The death of Katie Ball on 25 June leaves a big gap in activist circles. Katie was a tenacious fighter for disability rights, the environment and against imperialist war. In her autobiographical piece in Jocelynne Scutt’s 1992 collection As a Woman she explains: “I refuse to limit my social and political participation to campaigns which alone bear direct relevance to my own life as a woman with a physical disability. Powerful similarities exist between the emerging disability rights movement of the 1990s and the feminist, Black rights and gay liberation struggles. Many subtle connections arise between these and other social justice issues and the far wider campaigns for world peace, ecological diversity and the environment. As a person with a disability and as a woman, I cannot exist within a vacuum.”
Katie was born in 1965. At a young age she developed Kugelberg Welander syndrome and started using an electric wheelchair. She was educated until the age of 14 in a special school which she scathingly described as “a cross between a hospital playroom and an atypical kindergarten.” At the age of 16 she was institutionalised for nine months, a horrifying experience which she credits for entrenching and focusing her rebellious tendencies. “I gradually came to the realisation that I must fight to expose these asylums for what they are — minimum security prisons where our only crime is to have sustained a physical or intellectual disability.”
I first met Katie in the mid ’80s when she was a leader of People for Equality Not Institutionalisation (PENI). The group used a combination of militant tactics and legal challenges. PENI mobilised activists to fight plans to close the Port Melbourne and St Kilda railway lines and replace them with light rail. Katie spearheaded a case at the Victorian Equal Opportunity Board which ruled that segregating people with disabilities by replacing an accessible service with an inaccessible one was in fact discrimination. But having ruled this way, the very same board determined that it was “unreasonable” to pull up the light rail and put back trains!
Katie fiercely rejected the stereotype of the asexual disabled woman. She published photos of herself naked with her partner, Peter. She was a strong advocate against forced sterilisation and fought for the rights of people with disabilities to be parents. She was the mother of two children of whom she was very proud. However, Katie’s activism around reproductive rights was incomplete. At rallies, Katie and I often debated the critical question of defending every woman’s right to choose an abortion. Katie was naturally concerned about eugenics. I think that the best way to eliminate the possibility of a disability being the deciding factor in a woman’s decision to terminate a pregnancy is to increase the status of people with disabilities in our society, not reduce the rights of woman generally.
The image of Katie in her wheelchair up a tripod protesting the destruction of the East Gippsland forest is a bold statement of her refusal to let her disability exclude her from any protest. She was furious about the double standards which resulted in differential treatment by the police and courts because she was disabled. After insisting on being arrested with everyone else at a forest blockade, she appealed after being fined less than everyone else because of her disability! She won her appeal, refused to pay the fine and went defiantly to jail. She told a friend who visited her that jail was much better than Yooralla!
The last time I saw Katie — less than three weeks before she died — we both marched in the 10,000-strong protest against the destruction of Tasmania’s old growth forest. Her can-do attitude and determination to resist all that was wrong with the world will provide inspiration for many years to come.