Disabled Peoples’ International First World Congress, 1981

DPI Banner

Original banner logo for DPI, from the header of a 1982 document.[1]

The first secretariat office for the fledgling Disabled Peoples’ International was established in a strip mall in Manitoba. It was, in fact, a shared space with the Manitoba League of Persons with Disabilities and consisted of little more than two desks.[2] Jim Derksen joined Enns and Driedger in the office. Derksen had been elected along with Enns to the original planning committee that designed the structure of DPI and was now employed part-time as the DPI Acting International Coordinator.[3] A wheelchair-user due to polio, Derksen grew up in Morris, Manitoba. Though not then a practicing member, Derksen was of Mennonite descent and familiar with Mennonite culture.[4] “That fact that all three of us were Mennonites, I think that’s a very important factor”, Driedger later recalled. Their shared culture provided short cuts to communication and understanding, which Driedger likened to a long marriage. With the immense task that lay ahead of the team, this anchoring “was a real advantage”.[5]

A 1986 Mennonite Central Committee of Canada (MCCC) policy report reflected that, “MCCC has played a major role in the development of a world movement of disabled people”.[6] Critically, even while this charitable institution provided substantial material support, Driedger recalls that “there was no interference in the work of DPI”.[7] The MCC leadership trusted Enns and DPI with wide latitude to pursue what they thought was best. In doing so, the MCC embodied the DPI principle that disabled people should represent their own needs and interests. As active Volunteer Service Workers, Enns and Driedger received support from the MCC in the form of living and travel expenses that allowed them to devote their energies to the significant work of organizing this new disabled peoples’ movement. Enns’ Volunteer Service assignment was repeatedly extended to allow him to continue to perform his international work along with his original MCC objectives.[8] The MCC Handicap Concerns Program directly listed one of its 1986 objectives as “To make staff available to serve as chairperson of Disabled Peoples’ International”.[9] This continued support of talented individuals represents a real practical investment on MCC’s part to the founding of DPI.

As elected representatives of the organization, the Steering Committee members focused on publicizing DPI, organizing groups, and meeting with government officials and funding organizations. Meanwhile, the DPI staff members at the Winnipeg secretariat worked to raise the $240,000 budget for the World Congress.[10] Derksen and Driedger therefore handled the bulk of the fundraising and planning work.[11] Enns, who was often travelling for his responsibilities as both Chairman of DPI and Director of the MCC Handicap Concerns Program, phoned the office every week and visited every few months as his schedule allowed.[12]

“We had to raise a lot of money here in the Winnipeg office”, recalled Driedger.[13] Enns, Derksen, and Driedger had a wealth of experience in disability organization and advocacy between them, but no previous experience with international funding bodies or with fundraising at this scale.[14] Fortunately, their connections to the MCC gave them somewhat of a head start. “One of the most significant contributions MCCC has made in the rapid development of DPI has been contacts and credibility”, an internal MCC report stated. These provided “the newly emerging organization with sufficient credibility to elicit support from funding bodies”.[15] John Wieler, the MCC director of overseas projects, put Enns in contact with the MCC’s contact at the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA).[16] CIDA knew the MCC as a reliable non-governmental development agency. The very fact that DPI already had the MCC’s support granted it an important air of legitimacy among other funding agencies.[17] CIDA first offered a grant of $17,200 (Canadian) for the first Steering Committee meeting, which would be held in Ireland. However, CIDA could only deliver funding to formally incorporated organizations. Fortunately, the DPI also had close ties to the Canadian Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped (COPOH). Thus, CIDA granted the money to COPOH to administer on DPI’s behalf.[18]

Enns pursued these contacts and made new ones when he attended UN meetings as a member of the Canadian Delegation to the UN Advisory Committee for the International year of Disabled Persons (IYDP). In the summers of 1980 and 1981, Enns chatted with a wide range of UN and government officials at these meetings.[19] His enthusiasm and optimism likely did much to arouse interest in DPI and generate good international visibility. “He was a salesman; very charismatic”, as Driedger describes him, “he could convince you just to be involved in everything because it was the exciting thing to do.”[20] 

The Steering Committee met again in San Francisco in February 1981. The UN IYDP Trust Fund, to which UN member governments contributed, paid for their travel along with the California Department of Rehabilitation.[21] The Canadian and Swedish governments both contributed substantially to these critical administration and travel costs, as did the MCC.[22] At the summer 1981 UN meeting, Enns spoke to Otto Wandall-Holm, who ran the IYDP Trust Fund. They agreed that the UN would grant $60,000 for the Founding World Congress in Singapore.[23] The UN fund established that the participation of disabled people, particularly from developing countries, would be given priority and set money aside for travel assistance grants.[24]

Promises of funding for Singapore slowly came together, though very little actual money had arrived, and the team in Winnipeg was able to turn their attention to travel planning. Many delegates did have sufficient means, either personal or from local fundraising, to book their own travel and accommodations and simply needed to register their attendance with the DPI secretariat. The real focus of Driedger’s time and attention were the many disability advocates and representatives of disabled organizations who wished to attend the World Congress but could not possibly do so without financial assistance. “We have to figure out how to get so-and-so from Dakar, Senegal to Singapore”, would be the challenge of her average day, “And these were the days when there was no Internet. We had to do everything by telegram or Telex.”[25]

One of the difficulties they faced was the delay that often took place between a promise of funding and the arrival of actual money. Airline tickets needed to be purchased months in advance and wired to attendees. For example, CIDA committed $100,000 for the World Congress, but required that any international body must incorporate before receiving their funds. DPI’s lawyer submitted an application to incorporate but mistakenly left out one required sheet, which Consumer and Corporate Affairs Canada (CCOC) noticed and rejected after three months. DPI’s second submission attempt was again rejected for not clearly indicating a maximum number of board members. Again, DPI had to appeal to the trust and support of a well-placed contact, this time at Health and Welfare Canada, who prodded CCOC to process the application as quickly as possible.[26] Disabled Peoples’ International Canada was incorporated on October 16th, 1981, six weeks before the scheduled start of the World Congress.[27] The certificate declared that the head office of the Corporation would be in Winnipeg and that its primary objective would be to, “democratically represent the disabled people of Canada as part of a World-wide organization to the United Nations and other international bodies”.[28] 

Throughout the planning phase, therefore, the team in Winnipeg had to book arrangements for the representatives from twenty-five developing countries in Africa, Asia, Latin America, and the Caribbean before actually having the money on-hand to do so. With the World Congress fast approaching and no time left to wait, Derksen, Enns, and Driedger agreed on a plan. They opened lines of credit with a travel agency in Winnipeg and another in Ottawa based on the existing promises of funding, for which there was certainly documentary proof. Derksen told the travel agents that the money would arrive to settle these lines of credit before the start of the Congress. The agencies thus paid for and wired fifty airline tickets to disabled delegates around the world. The lines of credit totaled $120,000 (CAD) when the Winnipeg DPI office still had only $20,000 available.[29]

Such calculated risks that were necessary to bring the 1981 DPI World Congress together relied on a high level of trust between the members of the secretariat office team, the hosts in Singapore, and a diverse group of disabled delegates who had, at that point, never actually met. “I’ll tell you, I was scared”, Driedger says, “and Jim was scared, but Henry was not scared.”[30] Ron Chandran-Dudley in Singapore even mortgaged his house to pay for the necessary arrangements.[31] The many leaps of faith, large and small, that so many individuals and organizations made in this time were evidence of a powerful sense of group solidarity on which Disabled Peoples’ International was being founded. When asked if she, as a non-disabled person, felt included in that group solidarity, Driedger recounts, “Oh, totally. Not at any time did I feel excluded.”[32]

On November 23rd, six days before the start of the World Congress, the Canadians took all the money the Winnipeg office had left and flew to Singapore. They had no way of knowing if the tickets sent to DPI delegates far and wide would reach their destinations in time. In Ottawa and Winnipeg, meanwhile, travel agencies were awaiting repayment.[33]

DPI First Assembly, Singapore, 1981

DPI First Assembly, Singapore, 1981. From left to right: Liam Maguire, Republic of Ireland; Tambo Camara, Mauritania; Henry Enns, Canada; Unknown; Al Simson, COPOH Canada.[34]

Enns Speech, Singapore, 1981

DPI First Assembly, Singapore, 1981. From left to right: Bengt Lindqvist, Sweden; Henry Enns, Canada; Jacqueline Careras, Argentina.[40]

Against the Odds in Singapore

The first World Congress of Disabled Peoples’ International took place as scheduled from November 29ththrough December 4th. It had three stated goals: to establish and create an administrative structure for DPI, to initiate international political action towards disabled rights, and to provide a forum for the discussion of ideas and issues of international scope.[35] Derksen, Enns, and Driedger were thrilled to find that all but three of the subsidized delegates had received their tickets and made it to the Congress. In total, 400 disabled people from 51 countries arrived in Singapore to participate, which was more than the organizers had ever expected. A full half of them would not have been able to attend without the subsidy program organized in Winnipeg.[36]

The DPI World Council, exclusively comprised of disabled representatives, was formed and elected Rob Chandran-Dudley from Singapore as chairperson, Henry Enns from Canada as deputy chair, Bengt Lindqvist from Sweden as Secretary, and Joshua Malinga from Zimbabwe as treasurer. They also elected a vice-chair from each continent except Oceania to represent regional interests. They agreed that the World Council would meet once a year.[37] A DPI Constitution was passed, solidifying the structure of the organization and a plan for future events, as well as a Manifesto and a Plan of Action. According to the constitution, a World Congress must be held every four years. The purpose of these Congresses was not to make policy, but to serve as forums for discussion and inform the World Council of the international issues most important to disabled people. The World Council would then enact DPI policy.[38]

Papers were presented on such as issues as employment, effective political action, food imbalance as a cause of disability, and the independent living movement. A letter was sent from the Congress to the United Nations General Assembly calling upon them to designate the 1980s as the Decade for the Disabled. Underlying all of this, the event strengthened and extended the feelings of unity and solidarity among disabled peoples as a social group and movement.[39]

The secretariat staff managed to bring the venture together in the face of significant financial constraints. After arriving in Singapore, Derksen and Driedger distributed the last of the DPI money as meal allowances for the fifty subsidized delegates. Furthermore, some non-subsidized attendees of limited means had managed to raise their own airfare and arrived hoping that DPI could pay for their meals and accommodations for the week. [41] While the Congress made history by establishing a voice for disabled people, Derksen and Driedger anxiously awaited the money. By December 3rd, the penultimate day of the Congress, neither the funds from the Canadian International Development Agency (CIDA), nor from the UN, had arrived. The organizers were faced with the very real possibility of arrest in Singapore if they could not get $20,000 (CAD) to pay the hotel bill by the next day.

Derksen phoned Bill White at the Coalition of Provincial Organizations of the Handicapped (COPOH) and asked him to find a way to wire the money. The COPOH itself simply did not have that kind of money available, so White went to their bank. He managed to arrange a $20,000 line of credit by showing the banker a telegram from the UN promising the DPI funding grant. International money transfers took time in 1981, so he then convinced Canadian External Affairs to send the money through diplomatic channels. On December 4th, the office of the Canadian High Commissioner to Singapore delivered the money to Derksen’s hotel room. It is no exaggeration to say that it arrived in the nick of time. The funds from CIDA and the UN did not appear in DPI’s Winnipeg bank account until after the end of the Congress.[42]

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Carleton University Disability Research Group. Research, interview, text, and design by Ryan Patterson.

Ryan would like to thank the Mennonite Central Committee for their generous support, the archivist team at the Mennonite Heritage Centre Archives for their invaluable assistance and acess to records, Chantel Fehr for providing helpful digital records, and special thanks to Professor Diane Driedger for her time, insight, and encouragement.

[1] MCC Canada Files 1982, Volume 4320, 788 R 1982 Independent Living Centre ON CA VOLU.

[2] Diane Driedger, “First VS Report From Diane Driedger, Disabled People International, Winnipeg”, MCC Canada Files 1982, Volume 4319, 767 R, 1982, Disabled Peoples International, MB CA VOLU, p. 2.

[3] “World Coalition of Persons with Disabilities (W.C.P.D.), Proposal drafted by seven-member committee, presented and unanimously accepted on June 26, 1980”, MCC Canada Files 1982, Volume 4319, 767 R, 1982, Disabled Peoples International, MB CA VOLU, p. 1.

[4] Driedger, Diane (Assistant Professor of Disability Studies, University of Manitoba), Interview with Ryan Patterson, June 1, 2018, transcript, Carleton University Disability Research Group, Ottawa.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Anon., “Background Paper for Recommendation to Discontinue the Position of Director of the Handicap Concerns Program and to Establish an MCC Handicap Concerns Committee to the Mennonite Central Committee Canada Annual Meeting”, Report to meeting #151 (Jan 16-18, 1986), Exhibit 12, MCCC Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, p. 8.

[7] Driedger, Interview with Ryan Patterson.

[8] Dave Dyck, “Voluntary Service Report”, Report to meeting #113 (Sep 25-26, 1981), Exhibit 7, MCCC Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, p. 1; Henry Enns and Diane Driedger, “Disabled People: International Perspectives, An Asia Trip Report”, MCC Canada Files 1982, Volume 4319, 767 R, 1982, Disabled Peoples International, MB CA VOLU, p. 12.

[9] Anon., “Handicap Concerns Program Objectives and Goals for 1986”, Report to meeting #151 (Jan 16-18, 1986), Exhibit 12, MCCC Heritage Archives, Winnipeg, p. 1.

[10] Diane Lynn Driedger, The Origins and History of Disabled Peoples’ International (DPI) 1945-1985, MA in History, University of Manitoba, 1987, p. 64. Available through the University of Manitoba thesis repository: https://mspace.lib.umanitoba.ca/xmlui/handle/1993/9408; Diane Driedger, The Last Civil Rights Movement: Disabled Peoples’ International (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989), p. 48. Available for digital loan on Internet Archive: https://archive.org/details/lastcivilrightsm00drie/page/n3; “Rationale for Contribution to D.P.I.”, Sep 13, 1984, MCC Canada Files 1984, Volume 4405, 880 R, 1984, Organizations, CA HAND.

[11] Henry Enns, “D.P.I. World Congress Report, Handicap Awareness Report to the MCC (Canada) Executive”, MCC Canada Files 1982, Volume 4319, 767 R, 1982, Disabled Peoples International, MB CA VOLU, pp. 1-2; Enns and Driedger, “Disabled People: International Perspectives”, p. 12.

[12] Driedger, Interview with Ryan Patterson; Driedger, Origins and History, p. 65.

[13] Driedger, Interview with Ryan Patterson.

[14] Driedger, Last Civil Rights Movement, p. 49.

[15] Anon., “Background Paper for Recommendation to Discontinue the Position of Director of the Handicap Concerns Program”, p. 9.

[16] Driedger, Last Civil Rights Movement, pp. 40-41.

[17] Enns, “D.P.I. World Congress Report”, p. 1; Driedger, Interview with Ryan Patterson.

[18] Driedger, Origins and History, p. 52-53.

[19] Ibid, p. 62.

[20] Driedger, Interview with Ryan Patterson.

[21] Driedger, Origins and History, p. 55.

[22] Henry Neufeldt and Aldred Enns (Eds.), In Pursuit of Equal Participation: Canada and disability at home and abroad, Concord, ON: Captus Press, 2003; Driedger, Interview with Ryan Patterson.

[23] Driedger, Last Civil Rights Movement, p. 46.

[24] Driedger, Origins and History, p. 62.

[25] Driedger, Interview with Ryan Patterson.

[26] Driedger, “First VS Report”, p. 4.

[27] Minister of Consumer and Corporate Affairs, “Certificate of Incorporation, Disabled Peoples’ International (Canada) Inc.”, Oct 16, 1981, MCC Canada Files 1985, Volume 4516, 324 R, 1985, Disabled People Concerns 1981-1985.

[28] “Application for Incorporation, Disabled Peoples’ International (Canada) Inc.”, Winnipeg, July 7, 1981, MCC Canada Files 1985, Volume 4516, 324 R, 1985, Disabled People Concerns 1981-1985, p. 1-2.

[29] Driedger, Last Civil Rights Movement, p. 50.

[30] Driedger, Interview with Ryan Patterson.

[31] Ibid.

[32] Ibid.

[33] Enns and Driedger, “Disabled People: International Perspectives”, p. 1; Driedger, Origins and History, p. 67.

[34] DPI First Assembly, Singapore, 1981, 1981, .jpg, “Memory into the Future”, Disabled Peoples’ International, http://memoryintofuture.org/historical-photos-of-dpi.

[35] Enns and Driedger, “Disabled People: International Perspectives”, p. 1.

[36] Driedger, Last Civil Rights Movement, p. 51; Diane Dreidger, “Final Report: Diane Dreidger, VS Location: Disabled Peoples’ International”, Winnipeg, Jul 20, 1982, MCC Canada Files 1982, Volume 4319, 767 R, 1982, Disabled Peoples International, MB CA VOLU, p. 1.

[37] Driedger, Last Civil Rights Movement, p. 55.

[38] Ibid, p. 78.

[39] Enns and Driedger, “Disabled People: International Perspectives”, p. 1.

[40] Enns Speech, Singapore, 1981, 1981, .jpg, “Memory into the Future”, Disabled Peoples’ International, http://memoryintofuture.org/historical-photos-of-dpi.

[41] Driedger, Last Civil Rights Movement, p. 51.

[42] Driedger, Origins and History, p. 69; Driedger, Last Civil Rights Movement, p. 51.

Disabled Peoples’ International First World Congress, 1981