When Sue Salthouse was thrown from her horse a quarter-century ago and ended up in a wheelchair, it wasn’t the end, but the beginning of a life of fierce, determined and ongoing advocacy.
The former Canberra citizen of the year has been named our Senior Australian of the Year, following in the footsteps of last year’s winner Dr Sue Packer, who went on to receive the national award earlier this year.
That’s not to say Sue Salthouse was expecting the honour; she described her reaction to the announcement as one of “extreme surprise”.
“It’s a great thing to happen for women with disabilities in the ACT,” she told Region Media. “It’s really important because we’re a strong lot but these things like this highlight that there is a divide and some women across the spectrum are not getting a fair go at anything.”
At 70, Sue continues to work in the disability sector, where she runs a consultancy company specialising in disability rights advocacy.
Speaking at the launch of the YWCA’s Our Lives report on women in the ACT, Salthouse said that many of the report’s findings around inequality identified the same problems that had spurred her own decades of activism on disability and women’s issues.
“We can’t expect to achieve anything as a community when women’s haven’t got housing and financial security,” she said.
“We have demonstrated how difficult that is in the ACT on a low income. I’m constantly gobsmacked by what women are expected to do on Newstart. It is not anywhere near a decent daily income, but they are expected to go out and look for jobs as well, and then we inhumanely assess their ability to do that.”
Salthouse says that persistence drives her, and the need to keep fighting in case incremental gains are lost in the political and social scrum.
“You need a change in leadership for the good but sometimes we get a change that doesn’t help our country evolve,” she says.
“In the ACT we have many positives happening but we need to look at where the gaps are, the intersectional effects that stop people getting services and jobs.”
Salthouse intends to put her ACT Senior Australian of the Year award to good use. “I’m just thinking about what’s essential to all women here in the ACT which I can highlight during this year,” she says.
“One cause is around income. Welfare payments should eliminate any references to being a burden. We now hear from the very highest levels that people on welfare are a burden. But welfare is a right in this country.
“We need to look at universal basic incomes and a wellbeing index that is not profit-driven. I think we need to shift our whole focus in this society, whether it’s towards issues like climate change protests advocating for our future, to creating greater respect for this country and to how we treat each other in our daily lives.”