Support For Athletes With A Disability: From The Ground Up …The Years Of Struggle To Be Taken Seriously

History of Australian Sport Policy Series:  Part 24

By Greg Hartung AO

Only one way to go

Assistance for athletes with a disability has regularly featured in reports and government policy discussions.  Whether this has always translated into positive outcomes is another matter altogether.  This part of the sporting world was never as administratively robust or organised collectively as their able-bodied counterparts and funding from Federal Government sources was random and historically small compared to that available to able bodied sport. 

The process of change and the elevation of sport for people with disabilities really began in earnest in the decade before and the years after the Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games.

But it would be correct to conclude that disability sport has traditionally been a sector which over a long period has struggled to convince policy makers that this was “real” sport and to be treated as such.  Too often, either consciously or unconsciously, it had been treated as little more than a branch of social welfare by well-meaning policy makers and budget controllers.

Category of their own

As considered in the previous essay on “mainstreaming”, athletes with a disability were always in a category of their own, not the mainstream; disability was considered an illness and sport was an instrument of rehabilitation. Of course, there have been notable exceptions with individual athletes as standard bearers, but it has only been in recent years, particularly with the elevation of the status and effectiveness of the Australian Paralympic Committee since the Sydney Paralympic Games in 2000, that attitudes and policy began a slow process of change. Rehabilitation morphed into competitive and high-performance sport which, in turn, heralded a new era of public appreciation and political response.   

The sector first came on the serious political radar with the Whitlam Government and Minister Frank Stewart in the early 1970s. Despite Labor’s good intentions, the administration was out of office before much could be put into effective action.  The succeeding Fraser Government in 1975 devoted considerable time and policy debate on sport policy which included the type and level of support for athletes with a disability, even if it struggled with the nomenclature.  Ministers and officials frequently referred to athletes or practitioners as “handicapped” or “impaired”, terms which have progressively left the vernacular to describe athletes who happen to have a disability and who participate, like anyone else, in competition at all levels.

The 1979 Sports Advisory Council report to government on recommendations for consideration of a national sports policy encouraged a broad based ‘sport for all’ approach to policy.  The government committee established to review that SAC recommendations regarded a consideration of the needs of the “handicapped and disadvantaged” as a central element to its review.

“The handicapped (disabled) are defined as those who suffer from a physical or mental disability or impairment which places them as a disadvantage to those suffering no such disability or impairment.  Further, the handicapped should be considered as having special problems in participating in sport rather than being seen solely as a special group with needs different with the rest of the community.” (Ref 1)

The government committee considered the availability of sport and physical recreation for people with disabilities but still saw it more as a rehabilitative activity: “the use of leisure time can be of particular importance to handicapped persons and may assume a greater importance than for the able bodied.  Participation in sporting activities is a useful form of remedial exercise, complementing conventional forms of physiotherapy.  Furthermore, unless the disabled person derives enjoyment from the use of his leisure time, its rehabilitative qualities can be lost.  Sport often serves as a medium by which the handicapped person can feel accepted back into society, particularly where he/she can participate in the same sports with the able bodied.  Conversely, such contact can create as better understanding between the disabled and the rest of the community.” (Ref 1)

Perhaps the greatest success of the Australian Paralympic Committee and its constituent members was in changing attitudes and high-performance sport for athletes with a disability before, during and after the Sydney Paralympic Games of 2000.

Two objectives

As Minister for Home Affairs, Bob Ellicott, endeavoured to provide funding and a policy framework to assist athletes with a disability.  In October 1980, in advance of the International Year for Disabled Persons, Ellicott announced his “special – first ever” policy on sport and recreation for “the handicapped”.(Ref 2) It was a period when the terminology “handicapped” was in regular use; the nomenclature began to change in Australia to “people with disabilities” or “athlete with a disability” later in the 1980s and beyond.  Ellicott said the policy would have two basic objectives:

1: the integration of the handicapped with the able-bodied community in all sport and recreation activities;

2:  the involvement of the best handicapped athletes at national and international level.

To achieve objective one, Ellicott said the government would assist and fund the creation of a body which would develop sport and recreation opportunities for mentally and physically handicapped. The Committee, formalised in January 1981, was initially called the National Committee on Sport and Recreation for Handicapped People and received administrative support through the Department of Home Affairs and Environment.  (Ref 3) The Minister explained that the new organisation would work toward developing “ways and means” to involve the disabled in able-bodied activities; establish an advisory service to local government and other providers of facilities to ensure access for the disabled; fund projects for modified rules and the development of equipment and even the development of new sports and activities.

With respect to objective two, Ellicott promised funding for Australian teams to attend international events with able bodied assistants and the provision of medical and paramedical support.  He said funds would be provided for athletes to attend “the Paraplegic Olympics” on a comparable basis with assistance given to the Australian Olympic Federation.

Ellicott charged the new Committee with advising the government on the implementation of the policy.  The Committee which was later to change its name to the National Committee on Sport and Recreation for the Disabled (NCSRD) was made up of some of the most prominent names in sports and recreation for the disabled.  Its inaugural chair was the principal of the then Cumberland College of Health Sciences in NSW, Dr Jeffrey Miller. (Ref 3)

A number of sports organisations received modest assistance through the recommendations of the NCSRD.  These included the Amputees Sporting Association of Australia, the Australian Deaf Sports Federation, the Australian Blind Sports Federation, the Australian Disabled Skiers Federation, the Australian Paraplegic and Quadriplegic Sports Federation and Riding for the Disabled Association.  All these organisations were also members of the non-government organisation Australian Confederation of Sport for the Disabled (ACSD) which was established in 1976 and chaired by Mr G Pyke, also a member of the NCSRD.

The Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS) could be considered the able-bodied parallel organisation to ACSD, although more organised and successful as a general sports advocacy group. As the more established party, CAS developed an informal relationship with the ACSD, mainly in a supportive role.  However, in May 1990 and after numerous requests, CAS considered and approved the ACSD as a ‘Special Services Member’ of CAS and ordinary membership to individual disabled sports organisations. (Ref 4)

Membership of CAS never met the expectations of ACSD.  By 1993 there was considerable discussion among its members to broaden its membership and base to become a more wide-ranging and effective “National Umbrella Organisation” for sports people with a disability.  Such unity of purpose proved to be as elusive as it always had been and the concept never reached reality.

Still, all was not lost: the individual disability sports groups remained operational, if not prosperous, and the Australian Paralympic Federation was making its presence felt. 

Always about the money

Ellicott’s successor as Minister for Home Affairs, Ian Wilson, referred to the limited grants made available to NCSRD in an address to the annual meeting of the Confederation of Australian Sport in December 1981.  (Ref 5)

By then, the emphasis placed by Ellicott in his two objectives a year earlier seemed to have softened. Wilson told CAS members that the Federal Government would commit $200,000 to assist the work of the NCSRD adding to previously announced grants of $81,200 and $13,500.  There was no mention of targeting high performance athletes with a disability.  In the same address, Wilson referred to the Federal Government’s $30 million contribution toward the staging of the 1982 Commonwealth Games in Brisbane “an event which will do a great deal to boost Australia’s sporting prestige around the world.”  The Brisbane Games did not include athletes with a disability.

Wilson’s speech carried what many interpreted as a patronising tone when he referred to “this important element of our overall sports policy catering as it must for special needs.”

Wilson: “In addition to this we all have an obligation to ensure that, as far as possible, disabled people are able to benefit from the mainstream of programs and initiatives on sport, and not always set aside as a ‘special case’.

“The Confederation of Sport and the various sporting organisations…ought to be particularly aware this year and in succeeding years of the needs of disabled people. You should be looking particularly at providing opportunities for those who would not normally be covered by the programs and events you can offer but who could, notwithstanding their disabilities, be specifically included in the opportunities you can provide.” (Ref 5) 

CAS leadership

Wilson’s comments sounded as if sport for people with disabilities were, indeed, a “special case”.  It would remain that way for the best part of the next 20 years, despite the attention given to the sector by the Confederation of Australian Sport. 

To CAS’s great credit, it slowly but noticeably began to change political perceptions.  The CAS policy paper, Target 2000, released toward the end of 1992 provided the rationale as to why government could not leave sport for people with a disability as a sideline issue. (ref 6)

Target 2000: “For people with disabilities, sport not only provides the entertainment, recreation, social contact and physical achievement by able-bodied sportspeople, it also greatly improved physical and intellectual strength and muscular coordination, and enhances self-confidence and self-esteem.

“In few other areas are the positive effects of sport more patently obvious.” (Ref 6)

Tony Naar’s influence

CAS, especially through the deep knowledge and commitment of senior staff member, Tony Naar, was able to highlight this area of sport which had been poorly supported by government and by National Sporting Organisations themselves. It promoted the trend toward integration of disability sport with generic sporting organisations, where appropriate. 

It was CAS — at the beginning of the last decade of the last century — which began to spell out what integration and adequate support to the disability sector might look like. While acknowledging the positive steps taken by government, particularly since the election of the Hawke Labor government in 1983, CAS gave a detailed account of the challenges that remained:-

  • Funding from State Governments was totally inadequate and was needed to support funding from Canberra;
  • The Australian Sports Commission needed to engage staff with specific expertise and experience in disabled sport and should consult with the Australian Confederation of Sport for the Disabled (ACSD) regarding funding for athletes with a disability through so-called generic sporting organisations;
  • All coaches should be aware of the special needs of disabled participants in sport which could be achieved by the Australian Coaching Council (ACC) requiring a disabled component in every Level 1 coaches course;
  • The limited access to sporting facilities and services required attention.  CAS argued that given the movement toward integration, future plans for facilities for the disabled would need to focus on improvements to existing or proposed general sporting facilities rather than disability specific facilities;
  • Support for the identification and/or establishment of Australian manufacturers of sporting equipment for the disabled;
  • Integration in the sharing of facilities, event programming and access to coaching and equipment. (Ref 6)

Labor Party policy – early days

Political leadership has been essential to the evolution of Australian sport policy but sadly it has not always been readily available.  Fortunately, the early 1980s was not one of those periods.  The partnership between Labor’s Sport Minister, John Brown, and Prime Minister, Bob Hawke, gave sport a “rails run” in policy development.

The ALP in its sport policy for the 1983 election featured a commitment to support sporting and recreational opportunities for people with disabilities.  As Shadow Minister going into the election campaign in March 1983, Brown committed Labor to providing financial support — although using terminology which would not be used today: (Ref 7)

“The continued success of Australia’s handicapped sportspersons at Handicapped Olympics (sic) and Fespic Games has been a great inspiration to quadraplegics, paraplegics, blind people and other handicapped people in the community.  The Labor Government will set aside special funds to encourage the elite handicapped athletes to continue their sporting concerns.  Funds will also be set aside to make proper opportunities available to all handicapped people to enrich their lives with sport.  Non-handicapped people also gain inspiration if not humility from the achievements of handicapped persons…”. (Ref 7) Brown followed through on this campaign commitment and provided funding toward athletes with a disability through the Australian Sports Commission.

Building the base

Brown was able to confidently boast before the next election in December 1984 that the Hawke government was delivering on its promise to support athletes with a disability.  In his 1984 sport policy, Brown highlighted that the government in its first term had developed a program of assistance for sport and recreation for disabled people which had increased the budget by 75 percent to $700,000 in the 1984-85 year.  The initiatives included a national “disabled athlete” award scheme and targeted funding to both elite athletes with a disability and to junior sports development.

The National Disabled Athlete Award Scheme (NDAAS) attracted an initial budget of $50,000 in 1984-85 with a maximum per athlete grant of $5000. Brown was committed to providing increasing levels of assistance on the back of targeted research and recommendations of the Australian Sports Commission. (Ref 8)

In addition to the direct funding to sporting groups delivering programs for athletes with a disability, the ASC was able to embed support within its own programs, such as the highly successful AUSSIE Sports program.  In 1987, Brown announced that the ASC had developed support material on Paralympic sports, Goalball, Wheelchair Basketball and Wheelchair Tennis.  The resource kits provided essential information to teachers, coaches, parents and children on the delivery of programs for the disabled, including wheelchair skills.

Two years after the implementation of the NDAAS, Brown increased financial assistance to more than $800,000 for sport and recreation for people with disabilities.   Of that, some $566,000 went toward assisting some 23 organisations involved in delivering programs in sport and recreation for people with a disability including administrative and travel support.  The Program provided $72,000 for the NDAAS and $91,000 for an elite disabled athlete assessment program. Funding provided for an amount of $59,000 to advance the strategic objective of encouraging national sporting organisations and disability groups to integrate junior sports development, a harbinger of the future campaign by the Australian Paralympic Committee to “mainstream” athletes with a disability into programs and events conducted by generic national federations.

Liberal and Labor on a unity ticket  

The combined influence of Bob Ellicott for the Liberal Party and John Brown for Labor had a significant and lasting impact on sport policy. Ellicott’s NCSRD was an important early initiative which helped to change attitudes toward “disability sport”. Both Ellicott and Brown shared a conviction that athletes with a disability should be afforded the same opportunities as their able-bodied counterparts.  While the objective would continue as a work in progress, it took another leap forward under Brown’s stewardship. But more was needed.

The NCSRD was advisory only; it was designed as a reference body to consider matters effecting sport and recreation opportunities for people with disabilities and to advise the Minister on the apportionment of available budgets.  Not to understate the significant progress made by Brown and Ellicott, the budgets were relatively modest.  For instance, in 1987 – six years after the establishment of the Committee – the total budget for disabled sport and recreation was still less than $1 million.  Out of this amount the government supported a range of programs and individuals, including some financial assistance for athletes to attend competition.

Compromising its effectiveness, the NCSRD was caught up in the protracted struggle between the ASC and the Department of Sport and Recreation over competing functional responsibilities. 

The ASC Interim Report in 1983 had recommended that the Commission take responsibility for delivering programs for athletes with a disability across the recreation-sport spectrum and to put this into effect, the ASC established a Board Committee, chaired by a Commissioner, John Newman, to oversight its work.  However, under the confusing division of functions construct, the NCSRD was serviced from within the Department, not the ASC which would have been the logical arrangement.

The situation was resolved, at least temporarily, with the decision by Minister, John Brown, to appoint Newman to the NCSRD and later to have the Chair of the NCSRD appointed to Newman’s Committee.  This scenario may have served a political purpose for Brown by having the Committee, the ASC and the Department reporting to him on much the same thing, — but it was a cumbersome and confusing administrative design, which would fail as a long-term solution.

Logic wins  

As with the division of functions imbroglio, the responsibility for oversight and delivery of opportunities and funding for athletes with a disability was eventually resolved following the federal election of 1987.  The Commission assumed its legislative role and responsibility for all sport, including the disability sector.  The NCSRD was dissolved with the Commission taking responsibility for delivering programs to support disabled athletes to compete and to provide speciality coaching and sport science services.  Despite the rocky start, change was underway.  Australian sport policy had entered a new period of reform.  With the momentum created by Ellicott and Brown, athletes with a disability were on the way to catching up. 


1. 1979 Sports Advisory Council Report, (Greg Hartung Papers at National Library of Australia)

2. Bob Ellicott, Liberal/country party policy commitments on sport and recreation for the disabled, Dept of Home Affairs and Environment Media Release, 1 October 1980

3.  Bob Ellicott, New National Committee on Sport and Recreation for handicapped people, Dept of Home Affairs and Environment Media Release,   16 January 1981 

4. Confederation of Australian Sport, Board Meeting, 3 May 1990. (Greg Hartung Papers at National Library of Australia)

5. Ian Wilson Minister for Home Affairs, Address to the Annual Meeting of the Confederation of Australian Sport in December 1981 (Greg Hartung Papers at National Library of Australia)

6. Confederation of Australian Sport, Target 2000 A white paper on the direction of Australian Sport. Canberra, CAS, 1992.

7. Australian Labor Party. The A.L.P. sport and recreation policy Canberra, ALP, 1983.

8. Dept of Sport, Recreation and Tourism, Report 1984-1985

Author’s Background

Greg Hartung AO brings great knowledge and experience to the development of sport in Australia. He was a sport & political journalist, Member of the Interim Committee of the Australian Sports Commission (1983-1984), inaugural CEO Australian Sports Commission (1983-1988), Commissioner of the Australian Sports Commission (1991-1996), 2006-2010), Chair of the Australian Sports Commission (2008-20100, Member of the Australian Sports Foundation Board Member (1995-1996, 2006-2010 ) Chair of the Australian Sports Foundation (2008-2010), President of the Confederation of Australian Sport (1989-1995) and Australian Paralympic Committee (1997-2013) and Vice President of the International Paralympic Committee (2009-2013) and Adjunct Professor, University of Canberra (2014-)

Part 25 – The Fight To Be Heard! How Athletes With A Disability Made Their Way In Australian Sport…defeat was never an option for our pioneers

Listing of articles in History of Australian Sport Policy Series

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: