A woman of many words: the story of Anne McDonald

Only days before giving her International Women’s Day ‘Famous Women in Melbourne‘ tour, Dr Celestina Sagazio, SMCT Historian & Manager of Cultural Heritage, found a noteworthy addition.

By Dr Celestina Sagazio

“I

was walking through Melbourne General Cemetery, where the Famous Women in Melbourne tour is based. A bright bunch of yellow flowers caught my eye. When I bent down to read the plaque where the flowers were placed, I was excited by the name of the remarkable woman who is interred there. I knew that Anne McDonald had to be among the women I spoke of on the tour and added her to my notes that day.

Anne McDonald is an important and fascinating addition for several reasons. McDonald was a notable woman with severe cerebral palsy who is credited as an author and an activist for the rights of people with communication disability. She was born in Seymour on 11 January 1961, and as a result of a birth injury developed severe athetoid cerebral palsy. At the time, it was felt that as she could not walk, talk or feed herself, she was diagnosed as having severe intellectual disability as well.

At the age of three, McDonald was placed by her parents at St Nicholas Hospital, a government institution for children with severe disabilities. She lived there without education or therapy for 11 years. When writing about her time there, McDonald described the institution as ‘the state garbage bin’. It was claimed that she was neglected and starved there and weighed only 12 kilograms at the age of 16.

In 1977, when McDonald was 16, Rosemary Crossley, an author and disability advocate, reported that she was able to teach and communicate with McDonald by supporting her upper arm while she selected word blocks and magnetic letters. Crossley developed this technique as ‘facilitated communication’.

The story of McDonald’s use of this form of communication has been questioned many times. With sceptics pointing to input from the assistant in creating communications. Crossley argued that the Health Commission had asked two senior independent psychologists to test McDonald using written material Crossley hadn’t seen. McDonald passed the tests with the psychologists and also in court.

Anne McDonald
Anne McDonald’s plaque – Melbourne General Cemetery

When McDonald was 18 she went to the Supreme Court to win the right to leave the institution and won the case. The court accepted that McDonald’s communication was her own. She went on to get her Higher School Certificate and a humanities degree from Deakin University. She was co-author with Crossley of the book ‘Annie’s Coming Out’ (1980). A film, based on the book, won several Australian Film Institute (AFI) awards, including Best Picture.

Some questioned whether McDonald had the capacity to write a book and she had to demonstrate her abilities in the Supreme Court to win the right to manage her own financial affairs and enter into a book contract. McDonald not only went on to write her book, but also won awards and presented at international conferences.

McDonald lived with Crossley and her husband for 32 years. On 22 October 2010, McDonald suffered a heart attack and died suddenly. She is interred at Melbourne General Cemetery.

This is a fascinating and wonderful story about a woman who never gave up hope and persisted through adversity to find a ‘voice’ for herself and others like her. Anne McDonald’s story is an inspiration on International Women’s Day, and every other day.”

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