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

History of Australian Sport Policy series: Part 25

By Greg Hartung AO

Partners in the long campaign

The pioneers who advanced the interests of people with disabilities in sport during the 1970s and early 1980s were the members of the government-appointed National Committee on Sport and Recreation for the Disabled (NCSRD) and the non-government Australian Confederation of Sport for the Disabled (ACSD).  These parallel organisations and the individuals involved, tackled what would be a decades long battle for recognition and support for athletes with a disability. 

Their primary challenge was to lay out the agenda for reform, change political attitudes and bring the broader sporting public with them. It was to be a slow grind when starting from such a low base.  As discussed in the previous paper, gaining traction with government programs, and funding, was tough enough.  Winning hearts and minds — and changing attitudes — was going to be a long game.

ACSD argues for inclusion

The original variant of the ACSD — the Australian Confederation of Sports Council for the Handicapped — was established in 1976 with the primary purpose of lobbying for their interests and coordinating teams for participation in multi disability international events such as the early Paralympic Games (before the advent of the independent Australian Paralympic Federation) and the Far East and South Pacific Games for the Disabled (FESPIC), an important regional competition conducted between 1975 and 2006.  Australian sport was entering a period of growth in the 1970sand the early 1980s with the emergence of the Australian Institute of Sport and later the Sports Development Program administered by the Federal Department. Although disability sport was still largely invisible to policy makers, there was the beginning of a cut-through and the advocacy of the ACSD was an important ingredient in the debate.

NCSRD does not miss

Despite the government providing its secretariat services through the Department, the NCSRD was uninhibited when it came to criticising government policy.  In its first submission to the parliamentary enquiry into assistance to sport and recreation in 1981, the NCSRD was blunt in its assessment of the Australian Institute of Sport (AIS) and the delivery of services to disabled athletes: “The AIS claims to serve the needs of all Australians. To justify the levels of operating and capital expenditure such a claim should be capable of objective evaluation.  For the disabled talented athlete, little effective outcome can be discerned from the levels of expenditure provided for the AIS.”  (Ref 1 )

The NCSRD put the spotlight on the AIS and urged a change of attitude and approach.  It declared that the AIS had not provided regular access to the AIS facilities and programs.  Nor, at that stage, did disabled athletes get access to the AIS athlete scholarship scheme.  The AIS was in its infancy and not all demands for services were able to be met across all sport.  Nevertheless, it took decades before Paralympic athletes were able to move beyond the piecemeal to become valued and then, ultimately, applauded members of the high-performance AIS community.

The barriers were not only manifest at the AIS.  National sports federations also came in for attention by the NCSRD: “The NCSRD considers, in general, there is a disturbing lack of observable activity on the part of the non-disabled national sporting organisations, who receive Commonwealth funding, to assist disabled sportsmen develop skill and talent.”  It recommended that each able-bodied sports organisation be “encouraged” to integrate disabled athletes into their programs “should this be the choice of disabled persons and should their impairment facilitate such integration.”  (Ref 1)

The six principles

In a further and later submission to the Parliamentary enquiry in January 1983, the NCSRD laid out the powerful guiding principles, not just for funding, but for government policy to come.  This baseline position has stood the test of time:

1:  Disabled athletes are athletes with an impairment which precludes their competition with able-bodied athletes.  Impairment in itself may result in a handicap, but it is not sufficient reason to preclude disabled people from sharing in a national scheme of sports talent development;

2:  Disabled athletes have a capacity to perform which, in relative terms, is equal to that of their able-bodied peers;

3:  Disabled athletes are required to overcome social and physical barriers which, in general terms, are not experienced by non-disabled athletes;

4:  Disabled athletes may present many relatively complex physical, social, psychological and motivational variables which require additional attention and assistance;

5:  Disabled athletes require careful and systematic skill and physiological assessment of a specialist nature, beyond that which is now provided for non-disabled sportsmen.  Their requirements demand sophisticated assessment by experienced and professionally qualified personnel;

6:  Disabled athletes have a right to share and participate in activities provided by the Commonwealth for non-disabled athletes.  They have a right to participate in sports scholarship and talent development schemes which at the moment exclude their free participation.  (Ref 2)

No one model suits all

However, it was clear, even to the most strident advocates, that integration was not as straight forward as at first it might sound, nor was there unanimity of view, even in the disabled sport community, about the best model to be followed: “…the preference of Australian disabled sportsmen is for specific disability activity and competition, rather than for the model of integration in sporting pursuits.  However, this preference situation may be the opposite for recreation activity and it may be that the moderately intellectually handicapped talented athlete can be integrated in regular programs and competitions.” (Ref 2)

For the NCSRD, part of the problem could be explained because the term “disabled athlete” was often thought to be mainly referring to wheelchair athletes.  This perception underestimated the number of disabled athletes, the range of sporting activities available to them and the range of their special needs and capacities. According to the NCSRD, many talented disabled athletes were competing in sports alongside non-disabled athletes – for example, deaf swimmers, wheelchair archers, intellectually impaired netball players.  The NCSRD explained that some disabled athletes competed in “disabled sports” such as wheelchair tennis and blind cricket under modified rules.  Other events were restricted to disabled athletes – for example, track and field events for amputees.

For the NCSRD, the essential message to government was that athletes with a disability had been on the fringes for too long and were significantly disadvantaged.

“The talented disabled athlete is in the same position of excelling in a chosen sport or sports as the elite non-disabled athlete relative to the performance abilities of the majority of sportsmen.”

It was a message which, like their six principles, would resonate for decades to follow.

From the vantage point of Canberra, the arrival of the Hawke Labor Government in 1983 placed support for athletes with a disability as a firm policy objective in its 1983 sport policy document. It was the aim and intent of Sport Minister, John Brown, to elevate assistance to “disadvantaged groups” in policy decision making. (Ref 3) In time, the increasing scope of the ASC took some of the focus away from the NCSRD in developing sports policies for the disabled and the allocation of funds. As the ASC was delegated greater responsibility, Brown still retained the NCSRD as a reference group.

Sport for people with disabilities proved a difficult sector for politicians to navigate.  Rhetoric was not always matched by action. It would take many years, and the pulling power of a Paralympic Games in Sydney in 2000, for the disability sport community to feel they were making genuine progress toward equality.

CAS gets behind athletes with a disability

While the NCSRD had the advantage of a direct connection with the Minister to press its arguments, the ACSD had no such benefit and was often at war with itself.

To help unite its membership base, the ACSD sought the intervention of its “sister” organisation, the Confederation of Australian Sport (CAS), which during the 1980s and 1990s was at the height of its political influence. The situation was made infinitely more difficult as a consequence of the fragmentation and strong independent personalities within the many organisations representing the sport or disability specific interests of athletes.

CAS attempted to play a mediation role with the various member organisations in 1993 to assist the ACSD in securing its role and position in the disability sport network.  Though effective in many ways, the ACSD, functioning with a volunteer base, found it difficult to deal with the Canberra maze of politics and bureaucracy while also trying to unite its membership behind a common strategy. The members comprised national sporting organisations for the disabled, state umbrella groups and even some generic sporting groups with an interest in programs for the disabled.  These included, swimming, tennis, gliding and futsal.

ACSD and internal conflict

A key figure in the debate on the future of the ACSD was Bob McCullough who in the early 1990s was the Chair of member organisation, Wheelchair Sports Australia. In communications with CAS, he saw considerable difficulties in defining and implementing the role of the ACSD. He was a proponent of a bigger organisation actively covering the combined interests of both national and State bodies.  “…the organisation is not going to work unless it is serving the large majority of sport for the disabled organisations at National and State level.” McCullough maintained.  (Ref 4) At the same time, he had concerns about costs and resourcing which limited the capacity of ACSD to deliver.  Many, however, saw his position as placing arguments in front of an organisation which essentially wished to play a role similar to that of CAS, as a peak national body.  

The ACSD demands sport “integration”

Despite unsettling concerns about the viability of ACSD, the organisation pushed ahead with efforts to elevate its agenda in Canberra.  In 1992, the Executive Director of the ACSD, Jim Sheedy, argued the time was well overdue by 1992 for disability sport to get its fair attention: “Over two million Australians have some form of physical or mental disability,” Sheedy maintained in the 1992 edition of the CAS opinion magazine, Sport Report. (Ref 5)

“We believe this market is relatively untapped, with the majority of disabled Australians yet to be reached in a structured and cohesive manner.

“Sport for the disabled belongs in the mainstream of sport.  Integration can be seen as both the morally correct attitude as well as providing a number of tangible benefits for all concerned.” 

Sheedy found in CAS a supportive partner to promote integration and a greater funding focus by government and the Australian Sports Commission.  He advanced the principle that positive integration with mainstream sports was good for business. National sporting organisations would secure the “full ownership” of their sport by embracing the disability sector and in the process bring all elements of the sport together reducing fragmentation and inefficiencies. (Ref 5)

Fight against the odds

One of the key leaders of disability sport was Dr Patricia Downey who, by 1993, had inherited the task of reviving the ACSD. Downey had assumed the role of President of ACSD and confronted a crisis in confidence from its membership, especially the State umbrella organisations for the disabled.  By then responsibility for the delivery of Australian Paralympic teams had been vested in a new organisation, the Australian Paralympic Federation, but attempts to unite a discordant membership base proved as elusive as ever. 

In December 1993, the State organisations signed a letter to Dr Downey calling for the ACSD to be dissolved at the earliest possible date.  This exiting of support, combined with impossible financial challenges, spelled the end of ACSD.

ASC calls time

The ASC was also losing confidence that the ACSD would be able to unite the disability sport membership and achieve improved administrative efficiencies and effectiveness. It had earlier urged all national sporting organisations for the disabled to undertake administrative reform, under the threat that the ASC would cease providing administrative funding support.

In response, the ACSD organised a conference of all relevant groups – branded the ‘Agenda 2000’ Conference – to consider all structural options which essentially provided no solutions but an affirmation of the policy of integration of disability sport in “generic” sports. (Ref 6)

In December 1993, the ASC advised that it would retain funding support to NSODs and later announced it would cease funding of the ACSD itself.  The ASC was not prepared to support both. This came as the final straw for Downey.  She wrote to ACSD members on 13 January 1994, just days after receiving the Commission advice, announcing a meeting of all members for 18 February 1994 to vote formally to wind up the ACSD. 

Downey outlined the fragile state of the organisation’s financial status. She advised members that the ASC would cease its financial support to the ACSD which now had just $12,000 in operating funds available. (Ref 7)

The ASC explained, in written advice accompanying the Downey communication, the reasons behind its decision with respect to funding, not the least being the amplification of the Commission’s own internal initiatives under the auspices of the Aussie Able Program.

The ASC correspondence summarised the crisis: “For some 18 months now the ASC has financially supported the disabled sports movement to develop a strategic plan and organisational structure best suited for both the present environment and the likely future. This process has included the Agenda 2000 workshop, the Sydney meeting in March and its resultant working party, and finally a series of individual consultations with personal representatives of National Sporting Organisations for the Disabled, the ACSD, State Umbrella Organisations (SUA) and the Australian Paralympic Federation.  We have made every effort to offer the opportunity for the most open consultation and debate possible.”

The Commission outlined the results of its consultative processes:

  1. The support for a national umbrella body was limited with many members of the ACSD expressing concern on the continued viability of the organisation.  It was felt that the benefits that such an NUO could offer could be addressed by alternative means;
  2. There existed a general agreement that the future of disabled sport could be reflected through (a) increasing and strengthening grass roots access and participation, (b) recognising the importance of elite sports and coaching development and the need for a strong body to coordinate Paralympic participation, (c) continued work towards integration and inclusion of disabled athletes into mainstream sport, where appropriate, (d) improved coordination of disabled sport;
  3. The Australian Paralympic Federation had a clear an unambiguous charter to concentrate on funding and coordinating Paralympic teams;
  4. The APF had indicated that it was in the process of producing a development plan and refining its Constitution to permit membership of ‘Paralympic’ NSOs which showed commitment to the area;
  5. All Paralympic disability groups were committed to working towards strengthening the APF and its organisational structure;
  6. NSODs had indicated that they were committed to working towards achieving the development of all aspects of disabled sport, including the promotion of disabled sport through NSOs.  (Ref 8)

Importantly, the ASC document – apart from bringing the curtain down on the ACSD – spelled out the role that the ASC would take upon itself to support sport for athletes with a disability:

“To address the grass roots participation area, the Commission’s Aussie Able program will work with the various state umbrella organisations in implementing initiatives through the Aussie Sport program and Volunteer Improvement Program.

The Commission will continue to work with National Sporting Organisations in assisting them to integrate people with disabilities and will continue to develop various programs servicing coaches and elite athletes. This will include work being performed in the Coaching Athletes with Disabilities Scheme with coaching manuals being produced and course being promoted widely including in regional areas and to local level coaches.

We will work with the APF to strengthen its administration to allow it to undertake its agreed task effectively. The Commission has agreed, in principle, to provide some administrative support to the APF from 1993/94 for this purpose.

The Coaching Athletes with Disabilities Scheme and the AIS’s Program for Athletes with Disabilities will be increasingly integrated into the mainstream system and progressively extended through State Institutes.” (Ref 8)

The sting was in the tail: “Given the revitalisation of the APF and lack of support for an umbrella organisation, and in order to achieve outcomes at grass roots levels, the ASC will cease its funding of the ACSD.”

So, the die was cast! The elevation of the Paralympic Committee with its limited remit; a bigger government with a purpose to extend its influence beyond national bodies to the state and local levels; and the demise of a national broadly-based representation advocacy group for sport for people with disabilities.  

CAS sums it up

The demise of the ACSD is recorded by the Chief Executive of CAS, Dene Moore, in the 1994 Spring edition of Sport Report.  It followed advice from the ASC, that if it funded the ACSD it could not provide financial support to the National Sporting Organisations for the Disabled (NSODs).  According to Moore, when their own funding was threatened, the NSODs preferred “pulling the plug” on the ACSD and hence moved to abolish the organisation.  The NSODs took a major gamble with this course of action hoping that it would preserve and enhance their funding from the ASC.  But, according to Moore, little changed for NSODs and the problems mounted for the whole disability sport sector. (Ref 9)

“It was not so long ago that the APF was struggling for even reasonable government support for the Australian team attending the 1992 Paralympic Games – a team put together on a wing and a prayer by the then hopelessly under-resourced APF,” Moore wrote in Sport Report. “The demands put on the APF in recent times, relative to the amount of funding it has received, are close to a national disgrace.” (Ref 9)

The Sport Report coverage was the primary vehicle through which the multitude of challenges surrounding the management of sport for athletes with a disability were canvassed.  It was still a peripheral area of interest for mainstream media.

Coaching the key

While “integration” was still a goal yet to be attained, CAS and disability sport advocates welcomed the advent of one of the most successful sports initiatives – the Coaching Athletes with a Disability (CAD) program led initially by the National Coaching Coordinator for the Disabled, Scott Goodman. The program was developed by the ASC and the Australian Coaching Council (ACC) in close consultation with the National Sporting Organisations for the Disabled (NSODs). It was transformational in developing expertise and practices across many sports assisting coaches and athletes throughout Australia. 

The CAD instruction material was later made available worldwide as a generous “gift” through the APC’s relationship with the International Paralympic Committee (IPC).  Several National Paralympic Committees translated the manuals into their own languages for distribution through national education and sporting networks. 

A champion

The CAD program was an early success, but sport for athletes with a disability still struggled to be seen, as well as heard.  It took a particular kind of grit and determination for disability sport to rise above the parapet and command attention.  There were the unheralded heroes of the NCSRD and the disability sports organisations and the early administrators of the then Australian Paralympic Federation. 

One such champion who stood out was Australia’s first winter Paralympian, Ron Finneran.  An engaging personality driven by a relentless pursuit of funding justice for Paralympic athletes, Finneran was impossible to ignore.  As President of the Australian Disabled Skiers Federation, Finneran did everything to secure the financial base of his organisation – from selling bricks at $100 per brick to fund the building a headquarters near Jindabyne, to cajoling politicians and administrators to lift their sights and support not just disabled skiers, but all Paralympic sport.  It was advocacy with stamina.  

Difficult not to like, Finneran pushed down barriers with a combination of humor, passion and dogged determination.  In correspondence with the McLeay parliamentary committee enquiry into sport administration and funding, he put his case: “There appears to be disparities in the allocation of funds to the so-called ‘able bodied’ sports and the ‘other’ sports.  It is recommended that each sport or recreation be evaluated in the light of its contribution to society irrespective of its nature.”  This was in a 1981 submission. (Ref 10) For Finneran, it would be one of many.    

Paralympic Committee raised the bar: the nitty gritty

The bedrock arguments of equity, inclusion and recognition used by the NCSRD in 1981 and 1983, were still uppermost on the agenda in the advocacy by the Australian Paralympic Committee in its numerous appeals to Government for funding support and an inclusive sport policy. 

For instance, in a comprehensive submission prepared prior to the 2013 federal election – more than 30 years after the NCSRD statement — the APC followed similar themes, proving how slow had become progress:

“The APC believes that it is time to address a fundamental issue in the Australian Government’s support for sport for people with a disability,” the APC announced in its watershed document delivered to all sides of politics.  “Simply, it is a reality that funding for Para-sport remains well below the relative level of funding for sport for the able-bodied.  For example, the figures clearly show that for each Olympic gold medal won in London, the Australian Government has currently allocated 39 times more ongoing funding than has been allocated for each Paralympic gold medal.”  (Ref 11)

The APC at the time, delivered its message without ambiguity calling on all major Parties to embrace a series of clear policy goals addressing three fundamental principles:

  1. High performance funding for able-bodied and Paralympic programs to be allocated at the same rate based on the level of performance success by all of that sport’s high-performance athletes;
  2. Sports development funding to be allocated proportional to the numbers, needs and costs of people with a disability so that they can access the same pathway opportunities as the able-bodied;
  3. Funding to be allocated to specific programs to address the inequalities in access to sport between the able-bodied and those with a disability.

The APC backed up its advocacy with specific program detail covering both high-performance sport and community participation sport.  It also produced compelling data, including statistics from the Australian Bureau of Statistics, to support its proposal…

  • People with a disability comprised approximately 20 percent of the Australian population;
  • Participation rate in sport and physical activity among able-bodied Australians was 68.5 percent. Among Australians with a disability it was 53.2 percent;
  • The proportion of total funding to able-bodied and disability sport had not changed since 2007/08 – 87.5 percent went to able-bodied sport and only 12.5 percent to people with a disability;
  • The ASC’s Winning Edge program for sport in 2013/14 identified a total amount of $17.18 million for participation programs.  Just $300,000 of this amount – or 1.7 percent – was specifically allocated for participation activities for people with a disability;
  • Australian Paralympic athletes won 70.1 percent of all Olympic and Paralympic medals won by Australia at the 2012 London Games.  But in the year after the Games, 2013/14, the ASC’s Winning Edge program directed only 10.7 percent of its overall high-performance budget for the 2016 Rio Games to Paralympic sports.

Through the efforts of the Australian Paralympic Committee and its predecessors, along with CAS and the ASC, the opportunities for athletes with a disability, though not perfect, are today vastly improved.   


  1. House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure. The way we p ( l ) ay : Commonwealth assistance for sport and recreation : report, 1983.

2. National Committee on Sport and Recreation for the Disabled Submission to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure, 1981.  (Greg Hartung Papers at National Library of Australia)

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

4. Bob McCullough Correspondence, Australian Confederation of Sport for the Disabled, 1993 (Greg Hartung Papers at National Library of Australia)

5. Jak Carroll, Disabled or disadvantaged sport? the challenge for the ACSD. Sport Report Autumn 1992, p.8-9

6. Agenda 2000 : Australian sport for the disabled into the 1990s. Sydney, Australian Confederation of Sport for the Disabled, 1992.

7. Australian Confederation of Sport for the Disabled Correpondence, 1993  (Greg Hartung Papers at National Library of Australia)

8. Australian Sports Commission Correpondence to Australian Confederation of Sport for the Disabled, 1993  (Greg Hartung Papers at National Library of Australia)

9. Dene Moore, Disabled sport : where to now. Sport Report, Spring 1994, p. 22-24

10. Ron Finneran Submission to the House of Representatives Standing Committee on Expenditure, 1981.  (Greg Hartung Papers at National Library of Australia)

11. Australian Paralympic Committee Submission to Federal Budget 2013.  (Greg Hartung Papers at National Library of Australia)

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 26 – The Sydney 2000 Paralympic Games Was Rocket Fuel For Athletes With A Disability…The Spectacular Success of Sydney Became a Turning Point for the Paralympic Movement

Listing of articles in History of Australian Sport Policy Series

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