Trailblazing disability campaigner takes on stereotypes and wins

10 November 2015

Joan Hume (DipEd '69, BA '69, MA '84) has spent a lifetime advocating for people with disabilities.

Joan Hume OAM has spent a lifetime advocating for the rights of people with disabilities.

After becoming NSW's first wheelchair-using classroom teacher, Hume held several policy and advocacy roles. She is now President of Spinal Cord Injuries Australia. Image: Supplied.

It was the late sixties and campuses around the world were ripe with dissent.

But young Joan Hume OAM (DipEd ’69, BA ’69, MA ’84) was leaving revolution to others. In her first week as a University of Sydney student, she looked on as Charles Perkins organised the Freedom Rides.

The lifelong disability rights advocate and current President of Spinal Cord Injuries Australia says she was not an activist at university, but she was “soaking it up like a sponge”.

Hume was focused on completing her Diploma of Education and getting a high school teaching job. She got her wish, but by 1971 everything had changed for the 23-year-old English and history teacher.

We had been taking the kids swimming in the morning and I got a lift back with one of my colleagues, rather than going back in the school bus,” she says.

“A couple of blocks from the school, the driver went through a stop sign and failed to give way to his right, and clipped a car, and the position I was sitting in in the car threw me against a window winder – a metal one, they weren’t recessed then, this was the early 1970s – and I broke my neck.”

After a long stint in hospital, she sought to resume the career she so dearly loved. She met with a Department of Education response deeply mired in the attitudes of its era. After a trip to the Medical Examinations Board, Hume was advised to pursue a job at a correspondence school.

Attitude problem

“I was sent [to a correspondence school] to have an interview with the principal and he took one look at me and freaked out. He wanted to know how many times I fall out of the chair! He was horrified that they would send me as a possibility for a teaching role to his school. In fact, one of his teachers said “well, she can’t come here, we’d have to move desks”.

“When I told him the sorts of things I’d need to be accommodated there, such as a parking space and an accessible toilet, he just threw up his hands, and said ‘no, no, we’re not making any concessions for you, if you can’t cope with things the way they are, we really don’t want you’.”

One of Hume’s rejected requests was for an overhead projector instead of a blackboard. Hume knew this was not the place for her. When overhead projectors became commonplace classroom teaching tools some years later, she couldn’t help but smile.

Beverley Hills High School would be a different story. She took up a position there, becoming the first wheelchair-using classroom teacher in NSW. Hume found support, mentoring, and encouragement at Beverley Hills and the shock of the correspondence school encounter was somewhat remedied.

“One of the lessons I have learned in life, after being in the chair for many years now, is that the world seems to be divided into those that see you as for the betterment of humanity, and able to make a positive contribution, and those who see you as a burden and embarrassment and would rather do away with you by any means,” says Hume.

Rumblings of a movement

Dormant activism would awaken toward the end of the 1970s.

“In the intervening period I was adjusting to life and beginning to get extremely annoyed and angry about attempting to do things that I used to take for granted, such as going to the local cinema or out and about.

“I encountered such negative attitudes because the physical and architectural access was so terrible. There were no facilities. All the things you take for granted today. You go into a shopping centre and you see accessible parking spots, you see modified toilets, you see little signs up with the wheelchair symbol of access.”

These victories were not easily won.

Hume recounts how institutions such as the Royal Ryde Homes imposed punitive rules on those under its care. ‘Weemala’ bore the name ‘Home for Incurables’ up until the mid-1950s. Semantics may have shifted, but the home’s ethos of the incurable endured. It would eventually earn the public scrutiny it so richly deserved, through A Current Affair coverage and resident John Roarty’s 1981 autobiography Captives of Care, which detailed his life with cerebral palsy at Weemala.

While teaching, she took up an editorship of the Australian Quadriplegic Association’s magazine in 1977 and met like-minded people, equally disgruntled by the environmental and attitudinal challenges being thrown their way.

Change agents

Hume, Roarty and their contemporaries agitated for change, dragging society toward the realisation of its own cruelty and challenging the right people, at the right time.

An inaccessible Eastern Suburbs railway line was one early battleground. When then-Premier Neville Wran came to open it he was met with disabled protestors, who in turn met with counter-protest. The clash impressed upon Wran and he would later cite the 1979 protest when introducing Australia’s first accessible taxi service.

Hume continued to take up the cudgel as a founding member of Disabled Peoples International (DPI) in Australia and New Zealand, earning a Medal of the Order of Australia in 1982, and returning two years later to the University of Sydney to complete a Master of Arts in English Literature. Policy roles at the NSW Department of Health and TAFE followed.

Fast-forward to today, where Hume cites healthcare, transport and general attitudes in need of continuing change.

“Sometimes it’s a case of one or two steps forward and a few steps back again. We’re always facing challenges with the built environment. We’re always facing challenges with attitudes.”

Even those with the best of intentions can condescend or patronise people with disabilities.

“There is still the prevailing attitude by very well-meaning people that if you do something ordinary, people think you’re inspirational,” says Hume. “For example, people used to ask me when I went back teaching, ‘how do you spend your time?’

“Not, ‘what do you do for a living?’ When I’d say ‘I’m a teacher’ they would say ‘wow, aren’t you an inspiration’ … and it would drive me absolutely bonkers. I’m not anyone’s inspiration, I’m just here doing the job I’m trained to do.”

Her job now is President of Spinal Cord Injuries Australia, where she advocates for a new generation. Take Tim McCallum, the Voice contestant who is one of the faces of Spinal Cord Injury Awareness Week (November 8-15).

“He’s a quad and he’s got a very beautiful voice. He’s gifted in the arts and we certainly don’t see enough people with disabilities represented in the arts, whether it’s a performer or on screen.

“We’re trying to challenges those stereotypes and say here we have a whole new generation of people with spinal cord injuries, so let’s look at their potential to see what they can achieve,” says Hume.

Joan Hume OAM is the recipient of a 2015 Alumni Award for Community Achievement.