Canberra Citizen of the Year
Susan Margaret Salthouse (born 1949)
Sue relates with some delight that she was born on Bastille Day, 14 July, the younger of two sisters. The family lived in McKinnon, then a typical 1930s-style Melbourne suburb. Her father was a bank clerk, who had enlisted in the army in World War 2, seeing service in the Middle East, New Guinea and Darwin as a transport officer. Not until his old age did he talk about his experiences, and then only the amusing parts. Her mother came from a family of greengrocers but after marriage she owned and ran a shop in St Kilda, selling lingerie and baby clothes – “the irony was not lost on us”, says Sue.
Sue attended the local primary school and hoped to go on to the same secondary school as her sister. To this end, she sat for the scholarship examination for Kilvington Baptist Girls Grammar “as a practice run”, and won the scholarship. She accepted the scholarship and set a precedent for the rest of her life: take what comes and make the best of it.
In this case the best was very good indeed, not just for education but also for the opportunities offered in leadership roles. Kilvington then had just over 200 students and good teachers who had had interesting lives as missionaries in India. Sue regrets not making more of the opportunity to talk to them about India, as she spent several years later living in Nepal. But that was in the future, and the school generally encouraged the girls to take medicine – missionary doctors were in high demand. Sue liked science but was more interested in agriculture. The ‘green revolution’ was starting, and she could see herself helping to raise production levels of food in the Third World.
Sue enrolled in Agricultural Science at the University of Melbourne in 1967. After graduation she worked as a field officer for the Victorian State Rivers and Water Supply Commission, doing mainly scientific writing. This job was unlikely to lead to overseas travel, so she prepared by undertaking a Diploma of Education at La Trobe University. La Trobe introduced her to innovative teaching methods and a view of education as an instrument of change; her subsequent transfer to Alice Springs High School confirmed and intensified this view but did more. She learned from the women in the Indigenous communities how to listen and understand; with the lessons learned at Kilvington and the teaching from La Trobe, Sue began to see that leadership was really facilitation.
The leadership style she discovered in Alice Springs was what has been called the ‘hub and spoke’ model, where the leader is the hub. Simply put, a good leader calls on expertise from those on the rim in order to solve a problem. It is a more complex way of achieving a result than the hierarchical models, but is well suited to non-government organisations, particularly those involved in advocacy where no single person has sufficient knowledge to resolve a problem. It was also adopted by feminist organisations such as the Women’s Electoral Lobby (WEL) that Sue joined in Alice Springs.
Now ready to travel, Sue went to Kathmandu intending to trek in the Himalayas before heading for England. She became friendly with the wife of an aid worker in Kathmandu; the wife was killed in an accident in England, leaving her husband with three young children. Sue’s offer of help was accepted by the widower and she returned to Nepal. This spur of the moment rearrangement of her plans resulted in marriage. Still happy to take life as it came, Sue and her new family alternated between Australia and overseas aid ventures for 15 years. Usually she found agricultural aid work to do, but on the final posting to Rome that was impossible. After a three week refresher course in England she started teaching English in Italian schools.
Back in Canberra it was clear the marriage was over and Sue was suddenly a single mum with three adopted teenagers and her own young daughter. In 1989 she facilitated problem solving and logical thinking at the ACT Maths Centre at Campbell Primary School, then taught Italian at Duffy Primary. She was finally developing her own career when, on a riding holiday in the Snowy Mountains in April 1995, she fell from her horse and broke her back. Eight months of rehabilitation followed but Sue was a paraplegic, destined to spend the rest of her life in a wheelchair.
While Sue is adamant that it was not the hardest psychological adjustment she has had to make, it was physically very difficult. In October 1995 the Canberra Times ran a story on Sue’s need for a new house. Her own home was “an inconvenience at best, at worst a prison”. In 2015 she chaired Canberra Access Q&A, a panel of planners, spokespeople and decision makers that met at the ACT Legislative Assembly to identify problems and canvass solutions to the many barriers any city erects against people with disabilities.
In the intervening 20 years Sue made a new life for herself, mainly as an advocate for women with disabilities. After a brief, unsuccessful return to teaching she joined Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA). Their social justice agenda appealed to Sue, who was secretary and industrial relations spokeswoman in 2005 and president in 2009-2012. Sue has also been the convenor of Women With Disabilities ACT since about 2004.
People with disabilities, particularly women, often experience great difficulty with communications technology, as Sue pointed out in an article in 2001. Having helped establish the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network in 2008 Sue, also chair of the Communications Alliance Disability Council, was appointed firstly to the board, then as chair in 2009 and 2010.
Simply finding work is a major problem, which Sue has helped address through Women in Adult and Vocational Education (WAVE) and Advance Personnel, a disability employment network. As a member of CoAct (formerly Job Futures), Sue’s work through Advance Personnel earned her one of their inaugural Local Hero awards in 2015.
Sue is particularly involved in leadership training for women with disabilities. “They must 'have a seat at the table', not only because the voices of women with disabilities must be heard but because there is enormous symbolic importance attached to women with disabilities being seen to be leaders. They need to be able to demonstrate to themselves and the able-bodied people around them 'I look like you, only sitting down'.” Her work in this area won her an Edna Award in 2010.
In 2015 Sue was appointed to the Prime Minister’s Advisory Panel to reduce violence against women, and is co-chair of the ACT Disability Expert Panel advising on the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
Not all Sue’s work is in the disability area. She has been on the Council of the University of Canberra since 2012, has tutored in Forest Taxonomy at the Australian National University and is an inaugural life member of the Australia Nepal Friendship Society.
Awards and Distinctions
- 2010 Edna Award for community activism
- 2011 Inclusion Award in recognition of working towards an inclusive attitude for people whatever their disability
- 2014 ACT Senior Woman of the Year
- 2015 Canberra Citizen of the Year for personal efforts and significant contribution working to improve the lives and opportunities for people with disability, and in particular women with disability
- 2015 CoAct Local Hero for exemplary work done in local areas
2001 Salthouse, Sue, Telecommunications use by women with disabilities in remote, rural and regional Australia : final report of a pilot telecommunications survey conducted by Women With Disabilities Australia (April 2001), Rosny Park, Tas. : Women With Disabilities Australia
2002 Salthouse, Sue, "Quality in disability services - a consumers' view" : a report for the ACT Disability Advisory Council
2009 Salthouse, Sue; Frohmader, Carolyn ‘Voices for change: Advocacy for changing culture and policy for women with disability: The Australian situation’, Disability, disadvantage and development in the Pacific and Asia, Development Bulletin Special Issue no 73, April, pp 59-62
2009 Salthouse, Sue. ‘Brave New World: Is the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities a Blueprint for Utopia?’ Paper presented at the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations Conference, Melbourne, May 2009.
2010 Friday night, I am watching a parade of exceptional women. . The Canberra Times, 18 May,
2011 Sue Salthouse interviewed by Nikki Henningham in the Women and leadership in a century of Australian democracy oral history project, National Library of Australia digitised item at http://nla.gov.au/nla.obj-219666838
2013 ‘Salthouse, Sue (1949 - )’, Australian Women’s Register, viewed 17 February 2016, http://www.womenaustralia.info/biogs/AWE4889b.htm
2015 Disability advocate named Canberra Citizen of the Year. The Canberra Times, 13 March,