WWDA Leadership Workshop Report

This is a report from a Leadership Workshop conducted by Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) in Adelaide, October 1997. Copyright WWDA 1997.


The WWDA Leadership Workshop was conducted in Adelaide in October 1997 following the WWDA Annual General Meeting. The Leadership Workshop came about as a flow on effect from two important international forums for women. One of these was the International Women’s Conference held in Beijing in 1995, and the other was the International Leadership Forum for Women with Disabilities, held in Washington in 1997. These two international meetings identified the need for leadership training for all women, including women with disabilities.

The WWDA National Executive Committee agreed that a leadership workshop would be an ideal strategy to complement the Annual General Meeting, and would reflect some of the needs of women with disabilities identified at the two international forums. The Workshop was co-facilitated by Vicky Toovey, Fiona Strahan and Joyce Deering. Elements of the workshop proceedings were videotaped and this report has been compiled from those videos.

This report documents the proceedings of the Women With Disabilities Australia Leadership Workshop and makes extensive use of the workshop participants own words. This report therefore, does not aim to reduce what was said to a few pages of dry issues, but rather attempts to let the participants do at least some of the speaking for themselves.

Introducing the Participants

Leadership Workshop Introductory Exercise – “Getting to Know Each Other”
Each participant spent two minutes talking with the person seated next to them. The aim of this was to find out 3 key things about that person and then introduce them to the wider group. The following section gives a brief introduction to the workshop participants.

Fiona is currently living in country Victoria where she works as a Consultant and grows apple trees. She is interested in environmental issues; issues concerning women with disabilities; and is particularly concerned with the race debate that is occurring in Australia at the moment.

Vicky lives in South Australia and is the Director of Women’s Health Services. She feels very privileged to be able to work across both the women with disabilities field and the women’s health field. She is interested in reading and is a librarian by trade. Vicky is the newly elected Chair of the WWDA National Executive Committee.

Cathy is from Adelaide. She is concerned with ensuring that women with disabilities receive the care they require. Cathy particularly enjoys being outdoors.

Joyce is from Darwin. She is particularly interested in issues regarding access for women with disabilities. She sees herself as ‘an agitator and stirrer’, and believes that we should continue to work very hard to support each other and the hard work we all do.

Diana is from the ACT where she has lived for 25 years. She has been blind since the age of 10. She has a dog called “Nadia” who she has had for 5 years. Diana is retired from the Public Service and now that she has retired, is finding time to do the things she was unable to do when she was working. She is particularly interested in ensuring that women with disabilities are able to lead an equitable life. Diana has been a member of WWDA since its beginning.

Chandra is Sri Lankan and has been in Australia for 16 years. She is from Adelaide and works with the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission (ATSIC). Chandra is interested in being able to demonstrate how much more vital people with disabilities are than they are given credit for. She believes that people with disabilities need to be taken seriously in our community. Chandra had polio as a child and now experiences post-polio syndrome.

Pauline is a representative of the Catholic Women’s League of Australia. She is a wife and a mother of 2 children.

Di is from Canberra and has worked part time at the national office of WWDA for the last 2.5 years. She has cerebral palsy which affects her coordination and her hearing. She also works part-time as a Support Worker for an organisation called ‘People First’ which is an advocacy group. Di is a wife and mother of 2 sons aged 15 and 12.

Margaret is from Adelaide. She has been active in the disability rights movement for over 20 years. She has been to several national and international conferences relating to disability issues. Margaret is interested in reading and is particularly concerned with the needs of minority groups, such as people with disabilities, and indigenous people.

Rae comes from Brisbane. She is a schoolteacher and always finds herself very busy. She has been involved in the disability movement for over 15 years, at a state, national and international level. Rae is a grandmother to a 5 month old boy.

Margaret is the past President of WWDA. She has recently retired. She is a cat lover and her main hobby is her cats. Margaret is a very active member of WWDA.

Sue is from Tasmania. She is recently retired and finds her life to be very busy. Sue drives a car and states that she “hates gardening!”

Joan is from New South Wales. She acquired her disability as a young adult. She is a teacher and has taught in schools and is now teaching adults with a disability at TAFE. Joan has been an adviser to the New South Wales Government on disability and education.

Di had her accident in 1964 while she was learning to fly a plane. The accident left her with a spinal cord injury. She is now retired and is an active volunteer for people with disabilities. Di coordinates a number of projects on access issues.

Maria is from Perth where she has lived for 10 years. She is the first person with a head injury disability to drive a car. Maria is the Secretary for the Western Australia branch of WWDA.

Gay has 3 children and was the first woman to have a child by ‘natural’ childbirth since becoming a quad. She believes that women with disabilities can be seen as ‘sexy women’. Gay has started her own business for women with disabilities.

Maureen is a retired teacher. She is a carer and support person to Lisa. Maureen enjoys most things about life and particularly enjoys reading.

Lisa has a 6 month old baby and a ‘handsome’ husband!. She used to play the bagpipes but can’t now as she has a shunt which goes into her chest cavity. Lisa has decided to take up playing drums instead.

Joanne works as a support person to Pam and has done a lot of work over the years with people with disabilities.

Pam was involved in a car accident 6 years ago. She is attending this workshop with her support person, Pam.

Judy is from Adelaide. She has had a disability since 1970. Has worked with WWDA since 1986 and is very pleased to be at the workshop because women with disabilities can often be quite isolated.

Chris is from Newcastle. She is a wife and a mother to 3 boys.

Dallas runs a group for women with disabilities in Newcastle. It is a very successful group and Dallas is very pleased with its progress. Dallas has a Siamese cat which she loves! Dallas is also very pleased to be at this workshop with other women.

Dorothy had a stroke some years ago. She supports people with disabilities in various ways. Dorothy works with people who experience speech and concentration difficulties.

Ruthie says she has some difficulties ‘thinking quickly’. She is currently seeking employment and is very keen to become more independent.

Helen is the Executive Officer for WWDA and is based in Canberra. She is a very dynamic woman and is always accessible to WWDA members.

How the Leadership Workshop Came About

Why a Leadership Workshop?
Joyce gave an outline of how the idea for a WWDA Leadership Workshop came as a flow on effect from some significant international forums. The first of these was the International Conference for Women which was held in Beijing, China in 1995. This conference had a big impact around the world. There were several recommendations from this Conference which went to the United Nations. One of these recommendations was for the need for workshops on leadership for women. As a result of this, a Leadership Forum for Women with Disabilities was held in Washington, United States of America in 1997. WWDA was able to send two representatives to this forum. There were 18 applicants and the two successful applicants were Vicky Toovey and Glenda Lee who both went to the forum. In discussing how the Adelaide Leadership Forum came about, Joyce also offered the following statements:

  • “Many women are leaders but don’t think of themselves as leaders….”
  • “Leadership is sadly lacking among the general community….”
  • “It is important for us to keep the issue of leadership alive….”
  • “Leadership is not a daunting thing…..we are all leaders…….”
  • “we need to break down the barriers that prevent us from being leaders….”
  • “We can make an impression…..”

Videotaping the Workshop
It had been agreed by those organising the workshop, that it would be a good idea to videotape the proceedings. Fiona gave a brief outline of the reasons why the workshop was being videotaped. She discussed how she had attended a leadership forum in Oregon, United States of America where video was used as a medium to capture the experiences and stories of women with disabilities. She stated that this was a very empowering process for many of the women participating in the forum. Some of the reasons Fiona gave for using video to capture the workshop proceedings included:

  • it is a very empowering process for women, particularly if they have control of the videotaping;
  • women with disabilities need to educate able bodied people of disability issues and the use of video is a good way to do this;
  • it is a process where women can develop new skills;
  • it is a way we can develop a tool to use in our work;
  • it is an opportunity for women with disabilities to ‘have a go’ at using a video camera.

A Report and Group Discussion on the International Leadership Forums

Fiona had attended a 2 week gathering of women with disabilities from 28 countries prior to the Washington Forum. This gathering was organised by Mobility International which has a wealth of experience in conducting leadership forums. The 2 weeks was a wonderful experience – there was a diversity of disability, culture and experience. Although there were women from 28 countries, several of who did not speak English it was possible to work in a group. This was made possible by the fact that there were a range of Interpreters available, as well as sign language interpreters.

At the end of the 2 week gathering, Fiona and many of the women moved on to the Leadership Forum in Washington. Vicky Toovey and Glenda Lee were also at the Washington Forum, representing WWDA. Vicky and Fiona talked about their experience at the Forum. They both felt an immediate sense of connection with the other Forum participants, and also felt that they were truly part of an international women with disabilities movement. Although the women participating were from all over the world, there was a real universality of experiences between them.

Vicky talked about how she was struck by the number of women with amputations at the forum, and how it became apparent that many of these women were victims of landmines and war. Vicky talked about how from an Australian perspective, war is not a concept we have to grapple with. Yet, these women’s experiences reflected just how much of an impact the environment and conflict can have on women with disabilities. It also demonstrated how cultural, social, economic, religious and political factors shape a woman’s experience of her disability.

There was a strong sense of physical disability and sensory impairment at the Forum. Both Vicky and Fiona talked about the fact that the Washington Forum did not really raise or address issues concerning women with intellectual, psychiatric and/or mental health disabilities. It was also suggested that this is mirrored in a way in our own organisation, and we need to do a lot more work to ensure that we reach out to women with intellectual, psychiatric and/or mental health disabilities and other ‘hidden’ disabilities. WWDA needs to ensure that this occurs if we are to be truly inclusive and not discriminate against any disability.

Vicky’s Story – A Community Development Initiative
Vicky told the following story as a personal highlight of her experience at the Washington Forum:

“I’d like to talk about a group of women who had an enormous impact on me while I was away. I think this story models the whole lot of different ways that women with disabilities can be leaders and participants. One of the things that didn’t work well for me at the Conference was the workshops in the afternoon. This was partly because of our concept of ‘workshops’ – a small group of women being able to sit around and introduce ourselves and be very focused. You would walk into a workshop at the Conference and there were 100 people there and so you didn’t get that opportunity to integrate like you can in smaller groups. But the one session I found really inspiring and wonderful was done by a group called “Whirlwind Women”. They were truly inspirational.

What they are is a group of women who make their own wheelchairs. How we were introduced to this was by being shown a video of these women working…..the video started off by showing photographs in Africa at the back of a Rehabilitation Office where there were a pile of wheelchairs absolutely stacked high. There were a mountain of them – absolutely rusting and falling apart. What it showed was that we, in our great Western way, donate our spare wheelchairs to other countries (particularly developing countries) and we all think we’re doing a wonderful thing. The wheelchairs arrive there, get used for a short time, then fall apart. They are not suitable for the conditions; are not made for the women to sit in etc. We also saw horrific video of people with sores from sitting in poorly made wheelchairs. So all of this combined meant that women were left sitting in their houses; kids were left to crawl around mud floors – and then of course, the women were unable to access education etc.

I think the original idea for making wheelchairs came from some men in America who began making wheelchairs for themselves. This idea then got taken up by a group of women from Uganda and Kenya – workshops were run to show the women how to make their own wheelchairs.

What they have done…..they’ve done the metalwork, the canvassing etc, and they’ve designed them to fit themselves. What this means is that they have learned those skills which breaks down a whole lot of stereotypes about women being able to make things to do with metal; women being able to design; women being able to repair. So what you end up with is a wheelchair that you have developed totally and that you are going to be able to go on repairing and modifying to suit yourself.

We saw some fabulous film of these women making and using their own wheelchairs and we had women there to demonstrate how they did it. One of the things they demonstrated was bending a wheel rim. This involved a round piece of wood set on another piece of wood and a piece of metal. A woman who was a paraplegic hopped out of her wheelchair up onto the table and got the piece of mental and showed us how to bend it around the piece of wood. It didn’t seem to take a great deal of strength – it was more to do with the angle and the way leverage was applied to it. So then we all had a turn at bending a wheel rim.

So for me, it was one of the most empowering things. It was about community development; it was about grass roots action; it was about breaking down a whole lot of gender stereotypes; it was about showing how women could do a whole lot of things that normally women with a disability would not be expected to do. It was also about income generation – the women are currently working out how they can set themselves up as a business.

One of the things that excited me about it was that it showed an opportunity that maybe we, as a national movement, may be able to support something similar in the Asia Pacific Region. We could start talking to Community Aid Abroad; the Overseas Bureau; Ausaid about how we might start making linkages with the Asia Pacific Region.

It really was one of the most inspirational things. Women were sitting there in the wheelchairs they had made and they also had some new models that they had worked on. One of the models which was really fascinating was a wheelchair that had a little seat which could be put in place – it was a velcro strap seat – and what was good about that was, as a mum, you could have your child sitting there with you. There was a fabulous video image of this woman in her wheelchair with one child in the front of the wheelchair and another 3 children running behind. The woman in the video was present at the workshop with us, and she said: “Play that again, Play that again….I haven’t seen my children for 3 weeks!”.

Another thing which was great about one of the models, was a wheelchair which had this velcro bit you could unstrap which opened into a hole so you could use it for a toilet….women could go camping; be outside etc. We had people in the workshop leaping in and out of wheelchairs to try this out because it was quite revolutionary in what it did.

The workshop for me was one of those experiences that I never would have got except by going overseas. I wanted to share the experience with you because it really was very important to me.”

Women With Disabilities Australia – An Historical Perspective

Margaret Cooper, past Chair of WWDA, provided participants at the forum with an overview of the history of the disability rights movement and the evolution of WWDA. This overview is detailed here.

In 1971, World Rehabilitation Agencies set up the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Mentally Disabled Persons. 1975 saw the United Nations Declaration of Disabled Persons. In 1979, the World Rehabilitation Conference was held, where people with disabilities decided they wanted to meet as a group. By this stage, there were enough people with disabilities who were trained to be rehabilitation ‘experts’ such as social workers, psychologists, doctors etc. These people believed that it was time that people with disabilities were able to speak for themselves, because up until this time, the ‘experts’ in rehabilitation had been mainly able-bodied people. People with disabilities had been viewed by the able bodied ‘experts’ as ‘patients’ rather than people in their own right.

Historically, people with disabilities were divided – they had their own agencies and were segregated by the disability industry. This was another reason why people with disabilities wanted to get together at an international level – they wanted to be able to discuss issues of common concern regardless of disability type.

It was in 1981 that these people met at their first World Assembly. At the same time, the United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons was in effect. This was suggested partly by people with disabilities and also the disability industry. It represented a time of great personal exposure for people with disabilities and was extremely important. Private lives suddenly became public. The aim of the United Nations International Year of Disabled Persons was to get the community to understand the issues around disability. There were a number of campaigns and advertisements and each national government was encouraged to support people with disabilities to form their own organisations.

Disabled Peoples International (DPI) was formed in Australia in 1982. The United Nations had agreed to a 10 year world program of action for people with disabilities and part of the role of Disabled Peoples International was to see that each government paid attention to that.

I first became involved in Disabled Peoples International in 1984. Although it was very exciting, it soon became clear that the men were running the show and this was uncomfortable for many women with disabilities. There were some men who were interested only in attaining positions of power and wielding that power.

One of the things that made me move away from a male dominated organisation and become move involved in women’s issues, was my experience with the National Women’s Consultative Council. I was sent by Disabled Peoples International to the National Women’s Consultative Council – a body where women were appointed by different organisations to be on a Ministers Advisory Council. For me, there were 2 things which stood out. Firstly, we were meant to go back to women in our own organisations, tell them what was happening, and give them the opportunity to bring their views forward; and secondly, we were meant to work on achieving a consensus. Instead of rigging votes, debating for hours on end, moving motions and all that, the Women’s Consultative Council were strongly committed to talking through the issues until we reached common agreement.

The process of consensus involves:

  • identifying the issue (eg: aboriginal women unable to get access to clean water);
  • researching background information on the issue;
  • identifying what we can do to help;
  • working in groups to talk about how wee feel about the issues;
  • exchanging information and pooling ideas;
  • working through any disagreements;
  • clarifying any issues of confusion.

All this takes much longer than simply ‘moving a motion’. Consensus building can be a long and tedious process, but women work best when they work in a consensus building way.

It became clear to me, that if the disability movement was to be effective, it needed to move towards a consensus approach.

By the time I was involved with the Women’s Consultative Council, women with disabilities had met at an international level. Women from Britain, Canada and the United States of America had begun talking to the women’s movement. We hadn’t done that in Australia. As part of the international delegation of women, we felt that we should go back to Australia and talk to the women’s movement.

We came back to Australia and tried to set up an Affirmative Action Plan based on what we had learnt in Disabled Peoples International Australia. Going to the Women’s Consultative Council, it was clear that women with disabilities were not understood. Able-bodied women did not understand, for example, our problems with transport, or that many women with disabilities lived in poverty.

Part of my role within the Women’s Consultative Council was to bring up these very simple issues about transport, income security, the need for better mental health services and medical services. The Women’s Consultative Council agreed for the first time to accept an invitation from the Disability Council of Australia to set up a forum on employment for women with disabilities. In this forum we looked at role models and many of the issues women with disabilities face in relation to employment. There was a lot of tentativeness from able bodied women who were nervous at the prospect of having around 100 women with disabilities attend the forum:

  • “Are they going to pee on the floor?”
  • “Do they all need attendant care?”
  • “Do we need to have St Johns Ambulance standing by?”

Despite this, the forum was a great success and the next day we had the first meeting of the new network of Disabled Peoples International Australia. This was to be the nucleus of the national Women With Disabilities Network.

Looking back on all this, I sometimes felt uncomfortable sitting in a general women’s meeting, because people would rather get me a cup of tea than listen to my point of view.

I think that we need to work at a very practical level with other women’s organisations in order to show them how their organisation can better meet the needs of women with disabilities. I think we need to make sure that we are represented at national meetings of women’s organisations and ensure that we get our items on the agendas of these meetings. We need to consider strategies for actually ‘selling ourselves’. We should be more dramatic – we should not deny our disability.

What is Leadership? – A Group Discussion

Participants at the workshop had worked in small groups to discuss and debate the issue of leadership. The small groups identified the qualities, practices and skills which they believed make up the concept of leadership. Ideas from the small groups were then pooled together and put up on a whiteboard for discussion within the larger group.

The following section highlights the information gathered from the groupwork regarding leadership.

Leadership Qualities
According to the Workshop participants, Leadership qualities include:

  • self-confidence
  • assertiveness
  • being able to nurture/protect people
  • not being overbearing
  • being supportive
  • bringing out the best in an individual
  • recognising potential in others
  • not abusing others through self-importance
  • reliability
  • being part of a group and sharing responsibility
  • not needing to be a wonder woman
  • being able to make mistakes
  • knowing that someone else may be better
  • being understanding of people
  • being able to influence in a big way or a small way
  • having mutual trust

Leadership Practice
According to the Workshop participants, Leadership practice include:

  • encouragement
  • empowerment
  • briefing and sharing (knowing the facts and reporting back)
  • using consensus approach to clarify issues
  • focussing on the issues
  • group participation
  • information
  • knowledge
  • power
  • sharing decision-making
  • giving everyone a go
  • mentoring – passing on knowledge and skills
  • leads from behind
  • accountability
  • leading and learning

Leadership Skills
According to the Workshop participants, Leadership skills include:

  • opening doors
  • allaying fears
  • development
  • collaborative action
  • enabling
  • knowing when to step in or let go
  • saying no
  • acting on the same level as everyone else
  • facilitating
  • delegating
  • organising
  • using disability to your advantage

A quote about leadership was also considered in the larger group discussion:

“Moving women into leadership roles raises the need for followers and peer relationships. Some of the issues that make it difficult for those to move out front are partly the result of problems women have in relating to their peers. Leadership requires the ability to work in groups, to work with peers, to move from the peer group with their support, and to be able to work with others….” (Eva Cox)

The women offered the following in discussing elements of the quote:

“I challenge the word ‘followers’….it implies that the ‘leader’ is doing all the work and the others are following, not participating”.

“A good leader is one who is not seen to lead.”

“Women with disabilities can make the word ‘leader’ mean whatever they want it to mean.”

“We need to define how we work and develop ,our own style of leadership.”

“We can put power into the word ‘leader’, we shouldn’t see it as a negative concept”.

“We all lead to a certain extent, because we do challenge entrenched attitudes”.

The group participated in a discussion about the various ideas they had come up with in relation to leadership qualities, practices and skills. Part of this discussion involved participants identifying ways in which WWDA could foster the development of leadership within the organisation. Some of the comments made are outlined here:

“We need to set up coalitions with other organisations to advocate for the needs of women with disabilities…..”

“We need to define how we work and develop our own style of leadership…”

“WWDA may need to make a video on key issues for women with disabilities to be used as a consciousness raising tool for mainstream services and the communityat large…”

“We should build into any of our funding submissions the provisions for mentoring other women with disabilities….”

These suggestions were incorporated into the Workshop Recommendations.

Personal Stories

Following the group discussion on leadership, several of the women participated in interviews using the video camera. The women took it in turns to interview each other, recording each interview on video. This activity provided women with the opportunity to talk about their personal experiences of disability, along with their visions for the future. It also enabled them to develop new skills in terms of using a video camera and conducting face to face interviews. The following section provides verbatim transcripts of the interviews which were conducted.

Judith – interviewed by Ruthie

“My name is Judith and I was first disabled in 1970 and as you can see I use a wheel chair and my voice is affected and so is my eye sight, but you can’t see that so much. Anyway I’ve been involved with women’s issues and disability issues since about 1980 and I’ve found everyone very supportive of each other. There’s no horribleness (is that a word?) amongst them and it’s a really welcoming feeling to be amongst them all. My view of what I would like to see happen for women with disabilities is that they are accepted as a normal part of the community and that they have the same opportunities in employment and transport and other areas of the community as women without a disability.”

Pam – interviewed by Di

“Since I acquired my disability, I’ve learnt a great deal about disability, through my enquires of people with disabilities – talking to them, not being nosy but genuinely wanting to know more about disability. I advocate for people with disabilities so I try and educate myself on disability as much as I can by spending time with people with all different disabilities. Before acquiring my disability I would never have spoken to people with disabilities like I do now. I seem to be able to relate much better which I guess is quite natural. Even though sometimes it’s quite sad or bad to segregate different disabilities or genders, it’s very helpful to have a women’s movement. Women obviously have different disability issues and different needs than men with disabilities. I’m not sure what men’s disability needs are but I know for instance just toiletting – a man can use a bottle but it’s a lot more difficult for a women in a chair trying to access a toilet. These issues need to be discussed and addressed by women. We all have different needs as well – not every women has great needs or problems with toiletting yet some have enormous ones and how could you discuss that with a group of mixed gender?”

Dallas – interviewed Di

“I’m relatively new to leadership. Six years ago I wouldn’t even credit it that this is where I’d be today. Six years ago I was completely shut in and house bound. I had experienced the loss of a daughter about four years before that and I didn’t really think I had any skills. I’d had to really fight the medical system over my medical conditions which were deteriorating rapidly. I also have a mental illness and a I’d had a number of breakdowns and suicide attempts and been in mental homes.

So I came from a very low place in my life where I really didn’t think my life was worth anything. And then an organisation called Newcastle Community Access started and they took me on as a consumer. I was very depressed, no self esteem, thought life was finished and that I really didn’t amount to much in this world. But they encouraged me, and about four or five months after I became a consumer for Newcastle Community Access they asked me to come onto the Board of Directors as Secretary. I wasn’t too sure if I would be able to fulfil the role but with a bit of encouragement that’s what I did and I began to serve on that Committee as Secretary. Through that I began to learn the computer, began to learn skills, learnt how to be part of a committee, and how to make decisions. From that came another organisation called Disability Advisory Service and they asked me if I would like to also sit on that Management Committee as Secretary. I said, “OK”, and I’ve been doing that ever since. So for six years I’ve been with Newcastle Community Access and the last four with the disability Advisory Service. So that was the beginning of leadership for me – as I began to realise that I did have skills and I could do things – its made a very big difference in my life.

A couple of years ago I began to have a vision and I thought I would like to start a group for women with disabilities. After many stops and starts we got a group going in Newcastle and we named it Women with Disabilities Newcastle. The group has really grown and has become a well known group within Newcastle. My support person Chris helps me in the first couple of months with some of the things I needed to do, but virtually for the last 15 months I have been the complete leader of that group – seeing it through its start and beginnings. Now the group is a very viable group with up to 35 to 45 women present at each meeting.

“I’m just astounded really – coming from a position six years ago feeling that life wasn’t worth living and that I had no skills – to suddenly finding myself not only still serving on management committees, but out in the community teaching and doing consulting work.

And now myself having become a service provider and being a leader of my own group has been a really awesome experience for me. And being here this weekend suddenly seeing the whole picture and seeing women I’ve heard about – being able to come to this group as a leader and to find that my work has reached them – I’ve been very humbled by them thinking I’m doing a really good job. Because sometimes even though I think I’m doing a good job, I don’t think I’m doing a good job. My self esteem is still a little low and sometimes I think I’m not doing a good job, but obviously something is going right. So I’m very proud of the group in Newcastle and very delighted in the way my life has taken this turn. I would never have credited that I would be going interstate to a leadership forum – six years ago I couldn’t even have envisaged that.

It really astounds me that people have a good perception of me – I sometimes look over my shoulder and say “Who are you talking about?”. I went to a Disability Inrterchange Network, which is a group of service providers and I spoke to them about women with disabilities. I started my talk by saying I am an example of what can be achieved by a consumer if you give them the encouragement and the opportunity to do something with the skills that are within them. I find that the more you become skilled in leadership or disability issues, the more people want you. The phone rings and people want you to be on committees, forums, consultation meetings, planing committees, access committees…

I’m the sort of person that because of my disability – which is not a static disability, it’s one which is on decline – I have learned (and it’s been a hard lesson to learn) to live each day as it comes. So I don’t really have a long term plan for myself, but one of the things I would like to see in the future is the group in Newcastle get some funding and take on a more active role in the community. I’ve nurtured the group because our group has consisted of a large number of women with intellectual disabilities and about 20 women who come from group homes who have never had an opportunity to be out in the community. I would hope that eventually some of these women will be able to become leaders as well. I hope they can have the same opportunities that I have had. To realise that you can’t walk, or can’t talk, but that you do have an opinion and skills; you are valuable and your life has a purpose. And if I can give that to them, I feel I would have succeeded with the group. The reason I do spend so much time on committees is because I do want to see changes for women with disabilities. I want to see more access and better conditions. I want women to have the best that they can possibly have so that they can lead a fulfilling and successful life.”

Ruthie – interviewed by Di

“My disability is that I have a brain that sends messages to the rest of my body slowly, which was probably brought about because when I was born as a Caesarean baby, my mother was unconscious and I received less oxygen. I guess that could have brought about my slow acting and thinking brain – it caused my mother to think that I was slow – she always used to think that everything was too hard and she would always say “Make doubly sure about everything”. This meant I lacked a lot of confidence and even now if I think I’m confident, there’s something in the back of my mind trying to dong my confidence on the head. I think that this may come across to people like employers. If they ask me anything about myself and I mention the slowness but that I can still get my work done on time, they only hear the word ‘slow’ and they think I’m intellectually disabled. So I haven’t had much of a go in the employment field and that’s affected me a fair bit.

I’m a mother – mothers become leaders. One important thing about a leader is that you’ve had to learn to follow, which I think I have done. When I was working at Bedford Industries, I was able to lead other people. I was in control of the shop twice – I was telling other people what to do and how to do it. When I was a mother I was developing leadership skills because that’s what mothers automatically take on – you are doing things which have leadership qualities. If you’ve got more than one child, you’re delegating chores to them – if you’ve got only one, then you’re not doing that so much, but you are a role model. For instance, once I was in charge of a stall at the school fete, and I was delegating chores to other people – without even realising it, I was adding to my leadership skills. You acquire a lot of leadership qualities as a mother – such as guidance, nurturing etc.

I can learn leadership skills by being put in positions; learning from other people; developing confidence to do things; asking and taking to other people; putting ideas into practice. You can never stop learning – sometimes you can apply anything you have learnt to leadership.

As for the future, I want to be able to use my skills in some way, some place. I’ve sometimes hoped that someone would speak on my behalf to help me get a job. I am employable and I am a valuable person – the same as anyone else. I find it hard to convince people to employ me. I wish someone could speak with me to reassure employers that I am employable. I really want to work…..because I’ve been through the types of things I have, I have learned things that other people would never have learned. Disability should be turned into a strength – a positive thing. People need to believe in me.

There’s many employment agencies that say that they will help you, but I think that they are all the same – you have to get your own job. They don’t help really.”

Dianna – interviewed by Ruthie

“I have been a President of Disabled People’s International in the A.C.T. and now I’m the Convenor of Women With Disabilities in the A.C.T.. I find that although I don’t know everything about every disability, I can understand to a degree the level of ability that each one has, and that means that I try to include them in working in an area to which they are suited. I found that working with Disabled People’s International wasn’t as congenial as WWDA because there was constant pressure from the national organisation to keep every branch up to the level of the larger branches and it just wasn’t possible to do that in the A.C.T. because we didn’t have the numbers. We weren’t encouraged to keep up. We don’t have that level of pressure in the women’s group now. I’ve also been in the National Federation of Blind Citizens which was even more male oriented than Disabled People’s International. I got out very quickly because I found it wasn’t going the way of a grass roots organisation which it was meant to be. WWDA is a grass roots organisation in which we have consultation on all issues.

Initially, my disability wasn’t really a disadvantage. It became a disadvantage when I joined the Public service in Canberra because people just didn’t understand what I was able to do and I spent a long time in the wilderness. I did have a couple of wonderful experiences working with people who did understand. Now that I’m retired I can do whatever I like whenever I like. I’m accepted as the person I am, and that’s a wonderful experience. It’s probably one of the rewards of retirement.

If you’re blind, you don’t have the problem of confronting people who stare at you – as far as I’m concerned nobody stares and I can ignore what people say, so I can just wander through the world unaware of public opinion because it doesn’t exist – because I don’t notice it. And that’s a great compensation and if everyone had that, they’d be much happier.

I don’t get feedback from body language – I just ignore the fact that people stare. There is very little we (blind people) miss out on, but we have a wonderful life. We have a lot of social acceptance and we don’t see the non-acceptance. When I go to an organisation, they will say “Are you able to sign your name?” and I find that very patronising. I say “A child of 2 can sign their name, why should I not be able to?”. However, I find most people will give me the chance to try.

I think if we are proactive, we will gain the status that Aboriginal people have gained in the community because people will cease to look upon disability with fear. I think its just ignorance that causes people to do that at the moment. I hope that we will get there by co-opting other minority groups to assist us. I find I have a lot of rapport with other minority groups because they can relate to me in a way that they can’t relate to others.

I hope we can win the computer battle and get computer assistance for all people with disabilities. I think at the moment people are losing jobs just because they can’t use computers. So once we can become oriented to the computer world, people with disabilities will be able to operate as effective as others. We have access to education which we didn’t have before, so there are lots of positive outcomes for people with disabilities.”

Dianne – interviewed by Vicky

I’m Di and I come from Canberra. I work in the national office of WWDA and have been there for two and a half years. I was born with my disability so I’ve had the advantage of not knowing anything else. My disability is cerebral palsy and it mainly affects my hearing which is getting worse as I get older. As far as being able to do everyday things, I consider myself very lucky. I do things slower than other people but I get there in the end.

I didn’t have anything to do with women with disabilities until I became involved in WWDA, because to be different makes such a big impact on your life. To be one of the minority groups is really very hard and I always wanted to be the same as everybody else, but it was just impossible. That’s been a big learning experience for me. But to be involved with women with disabilities has been a growing experience for me. It’s been a very positive experience to be involved with women with disabilities. I’ve really enjoyed my work and being involved – not so much working with women with disabilities, but being involved because we can share so much and I’ve learned so much. It’s been a very valuable experience and I thank God that he eventually led me to work with people with disabilities so I’m very grateful for that.

In terms of the future, I would like to see more women with disabilities – especially girls – be given more opportunities. Through my experiences, especially supporting a woman with an intellectual disability – just to see how much she has learned; to see her face when she does something that people said she couldn’t do. It just goes to show that people have potential – it’s just getting a chance to get that potential out.

When my boys were first born, I got depressed. I thought “What am I doing? – I’m a mother with a disability and I’m bringing these two boys into this world.” But I think it has been a rewarding experience for them. They know me as a very caring person and a very patient person. I’ve had to be patient because of my disability. It’s been a good experience for the boys because they have been able to teach their friends about disability – it’s been a very rewarding experience for me.

Even though this weekend is talking about leadership and I’ve never considered myself a leader, I now think that maybe I am. I’ve showed so many people that having a disability is not necessarily a negative thing but it can be a positive thing.”

Feedback from Participants

As a way of wrapping up the Leadership Forum, women were invited to say something positive about their experience of the weekend. Some of what was said included:

“A great experienced for me this weekend has been that I actually worked the video!”

“My greatest experience of this weekend has been being with people who understand where I’m at. I also got the chance to learn how to operate a video and interview someone – I got such a buzz from that!”

“After this weekend, I now feel that I can do something good for myself as well as for other people.”

“It’s been fantastic.”

“To me, this has just been wonderful. I was a bit nervous about coming because I’m not a ‘learned’ person, but what I found was words of encouragement and a positive attitude towards me. I would never have dreamed that I would be part of something like this – it’s very thrilling for me to be part of this organisation. At the dinner last night, I suddenly thought: Wow – maybe I am a leader.”

“This weekend has been really great. I think we have got a renewal process going on within WWDA. We’ve got some very exciting visions.”

“For me, it’s been great to see everyone participating this weekend. It’s fantastic to realise the depth we have in this organisation – it’s inspiring.”

“I’ve been trying to add up how many years of experience there is in this room and I worked out that there’s about 400 years of experience in activism – it makes me just shiver with pride. I feel invigorated – it’s been like a renewal and replenishing experience as well as fun.”

“As a staff member working in a national organisation, often isolation can be a bit of a killer, so this opportunity is incredibly valuable in helping me to work for you in a way that is meaningful for you. One of the things I’d like to keep working on in WWDA is how as a national organisation we can get the energy that makes us an energy generating organisation and not an energy draining organisation. I’d also like to thank you all for making me feel welcome.”


The following recommendations have been developed from ideas women contributed at the Leadership Workshop. Some have been further developed to include possible strategies which could be used to implement them.


A Mentoring Process for the organisation be developed by WWDA. Any mentoring process needs to include issues such as:

  • participating in a committee;
  • meeting procedures;
  • submission writing;
  • working with groups;
  • starting up a group;
  • conducting consultations;
  • public speaking;
  • assertiveness;
  • self-esteem and confidence building;
  • accessing funding.

A Discussion Paper be developed regarding the concept of mentoring with a view to establishing a mentoring process for WWDA members. The Discussion Paper should include possible models and strategies for their implementation. An NEC Working Group could be established to develop the mentoring process.

A Policy/Position Statement on mentoring be developed following consultation with the WWDA membership on the Discussion Paper.

WWDA to develop a Skills Audit and disseminate this to WWDA members. The Skills Audit should be reviewed and updated twice a year.

WWDA to ensure that mechanisms are in place which foster shared decision-making. Options for how this can occur could be included in the mentoring/training Discussion Paper.

Showing Leadership to Mainstream Organisations

WWDA needs to work at a practical level with other women’s organisations. This should be reflected in the WWDA Strategic Plan and in specific project planning processes.

WWDA must endeavour to undertake collaborative projects with mainstream organisations in order to effect change for women with disabilities. These projects should be practical in that they show mainstream organisation how to meet the needs of women with disabilities. Possible strategies to achieve this could include:

  • undertaking a survey of a range of relevant organisations to identify how those organisations meet the needs of women with disabilities;
  • approaching relevant organisations to develop shared projects which are aimed specifically at re-orienting those organisations to meet the needs of women with disabilities;
  • developing a video which deals with the issues facing women with disabilities for mainstream organisations to use in their day to day work;
  • developing Standards for organisations to use in assessing their work practices in relation to women with disabilities;
  • offering organisations the option of conducting an Access Audit of their service – this could be conducted by a team of WWDA members and could be a revenue raising activity for WWDA.

Strategies need to be developed for how WWDA will aim to ensure that mainstream organisations continue to address the needs of women with disabilities beyond the term of any collaborative projects.

International Conference

WWDA organise an international conference on women with disabilities to be held in the year 2000, to coincide with the Olympic and ParaOlympic Games. Planning for this conference should begin as soon as possible. Fund-raising and sponsorship for the event should be secured within the next year.

A Working Party be established to begin planning for the International Conference.

Community Education

A range of strategies needs to be developed which raise the profile of issues for women with disabilities. One such strategy could include the development of a WWDA video to use as a tool in our work. Other strategies could include:

  • developing a poster;
  • exploring opportunities to develop a mural (either transportable or stationary);
  • developing a WWDA World Wide Web site;
  • publishing articles in journals;
  • publishing a book of WWDA member’s stories;
  • using other medium to raise the profile of women with disabilities such as theatre; poetry; drawing; song writing.

WWDA develop a video on the key issues facing women with disabilities to be used as a consciousness raising tool for mainstream services and the broader community.


A Policy and/or Position Statement be developed on issues concerning representation of women with disabilities on committees, working groups, advisory bodies, consultation processes etc. These issues will include: remuneration; transport; preferred hours of working; preferred ways of working; attendant care etc.

As an organisation, WWDA needs to advocate on behalf of its members to government departments and other organisations regarding the needs of women with disabilities in relation to participating in committees, working groups etc. This will involve challenging the traditional concept of working hours; ensuring adequate remuneration; transport etc. A strategy to achieve this could include dissemination of the Position Statement (once developed) to the relevant departments and organisations.

WWDA needs to ensure that any submissions for funding include provision for women with disabilities to be remunerated for the time they spend on projects and/or other initiatives.

WWDA needs to ensure that any submissions for funding include the provision for women with disabilities to train/mentor other women with disabilities in any funded projects and/or other initiatives.

WWDA develop a Training Program and Package on ways representatives can consult with the broader WWDA membership. Such a Training Program and Package will enable representatives to feel that they are representing the WWDA members in their representation activities.

A Position Statement/Policy be developed which identifies the types of resources required by WWDA representatives. This should include a guide to costs associated with representation (such as phone calls, travel, attendant care, etc). Such a Position Statement/Policy should be developed in consultation with those women who have been representatives for WWDA and are familiar with the issues involved.

WWDA representatives need to be appropriately briefed before representing WWDA at meetings. WWDA needs to develop strategies to ensure that this can occur.

WWDA needs to ensure that mechanisms are in place which enable representatives to share the outcomes of their representative activities with other WWDA members. WWDA needs to determine what support is required by representatives to ensure that this can occur.

A Policy/Position Statement be developed which addresses the need for payment of volunteers/representatives and includes issues such as: insurance; workers compensation; occupational health and safety etc.

WWDA to work with mainstream organisations to ensure that they build the costs of paying consumer reps for their time into their funding submissions. One strategy to achieve this may be to disseminate the WWDA Policy on this issue (once developed) to these organisations.

WWDA to develop a process which ensures that representatives’ committee papers, reports etc can be included in the WWDA national office library for future reference.

WWDA explore the option of videotaping interviews with women with disabilities who are unable to participate in Conferences, forums, consultative processes etc, and to present the videotaped interviews at the particular forum.

WWDA to liaise with Family Planning (Tasmania & South Australia) regarding their Policy on payment of consumer representatives for their time.

Information Technology

WWDA to set up an e-mail index and disseminate this to the WWDA membership and other organisations where relevant. Two types of e-mail indexes could be developed: one which contains e-mail addresses of WWDA members; and one which contains e-mail addresses of other key agencies, departments and organisations.

WWDA to explore opportunities of using information technology as a way of communicating more effectively with each other.

WWDA to explore ways of ensuring that women with disabilities have access to information technologies, particularly the Internet and electronic mail. Any initiatives in this area should initially focus on WWDA members.

WWDA to explore ways of enabling WWDA members to undertake training in using the Internet.

Extending the Reach of WWDA

A Policy or Position Paper should be developed which expands on the concept of WWDA being inclusive and not discriminating against any disability. This document should be widely publicised and disseminated to other women’s organisations and other disability organisations.

WWDA needs to identify ways in which women with intellectual disabilities can participate in the organisation. This may require a dedicated project.

WWDA needs to expand its activities in order to reach out to other groups of women with disabilities who are not currently involved in the organisation. This may require a dedicated project.

WWDA must be represented at all national meetings of women’s organisations. One strategy to achieve this could include a specific project to research the meetings conducted and develop a register of these meetings.

Additional Quotes

“Currently we have whispers, not voices….”

“We need to educate able bodied people….”

“We are all leaders…..we just need to break down the barriers that prevent us from being the leaders we want to be…..”

“It is the cultural, social, economic, religious and political factors which shape women’s experiences of their disability…”

“I don’t have to justify my disability or live up to people’s expectations of what a disability is…..”

“If you say you have a disability, then you do…..”

“No matter what our disabilities are, we all experience many of the same problems….”

“Each one of us has a disability of a different degree and of a different nature…..it’s our ability that is going to make us the individual that we really are, not our disability…..”

“I felt uncomfortable sitting in meetings with able bodied women because they would rather get me a cup of tea than listen to my point of view”…