When others speak for you, you lose

Dr. Ed Roberts contracted polio at 14 and can only move his head and two fingers. He spends up to 12 hours a day on a respirator which is built into the back of his motorised wheelchair. Until recently he was director of California's Department of Rehabilitation which has a staff of 2500 and an annual budget of $150 million. He is a member of DPI World Council.

In his address he urged disabled people to take their futures in their own hands. "We are not begging for our rights, we're demanding our rights. We're not going to sit out and wait for them, we're going to sit in the streets if that's what it takes."

I think you are on the brink of a real national revolution in the area of disability. You are about to do what I think all the people with disabilities around the world would like: to move disabled people from objects of charity to basic human rights, where discimination based on handicap becomes against the law. It doesn't mean that people change their prejudice in their hearts, but when you have the power of law behind you, you do have basic civil rights. Then you begin to move away from the old begging, the old charitable ideas that have degraded so many of us.

We, as a new and emerging force in the world, we are not going to reshape the way people look at us, but we are going to reshape our futures together.

Reach out to our brothers and sisters and our mates and say "You can't languish there". You can't let that anger and frustration that you feel about your disability get inside and destroy you. Use it. It's a tremendous energy to be hating yourself because of an image. Turn it out. Use it to organise, and you will find out how much energy you really have because of a disability. Energy is something we create within ourselves by being committed to the movement. It doesn't matter

if we are left wing or right wing or we are advocating one particular thing or another. Let's remember that our basic goal is a better quality of life for all of us. If we do that it will enhance the quality of life for everyone.

We must learn to have pride in who we are. I'm very proud of being a disabled person. I didn't choose it, but I'm proud as hell that I've been able to do what I have with my life. And I'm getting prouder all the time as I look out and I see you and thousands of other disabled people joining us and saying "We are not going to take it, it's time we got involved and turned this around".

No one else will do it for us. If we have learned one thing from the civil rights movements in the United States it's that when others speak for you, you lose.

When you aren't powerful or at least perceived as being powerful, you will gain very little success. We are not begging for our rights, we're demanding our rights. We're not going to sit out and wait for them, we're going to sit in the streets if that's what it takes.

I sat in a building in San Francisco when our civil rights were in real jeopardy and you know we had the longest sit-in in the history of any action against the Federal Government in our country. Here we were, perceived to be the weakest people of all. We changed a lot of attitudes.

I would hope that in these next ten years that we will see a real change. With your strength and your individuality you will provide leadership in this world; change Australia and then help change Asia and then the rest of the world. We need countries with real active disabled populations who are showing the way, people are showing us how strong we really are, as a group and as individuals. I would hope that when I come back, that I will find you have committed yourselves to actively searching out more people, more leaders, and more organisations of disabled people. Then you will have got to teach people that motivation, a belief in yourself, having a cause, and believing in the future is the key to success, even if you are tremendously and severely profoundly disabled. We're watching people who have been institutionalised for thirty years beginning to come out to join us in the community. We're watching a revolution.

I'm concerned that we begin to re-image who we are, and that we begin to help others see us as a tremendously under used resource group. Anybody can join us at any time, and many do especially on the highways. It's sad that each time a person joins us they have to go through the process of self hatred, because of the ways we've imagined disability as the worst thing in the world.

When I was fourteen, I got polio. When the doctor took my parents aside, my mother asked, "Will he live?" The doctor looked at her and said, "You should probably hope he dies, because if he lives he will be nothing more than a vegetable for the rest of his life." Well, I'm here today as an artichoke. You know they're a little prickly on the outside with a big heart and I'd like to call on all the vegetables of the world to unite.


We have to help people to understand and define their own limits, not let a doctor or an institution or anyone else do it for them. Everywhere in our society, in our world society, we're beginning to see people with disability emerge in the arts, in politics, in every field, let's keep pushing that..

Let's dare to dream together. Let's dare to dream about a future that includes us all. One that prepares the way for those people who are going to come along, who will be disabled later, so that they will not feel disability a curse. They will feel proud of themselves. That they will feel powerful if they can do something with their life. That they will not feel so ashamed, and they will join us in this struggle for our rights, and for our future. The future is ours, we can change our lives for the better and we can change millions of other peoples' lives for the better. If we expect things of people they will succeed, and we will have succeeded.