“Lesley was fierce!” Playwright and Melbourne Workers’ Theatre member Patricia Cornelius punched out the words in her tribute to hundreds gathered at the Northcote Town Hall on Tuesday, 29 October.

A fierce fighter for the rights of disabled people to control their own lives. A fierce fighter for women’s and gay rights. A fierce fighter for workers’ rights. Lesley, who died suddenly in late October, was all these things and more.

After studying at La Trobe University, Lesley qualified as a teacher, and then spent much of her life as one of Australia’s strongest advocates for the rights of people with disabilities. With a lifelong disability herself, she was well acquainted with discrimination.

However, growing up during the 1950s and 1960s, Lesley was inspired by workers’ struggles and the movements of oppressed peoples who organised and fought against discrimination and oppression. It was this model of organising that she brought to her work around disability rights.

When workers’ rights came under attack during the 1980s, Lesley unhesitatingly stood on the side of the workers. She was active in the Defend the BLF, Defend the Unions group set up to defend the Builders Labourers Federation as the Hawke-Keating Labor government destroyed the union.

When other unions, the Pilots, the Food Preservers and Robe River workers came under siege from government and employers, Lesley always took the workers’ side – a position not always popular in the years of the ALP-ACTU Prices and Incomes Accord. But for Lesley, workers’ rights were more important than popularity.

The tributes, led by PiO the poet, also remembered Lesley as the good, though strongly argumentative, friend to many and Lesley the champion of theatre and the arts – both for workers and people with disabilities.

During one of its most creative periods, Lesley was director of the Melbourne Workers Theatre, where she met and worked with Patricia Cornelius.

Later she went on to work with the Darebin Council to bring greater involvement of people with disabilities in the various festivals and productions in the area, showcasing for the first time some standout and challenging performances.

One of Lesley’s most public protests was at the 1981 Miss Australia Quest finals. She and others from the Women With Disabilities Collective managed to get into the hall where the contest was being held. Quite how they smuggled in the placards they raised as they stormed the stage, protesting both the sexist images of women and the continued stigmatisation of people with disabilities promoted by these “beauty” quests, has never been revealed.

Beauty quests – fundraisers for charitable institutions that were anything but “charitable” for people with disabilities – were often the targets of Lesley’s campaigning.

Her searing critique of such contests, based on her own experiences growing up female and with a disability, was firmly based in an understanding of a society based on inequality. “Attitudes towards disability are not formed accidentally. They are the obvious outcome of a society that values competition between people”, she wrote.

Lesley demanded that society change, and she devoted her life to trying to bring about that change. Our best tribute to her is to carry on that fight – until we win!

[Visit Women With Disabilities Australia.]