Woman Batterham, Genni

Occupation
Artist, Author, Disability rights activist and Filmmaker

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Born in 1955, Genni Batterham (nee Whitford) grew up in the comfortable Sydney suburb of Belleview Hill and was educated by the sisters of the Sacred Heart at Kincoppal in Elizabeth Bay. As a teenager, she developed a reputation as a rebel, fighting the nuns and her parents, against conservatism and tradition. An old school friend described her as 'very rebellious, outrageous and unpredictable, and she looked like Twiggy' (Riding the Gale). Energy was her trademark characteristic. 'She was vivacious and energetic … with legs and arms that moved expressively and a smile that lit up the world', remembered Wendy McCarthy, whose children Genni provided after school care for in 1977 (Australian, 20 December 1995). Her mother said 'she was distinguished by her flamboyant walk' (Pins and Needles). Kim Batterham, who married Genni in 1978 told a journalist that 'until I'd met Genni, all the women I'd met just seemed half alive' (Age, April 15, 1988). He acknowledged, however, that when he first met her, all this energy seemed to lack purpose. 'She was just moving around, from art school to university from man to man, trying to find a focus for her life' (Age, April 15, 1988).

That focus arrived, for better or for worse, only months after Genni and Kim met. The early symptoms of Multiple Sclerosis (MS), such as pins and needles in her feet and hands, dizziness and temporary blindness, scared Genni but were easily explained away as a reaction to too much alcohol, too many cigarettes, not enough sleep; lifestyle choices that caught up with young bodies, eventually. When Genni received the definitive MS diagnosis she was 'demented with fear' and demanded Kim either leave her or marry her. Refusing the opportunity for melodrama that walking out would have offered, Kim preferred the latter and the two were married in October 1978 (Age, April 15, 1988).

MS was cruel to Genni Batterham and she was incapacitated very quickly. Angry about being 'consigned to the world of the disabled' she tried anything and everything to halt the progress of the disease (Age, April 15, 1988). A visual document of her despair, the film Pins and Needles, made with Kim, was one response arising from this anger. Released in 1979, Pins and Needles was a moving account of Genni's despair over the burden of her disability on her marriage. Funded by the Australian Film Commission's Women's Film Fund, and directed by Barbara Chobocky, it was translated into five languages and won seven international awards, including first prize at the 1980 Canadian Film Festival and second prize at the 1980 New York Film Festival. Three more Batterham collaborative efforts followed; Where's the Give and Take?, Artreach and Riding the Gale, all of which documented phases of Genni's life as an activist, artist, filmmaker and married woman with a disability. They are all excellent productions, says Richard Keys, a project officer with the Australian Film Commission who was associated with all four films. 'There is no doubt in my mind that Genni would have been an extremely gifted filmmaker if she had not been disabled,' says Keys. 'She has been extraordinarily brave in going on to make films exploring her disability in a way that nobody else could, because they would be accused of exploitation'(Age, April 15, 1988).

Constantly challenged by her disability, Genni nevertheless sought an understanding with it. 'I thought being disabled would mean the end of my life,' she told a journalist in 1995. Instead, she observed, 'I've found being disabled has opened many doors'. Prior to contracting MS, she admits she lived a bit of a 'drifting life'. But after coming to terms with her disability, she saw that 'it has been her greatest teacher', by encouraging her to explore her diverse talents (Australian, 29-30 April, 1995). In the words of her great friend and mentor, Alan Marshall, she reached 'the harbour of acceptance' (Riding the Gale).

According to Wendy McCarthy, one of Batterham's greatest talents was her ability to confront people, and she used this talent to good effect as she campaigned for the rights of people with disabilities in New South Wales. In 1979 she helped to organise a demonstration at the opening of a new, 'state of the art' railway station at Bondi Junction which had been designed with no thought of accessibility in mind. The protest embarrassed the premier, Neville Wran, as it provided tangible evidence of systematic discrimination against people with disabilities. It highlighted the general public's lack of compassion and understanding of the issues people with disabilities confronted, and eventually led to reform of the NSW 1977 Anti-Discrimination Act to make discrimination on the basis of disability illegal. Then in 1980, in the lead up to the International year of the Disabled Person in 1981, Batterham coordinated the largest street march of people with disabilities ever seen in Australia. On November 30, 1980, 2000 people with disabilities took to the streets in what Batterham described as 'our gift to Sydney' (Where's the Give and Take?). A joyous occasion for those who participated, there was, however, next to no media coverage and Genni was depressed by the limited impact it had on the consciousness of the rest of Sydney, the recipients of the gift. 'The disabled movement haven't got an identity', she said. 'The rally day was trying to find their identity but they never really found it because there wasn't enough interest' (Where's the Give and Take?). Regardless of these setbacks, Batterham remained an important and articulate advocate for people with disabilities throughout the 1980s. The importance of her advocacy was formally recognised with a City of Sydney medal in 1981 and a medal of the Order of Australia in 1984.

As well as confronting people with the challenges people with disabilities experienced in public, Batterham raised awareness of intensely private matters that many didn't want to know about. The first important matter, that of how to arrange good attendant care, was not particularly controversial. Her book, Everything you ever wanted to know about attendant care but were too afraid to ask, was timely, useful and well received. The second private matter that she thought needed to be aired more publicly, how people with disabilities can continue to enjoy an active and fulfilling sex life, raised more eyebrows. According to friends, she took great delight in shocking people about her sexual needs. 'Disability', she said, had taught her that 'fucking and loving are of central importance to the meaning of life' (Australian, 29-30 April, 1995). She wrote Crutch Power in order to bring the discussion out into the open.

As Batterham's health deteriorated, throughout the late 1980s and early 1990s, it became harder for her to maintain a leading role in public advocacy. 'Leading by example', she continued to explore her talents as a painter and writer and refused to give up control over her life and choices (Australian, 20 December 1995). In 1994, with 15 per cent sight and minimal motor control, she took up painting as a way to express what she could no longer do through talk, text and film, and produced a confronting exhibition of work. Even when her marriage with Kim broke up in 1995, her resilience was formidable. 'So many people have divorces these days', she said. 'I'm now in a position to help them' (Australian, 29-30 April, 1995).

Genni Batterham passed away in 1995. She is remembered as 'a leader, not a follower'(Riding the Gale) and woman who 'shifted the paradigm of disability' (Australian, 20 December 1995). Her advocacy was crucial to that shift occurring because it made the private lives of people with disabilities public. Said Wendy McCarthy, just before Genni died, '[She] refused to go into a sheltered workshop and hide. [She] refused to be asexual, she refused to stop developing her talents. Everything that offends people about disability and confronts them, [she did]. She just served it straight up the flats, really'. (Australian, 29-30 April, 1995).

Archival Resources

National Film and Sound Archive

  • Artreach, 1982, 54489; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
  • Pins and Needles, 1980, 289054; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
  • Riding the Gale, 1987, 52114; National Film and Sound Archive. Details
  • Where's the Give and Take?, 1981, 316135; National Film and Sound Archive. Details

Published Resources

Newspaper Articles

  • Lim, Anne, 'Still Riding the Gale: Portrait of film-maker, activist, writer and painter Genni Batterham', The Australian, 1995, pp. 29-30. Details
  • McCarthy, Wendy, 'Disability no handicap to activism', The Australian, 20 December 1995. Details
  • Muhvich, Barbara, 'Genni Hits out for the Handicapped', The Sydney Morning Herald, 21 December 1980. Details
  • O'Grady, Suellen, 'In Sickness and in Health', The Age, 15 April 1988. Details

See also

Digital Resources

Title
Genni Batterham talks about feeling marginalised by multiple sclerosis
Type
Audio Visual
Date
1980
Creator
National Film and Sound Archive
Control
289054

Details

Title
Genni Batterham and the invisibility of disability
Type
Audio Visual
Date
1980
Creator
National Film and Sound Archive
Control
289054

Details

Title
Genni Batterham protests at the opening of Bondi Junction railway station
Type
Audio Visual
Date
1980
Creator
National Film and Sound Archive
Control
289054

Details

Title
Genni Batterham crossing a busy street in her wheelchair
Type
Audio Visual
Date
1980
Creator
National Film and Sound Archive
Control
289054

Details

Title
Genni Batterham on the International Year of the Disabled Person 1981
Type
Audio Visual
Date
1987
Creator
National Film and Sound Archive
Control
52114

Details

Title
Genni Batterham talks about Alan Marshall
Type
Audio Visual
Date
1987
Creator
National Film and Sound Archive
Control
52114

Details