Woman Hastings, Elizabeth

Disability Rights Activist, Psychologist and Public Servant

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Elizabeth Hastings was born in London, England in 1949 and migrated to Australia, with her family, in 1957. The family had to fight to get her here. Hastings was a bright, energetic, sociable child; but she was also a child with a disability. While the rest of her family (her mother Jean, father Stuart and sister Stephanie) were all approved by the Department of Immigration under the scheme that allowed passage from Britain to Australia for £10, Elizabeth was refused entry. Her father, who had contacts in the Australian Government, spoke with the then Minister for Immigration, Harold Holt. He intervened and she was eventually approved to come, but only if she paid the full fare. So the family travelled intact, settled in Melbourne and Hastings went on to have a distinguished career, including becoming Australian's first Disability Discrimination Commissioner in 1992. The migration experience was an early example of the public perception that Hastings dedicated a lifetime to changing; that people with disabilities are a drain on society. Through her actions and words, personally and politically, Elizabeth Hastings provided exceptional leadership to people with disabilities and the disability rights movement. But, equally importantly, she taught able bodied Australians, who she called the N.Y.D population, 'the Not Yet Disabled', how to think differently about people with disabilities, by reminding them that 'the presence and absence of disability is a matter of time and chance' (The Quiet Enabler).

Born in January 1949, Hastings contracted polio when she was six months old, in the epidemic of 1948 - 49. Severely paralysed in her legs, trunk and one arm, she nevertheless regained enough movement to use a homemade 'gadabout' device that helped her to get around home and down the street to her kindergarten, without having to be totally reliant on others. She eventually 'graduated' to a wheelchair which, apart from making her ambulatory, helped her to win fancy dress competitions. Not many other children could dress up as jack-in-the-boxes! Hastings celebrated her 8th birthday on the ship coming to Australia. At the age of 15, after six years spent in special schools, and numerous painful and tedious times in hospital recovering from operations, she began school at Strathcona, a private girls' school in Melbourne's eastern suburbs. She achieved well academically and, importantly, felt that for the first time in her life she 'mixed freely and as an equal with ordinary, non-disabled people (Don't' Call Me Brave). From school, she went to the University of Melbourne where she completed a degree in Psychology. Her time at university was 'the best four years of her life.' As a university student, 'I was not "different", "brave" or "determined",' she said. 'I belonged' (Finding Your Own Shape).

Hastings graduated in 1971 and worked for 5 years at the Department of Labour and National Service. In 1977 she moved to the Counselling Service at La Trobe University where she worked for 17 years. It was during this period that she became an activist. She can pinpoint the moment when she found the energy and courage to speak up, on her terms. At a conference of psychologists in 1978, she was given the opportunity to present on her personal experience of developing self image as a person with a disability. Her five minute presentation was preceded by forty minutes of 'real speech', given by a women without a disability, who was supposed to be speaking on behalf of people with disabilities. Anger at being patronized, yet again, washed over Hastings, and she let it show when it was her time to speak. 'By the end of my speech I was shaking with anger, and with fear of what I had done,' she recalled. But the audience was on her side - they applauded wildly and many were in tears after hearing such a raw and authentic voice (Finding Your Own Shape).

Hastings' assertive outspokenness launched her on an unexpected path of political activism. She was invited onto the boards of many organisations that worked with people with disabilities. In 1980 she was appointed to the Victorian state committee in charge of planning for 1981's International Year of the Disabled Person (IYDP). Here she met Phillip Adams, who was in charge of the Australian IYDP media campaign. At their first meeting, she labelled him a 'buffoon' for devising a campaign that revolved around images of people who she called 'super crips', men like Stephen Hawking and Franklin Delano Roosevelt. Such a campaign would do nothing for the tens of thousands of ordinary people who were stigmatised by the able bodied, and unable to represent themselves. So, instead of a focus on 'super crips', the media campaign became one focused on education and creating opportunities for people with disabilities to enjoy full citizenship rights. Some government advisers were uncomfortable about adopting the 'Break Down the Barriers' slogan that the committee recommend, afraid that it was too radical and might lead to demands for new legislation. But Adams, Hastings and others insisted: 'disabled people didn't want sympathy, let alone pity or charity; they wanted their human rights' (Brave, Sensual Feisty, Warrior). Most importantly, they wanted to take back control of their own lives. During the IYDP Hastings developed a Representations Committee and was able to allocate money for disabled advocacy groups, the most notable being the Disability Resource Centre which became a vehicle for social change.

Hastings was a member of the Victorian chapter of Disabled People's International when in was formed in 1991. She was also connected to Women With Disabilities Australia. Whilst an important mover and shaker in the establishment of both these organisations (as well as Women With Disabilities Victoria), she did not take a central role. Instead she preferred to assert her influence by effecting bureaucratic process and ensuring that the issue of human rights for people with disabilities was never allowed to fall out of the frame. She was a commissioner of the original Commonwealth Human Rights Commission between 1981 -1986 and made the most of the opportunity this provided to travel around Australia, speaking to new audiences and 'making decisions with my colleagues which had an effect on Australian law and institutions' (Finding Your Own Shape).

In December 1992, as Hastings was planning to move to part time work at La Trobe while she built up her private practice as a psychologist, she received a phone call from the Commonwealth Attorney General's Office, asking her if she would consider taking on the role of the first (and only) Disability Discrimination Commissioner, within the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity to Commission, with a brief to administer the newly passed Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). She accepted the position and used it to continue her role as educator. She presided over numerous cases and worked with many committees to develop strategies and actions to give import and focus to the DDA, to ensure that the continuous process of 'breaking down the barriers' was not ignored. When she completed her term as Commissioner, Hastings became the manager of the Social Justice and Responsibility Unit of the Uniting Church of Victoria.

In 1998, Elizabeth Hastings died, too young, from breast cancer. Not long after her death Phillip Adams reflected. 'I realise that no one taught me more about human rights than Elizabeth. She made me realise that they weren't merely an issue in Burma or Afghanistan. They were missing here every time our bigotry, our buildings or our institutions placed a barrier in a disabled person's path' (Brave, Sensual, Feisty).

Archival Resources

National Archives of Australia

  • Australian Profile, Elizabeth Hastings, 01 August 1965 - 01 March 1988, 8587898; National Archives of Australia. Details

Published Resources

Journal Articles

  • Hosking, Chris and Adams, Phillip, 'Brave, Sensual, Feisty, Warrior: The Passionate Spirit, The Enquiring Vigorous Minds, and the Steadfast Love - Our Friend and Colleague Elizabeth Hastings - Born 21.1.1949 - Died 13.10.1998', Australian and New Zealand Psychodrama Association (ANZPA) Journal, no. 7, December 1998, pp. 4 - 19. Details
  • Slee, Roger, 'Interview with Commissioner Elizabeth Hastings', Australian Disability Review, Interview Transcript, vol. 1, 1993, pp. 4 - 13. Details

Magazine Articles

  • Ragg, Mark, The Quiet Enabler: Elizabeth Hasting, Australia's First Disability Discrimination Commissioner, The Bulletin, 15 March 1994, 42-43 pp. Details

Online Resources

See also