In 1949 Australia was still experiencing the aftermath of the 2nd Word War and the trauma of many soldiers returning home to face a new living environment. Many of those soldiers had physical disabilities and faced a long road of rehabilitation and the challenge of beginning civilian life with the same independence that they had when they left Australia. The employment future looked grim; however, never to be daunted, these young men and women took up the challenge and moved onto soldier settlement allotments as well as moving into the main stream of employment.
In parallel there were many people who as survivors of polio were trying to move into employment and become actively involved in the community. Polio was a number of years away from vaccination to eradicate the virus in Australia and the communities were to see a number of new epidemics before this virus would cease to be a major health issue in Australia. The polio survivor was and still is a very high achiever and many survivors in 1949 like all Australians with a disability were struggling to find suitable transport and to establish a sense of independence travelling to and from employment and recreational activities.
It was at this time that we see Ilma Lever BEM enter the scene. Encouraged by her father she began her advocacy to bring about a method of motor vehicle driving and motoring.
The makeshift use of apparatus for use of brake, clutch, accelerator and any other apparatus needed to drive was dangerous. While manoeuvring all of this it was also necessary to provide hand signals. Ilma was heard to say, “I can do anything and I will drive no matter what!” Mr Lever had other ideas as he never wanted his daughter on the road with such insecure and dangerous apparatus. On visiting a soldier settlements farm in Stanhope Victoria, the Levers observed a returned soldier without legs driving a tractor, using two broom sticks and an attached piece of wire for the accelerator. It was the same device that he engineered for use by many friends who were returned soldiers and polio survivors.
After approaching all available motor vehicle companies at the time and gathering from as many organisations as possible in Australia and overseas information and research, Ilma gathered around her a number of friends with disabilities and in 1954 established the Victorian Disabled Motorists Association (VDMA) the forerunner to what is now called DISABLED MOTORISTS AUSTRALIA (DMA). With a team of like-minded people and organisations, the Victorian Police and the Victorian Government through Mr Noel Bergere’, one of the first Presidents and a Barrister along with Ilma’s tenacity and dogged commitment they achieved some limited success for people with a disability.
By 1955 there were engineer-designed hand controls and while the motor vehicles were not automatics they were a more viable method of transport for the disabled driver. By this time many people with a disability were very competent motorists and drivers. Ilma and the VDMA approached Mr Sid Ross, the inventor of the ‘Ross hand Controls, in New Zealand and he agreed to come to Australia if four people with a disability could be available. The first Ross hand controls were fitted at the Lever Family home in Coburg Victoria.
The support of Norm Spencer and Elizabeth of the “Friendly Door” radio program, Radio 3DB Melbourne and a group of people with a disability in NSW brought about many changes to the lives of those with a disability through driving and motoring from the family sedan, trucks, utes, tractors and car enthusiasts’ vehicles.
Having effectively battled the system and established the rights for drivers with disabilities the DMA found that the work had just began and the representation, advocacy and provision of human rights had to continue to sustain a real place on the roads for people with a disability as drivers and motorists as well as working to achieve expansion of the accessible use of public transport, motorised wheelchairs and all matters transport affecting the lives of people with a disability.
Some of the achievements have been:
Victoria Police Driving and licensing governance in the 1950’s & 60’s
RACV Driving Instructors for the Disabled
Disabled Persons Parking Scheme
RACV Discount for the DMA membership
Lease on the land as a Community Lease from the Department of Railways.
DMA Offices and administration Centre
John White Resource Centre
Kitchen, laundry and small meeting room
2 accessible Accommodation Units
DMA Ilma Lever Gardens (the gardens offer horticultural and garden programmes for people with a disability.)
So many people have contributed so much and provided a sustainable future for people with a disability as drivers and motorists.
The history of DMA would not be established without a mention of Ilma Lever BEM, the Lever Family, Norma Breen, Noel Bergere’, John White OAM, Maureen Maginness, Gary Bell, Shirley Bell, Christine White, Adele Brain, Joan Howe, Ken Ravensdale, Bill Peacock OAM, Rosslyn Pickhaver, Bill Cook, Lindsay Cottingham, Jenny Cook, Russell Turner and the Governors of Victoria who have lent their patronage over the years. There are so many people who may not have been mentioned by name but who have contributed so much and are saluted.