic international conference  as observers, they were not permitted to speak.  At the 1980 Conference of Rehabilitation International, held in Winnipeg, Canada, this policy prompted a walkout by people with disability and a decision to  establish a new international organisation of and for people with disability.  A number of Australians with disability were present at this meeting and participated in the walkout and in the formation of the new organisation. The organisation founded was Disabled Peoples International (DPI), which now has members in over 160 countries throughout the  world.

As a result of the efforts of  Australian activists who had been involved in the formation of the DPI, a NSW branch of Disabled Peoples International was established in 1982. Branches were also established in other States and Territories in the early 1980s along with a national assembly - Disabled Peoples International (Australia).

In 1984, the World Congress of Disabled Peoples International was held in Singapore. A number of activists involved in both the NSW branch of Disabled Peoples International and the Handicapped Persons Alliance attended this conference.  When  they returned from Singapore,  they created momentum to merge the Handicapped Persons Alliance and the NSW Branch of Disabled Peoples International.  This occurred in 1984 under the organisation name of Disabled Peoples International (NSW Branch), which reflected the very strong sense of connection felt with the emerging international social movement of people with disability.  This name was registered with the Department of Fair Trading in 1985.

In 1985, Disabled Peoples International (NSW Branch) adopted a Constitution based on a regional council structure and became incorporated under the NSW Associations Incorporation  Act, 1984. Each regional council  nominated delegates to the central Board of the organisation. There were four metropolitan regions –  Eastern, Southern, North East and North West - and five country regions Western, Riverina,  Illawarra, North Coast and Hunter. This regional structure operated until 1991,  when a new constitution was adopted based on a Board directly elected by the membership.

People with Disabilities (NSW) Inc

In 1991, along with a new organisational structure, the organisation also assumed a new name – People with Disabilities (NSW) Inc. The new  name was adopted to capture a changed perception of people with disability as  ‘person first, disabled second’.

Liquidation of Disabled Peoples International (Australia)

In 1996, Disabled Peoples International (Australia) hosted the Fourth World Congress of Disabled Peoples International in Sydney.  Although the event was a great success from a number of perspectives, it was financially disastrous.  Left with debts exceeding $100,000, Disabled Peoples International (Australia) went into liquidation and was wound up as a result. As a consequence, Australia ceased to have a national assembly member of Disabled Peoples International.

Disability Australia Ltd

In 1998 People with Disabilities (NSW) Inc supported a proposal to establish a new national assembly of Australians with disability capable of reinstating Australian membership of Disabled Peoples International. The organisation established was called Disability Australia Ltd. This new organisation was provided with provisional membership of Disabled Peoples International as a national assembly on condition it would develop a national representative structure. This has never eventuated and PWDA withdrew support for Disability Australia Ltd.

People with Disability Australia

In 2002, PWDA’s membership approved a repositioning of PWDA as a national disability rights and advocacy organisation. The organisation’s name was changed to reflect this new positioning on the second of May 2003.  The principal reasons for the change were to position PWDA to undertake work on national policy issues.

As a state-based organisation, People with Disabilities (NSW) Inc was always at a disadvantage in attempting to engage with Federal politicians, Commonwealth agencies and other national entities. We had also increasingly come to fill the role once performed by Disabled Peoples International (Australia) on a regional and international level and the name change and repositioning reflected this reality. However, in approving our repositioning at the national level, members also insisted that our work at the NSW level be maintained and continuously developed. Leading on from this expansion, PWDA went on to open eight regional offices over the 2010-2012.

Between 2003-2006 PWDA played a valuable role in the development of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), organising national consultations and consultations with members, making submissions, hosting seminars, and supporting delegates to attend sessions of the UN Ad Hoc Committee. Through this work PWDA gained Special Consultative Status with the Economic and Social Council of the United Nations.

From 2009 onwards, PWDA continues to play an ongoing role in monitoring the implementation of the CRPD in Australia, and is part of the NGO CRPD Shadow Report Project Group.

Along with our national work, PWDA has been undertaking international development work in the Pacific since 2004. We are a signatory to the Australian Council for International Development (ACFID) Code of Conduct and committed to ethical practice and public accountability in all of our international development work.

PWDA celebrated its 30th Anniversary on Saturday 16 July 2011