Legislation for people with disabilities in South Australia
Legislation has been important for people with disabilities in achieving services and integration into the community. This was particularly so in the halcyon days of reform in the 70s and 80s. However, legislation played a role even in colonial times.
South Australia was the first State to legislate for associations to be able to incorporate, as early as 1858. This enabled parents, friends and supporters of different groups to form legal entities for fundraising and providing services. In this way members were able to avoid personal liability for debts of the association. This early start helps to explain why so many NGOs have played such a crucial role in South Australia’s disability history and still provide services today.
South Australia’s first Mental Health Act was less commendable. The Lunatics Act of 1864 breezily dismisses distinctions between mental illness and intellectual disability in its key definition: “ lunatic” “shall mean and include every person of unsound mind and every person being an idiot .”
Things could only improve from this, although until the late 1970s, the emphasis in our mental health legislation was clearly on control, rather than individual rights. At the stroke of a pen, the superintendent of a mental health institution could place a person’s finances under the Public Trustee, or detain someone indefinitely. Appeals lay only to the Supreme Court.
It was the South Australian Mental Health Act 1977-79 that led Australia in its reforms, with the creation of the Guardianship Board among other things to ensure longterm restrictions on a person’s liberty and management of finances were subject to scrutiny and approval by a special multidisciplinary body.
As a lawyer in the Crown Solicitor’ Office and then as the first Chairman of the Guardianship Board, I was heavily involved in the implementation of this legislation. However, the architect of this farsighted legislation was the then Director of Mental Health, Dr Bill Dibden, who should not be forgotten for his contribution.
However, it was the Committee on Rights of Persons with Handicaps which was a turning point for persons with disabilities in terms of law reform. In 1976, the then Attorney-General Peter Duncan noticed a short article in The Bulletin on the UN Declarations of Rights of Disabled Persons and Mentally Retarded Persons. It gave him the idea of a review of South Australian law and policy having regard to these Declarations. He asked Charles Bright, a Supreme Court judge and me to work together to set up the review.
Over the next 5 years, (life was so leisurely then) the Committee produced 2 major reports on physical and intellectual disability respectively, which led to many changes of benefit to people with disabilities, including:
• Anti discrimination laws
• Improved access laws
• The parking permit scheme
• Employment initiatives
One can see its influence in the Principles of Disability Services Acts and national standards for disability services.
Perhaps, its crucial contribution was its rights perspective – that people with disabilities should be part of the community as a right; they should be able to enter public buildings without access problems; they should not be discriminated against in employment when their disability does not affect their ability to do the job.
Until then, advocates for access improvements had always met arguments based on need and cost. How many people in wheelchairs will actually want to enter this building was a frequently asked question which proved an obstacle for change. Arguments based on right were much more difficult to dismiss.
Just as the Bright Committee was ending its work, it was 1981 and IYDP [the Year of Disabled Persons ] which continued the focus on disability issues. The responsible Minister was again the Attorney-General because of the rights focus, and now Trevor Griffin, who brought considerable commitment to the task.
The momentum continued with a review of services for people with intellectual disability, chaired by Dr Bill McCoy, supported by others, including a young psychologist, Peter Millier.
The same slipstream saw the creation of Link magazine by Jeff Heath, who along with others including Neil Lillecrapp collaborated to obtain Government support to establish DIRC. Jeff played a significant role in publicizing the need for change in a light, very effective way, not dissimilar to Nick Xenophon.
The other significant force for change was Richard Llewellyn, who through commitment and personality became the Disability Adviser to the Premier, and enhanced the impetus for change.
This was a most creative and enjoyable time for me, as the principal writer of the Bright Reports and in the implementation of the legislative changes which followed. In this, I had the support and friendship of many people who were seeking the same changes, including;
Sir Charles Bright
They were heady days . There was a great sense of being involved in something worthwhile together.
Ian Bidmeade AM
Ian Bidmeade is a lawyer with expertise in the areas of disability and mental health. He was appointed a Member of the Order of Australia in 2008 for service to public health and to people with disabilities through contributions to administrative and legislation reforms, and to the community through a range of social welfare organisations. Ian is a Board Member of Disability Information and Resource Centre (DIRC).