Woman Howe, Keran

Disability Rights Activist, Feminist and Social Worker

Written by Nikki Henningham, The University of Melbourne

Born in Deniliquin, New South Wales, in the early 1950s, Keran Howe has been a strong advocate for women with disabilities since her car accident at nineteen years of age gave her first-hand experience of such a life. She has chaired and/or been a member of the boards and advisory committees of numerous government and non-government organisations and tribunals, including: Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA); the Victorian Ministerial Advisory Committee on Women's Health and Wellbeing; the Domestic Violence Victoria Board; the Housing Choices Australia Board; the Disability Housing Trust; Women With Disabilities Victoria Management Collective; The Australian Women's Health Network and the 2006 Melbourne Commonwealth Games Village Group. She is a passionate campaigner for the human rights of people with disabilities. In 2012, as Executive Officer for Women With Disabilities Victoria (WDV), she is particularly focused on developing programs that reduce the level of violence and sexual assault against women with disabilities and helping them develop leadership skills.

In March 1972 Howe was in the first year of nursing training when a car accident and spinal cord injury changed the course of her life. A cautious person by nature, Howe was offered a Commonwealth Scholarship when she completed school, but deferred it in order to test out nursing. Her caution proved her gateway to a tertiary education she might not otherwise have been able to afford. About twelve months later, after completing rehabilitation, she began a BA at the University of Melbourne, graduating at the end of 1975. After a year in the work force, postgraduate studies in Social Work at La Trobe University followed.

Embarking on a university degree was extraordinary for Howe on several levels; she was a country girl who was the first in her family to complete tertiary study and she was a woman with a disability. 'Thirty years ago', she says, 'the concept of what it meant to have a disability was completely different, it was very narrow. Even the notion of going to university was out there for me … it was a big leap' (Interview). She wasn't sure what sort of profession she might be equipped for; she just knew that something in the humanities was probably the right fit. Brought up in the progressive catholic tradition, it seemed to her that the practical implications of Christianity were politically aligned to social justice and that she would learn more about this alignment through studying Arts.

Feminism did not inform Howe's early political theory but when she studied social work, in 1977, that theory and experience began to offer explanations that made sense to her. She came to understand the impact of power relations for women, especially women in the home, not only in theory but in practice, as she recalled her mother's experiences as a homemaker. The way social and cultural systems, including normative understandings of 'woman's place' created oppression and disadvantage became clear.

Her thinking about disability as a socially created phenomenon also began to evolve. Popular understanding and assumptions about disability as a medical condition created personal challenges, as common discourse constructed disability as 'a tragedy' and people with disabilities as 'defeated by', or 'courageously confronting and overcoming', adversity. Says Howe:

I felt the message I was receiving was that disability is a personal challenge that must be borne. I observed that if people with disabilities complained about things, such as the inaccessibility of public buildings, they were described as 'bitter' or 'having an axe to grind' or individuals who were clearly 'not coping'. But what I was experiencing were architectural barriers that were needlessly restricting my life and attitudes that suggested I was a second class citizen (Interview).
When she finally came to understand that the problems experienced by people with disabilities were problems of socially constructed systems, Howe realised that everyone was responsible for creating and, therefore, dismantling social barriers. People with disabilities should not be forced into 'a parallel universe of adjustment', in order to accommodate faulty systems or to make life easier for the able-bodied. Once she reached this understanding, it was easy for her to respond to those who asked what had happened to her with, 'Nothing. I'm fine!' It was a light bulb moment that influenced the direction of her professional life.

Armed with this theoretical and personal understanding of social disadvantage, Howe entered the workforce. She began at Yooralla, in 1979, as a regional community development worker, working with other people with disabilities in creating community supports and services. Propelled by the momentum gathering for the International Year of the Disabled Person in 1981, there was more space for disability activism as a social movement to open up at a grassroots level. There was also money for practical initiatives to bring about change. Howe was one of a team who developed the 'Interchange' program for families with children with disabilities. She sat on the Victorian Council of Social Services Taskforce on transport, advocating for better access to public transport. She attended meetings to support the establishment of the Disability Resource Centre. She began to get involved in disability activism as a political movement.

After three years working at Yooralla, Howe moved back to her home town of Deniliquin to be closer to her mother and to work as a Social Worker at the Deniliquin Hospital and Community Health Centre. Working as a counsellor, she was introduced to the full range of women's experiences of domestic trauma at a deeply personal level. She also worked at a policy level with newly formed government units with a mandate to prioritise gender issues in policy formation, such as the Office for Women's Policy in New South Wales. She helped establish community action groups, such as the Deniliquin Access and Mobility Group (as Deniliquin's Citizen of the year the year she spearheaded a project to make all public buildings wheelchair accessible) and helped to found the Deniliquin Women's Awareness Group. Personal and professional experience consolidated Howe's belief that communal efforts to influence social policy, combined with networks of support from influential individuals, were critical to bringing about the changes needed in people's lives. Leadership was about bringing those networks of support together.

In 1989 Howe moved to regional Victoria to work at Ballarat Community Health Service where she served on a range of advisory committees and boards concerned with women's health and disability. These various interests began to coalesce when she was involved in a project through the Women's Health Service that was undertaking research into the role of women as carers. She became increasingly concerned that people with disabilities, particularly women, were getting less direct access to government services to assert power over their own lives. These ideas took on a much more sharply focused feminist perspective when she joined Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA) in 1993.

Howe returned to Melbourne in 1994 to work as Service Development and Research Officer at the Royal Women's Hospital, continuing in this role until 2001 when she took up the position of Manager of the Royal Women's Hospital Social Work department, Women's Social Support Services. While working at the hospital she helped to set up the Women's Individual Needs Clinic, an internationally recognised maternity care clinic commended for its unique approach to providing specialized services for women with intellectual disabilities. She remained involved with WWDA at an executive level, but her involvement with WDV, a stated based feminist advocacy organization for women with disabilities, became more regular. By early 2000 it was clear that if WDV was to develop its voice as an advocate, it needed to find a more sustainable funding model, one that enabled the employment of permanent staff to do the work that volunteers hitherto working fulltime had taken on.

Howe played an important role in developing this model. She was Chair of the Disability Advisory Council of Victoria providing advice to the Minister for Disability Services, Christine Campbell. She learned of funding sources from within this portfolio intended to support advocacy programs and set about creating a collaborative partnership with Women's Health Victoria to successfully apply for funding to support WDV programs. Once the partnership was finalised, Howe continued on the WDV Management Collective but in 2005 took time out to travel on a Churchill Scholarship to the United States and Canada to study hospital responses to women experiencing violence. Her findings contributed to the Royal Women's Hospital's policy on screening for domestic violence.

Returning from leave in 2006 Howe took on the job of Executive Officer at WDV (a temporary secondment that evolved into a permanent position) so that it could establish some strong leadership and public presence. Her impact was publicly recognised in 2010 with inclusion in the Victorian Honour Roll of Women. Howe makes it clear, however, that the gains made by WDV are the result of a collective effort amongst 'women who are passionate and clear about what needs to change' (Interview). She believes other organisations could learn a lot about good leadership by observing WDV in action. Collaboration and networking lie at the heart of their effectiveness, along with a focus on developing diverse and clear lines of communication.

A commitment to a set of shared values is also important. For nearly twenty years Keran Howe has been working as part of a collective to empower and support women with disabilities in Victoria to achieve their rights in the disability movement, the women's movement and society in general by the provision of communication, information sharing, networking, advocacy, peer support and education. Women with disabilities have been advocating for the rights of women with disabilities. This shared experience and commitment to the cause has been the source of her strength and the validation of her leadership. 'It's more empowering,' she says. 'If we don't have that, we might as well go home' (Interview).

Archival Resources

National Library of Australia Oral History Collection

  • Keran Howe interviewed by Nikki Henningham, 24 June 2010, ORAL TRC 6240/5; National Library of Australia Oral History Collection. Details

Published Resources


Book Sections

Online Resources

See also