Story by Ian Baker

The organisation that was to become AQA Victoria Limited was established in late 1982 as the Victorian office of the Australian Quadriplegic Association, a group founded in Sydney 15 years earlier.

That group had been formed to promote the interests of people with spinal cord injuries, and in particular to advocate for people with high spinal cord injuries. In Sydney it operated an accommodation centre, and an office that employed several people with quadriplegia.

The Victorian branch was set up by a welfare worker, Paul Werner, who had been supporting residents at the former Yarra-me group home in Croydon.

Sheltered workshop

Leasing premises at 413 High Street, Northcote, it hired some people with quadriplegia to compile road accident statistics for VicRoads forerunner the Road Traffic Authority, among other activities.

“It was funded at the time as a sheltered workshop,” Ian Bennett, who would establish the branch as an independent organization and lead it as CEO, recalls in the language of the times. “They were all on pensions, and the work was supplementing their pensions by a small amount.”

One of the first employees, Mark Waterman, was recruited by fellow Yarra-me resident John Simpson, who had been recruited by Werner. Waterman had a C4-5 spinal cord injury, received in a motorbike accident at the age of 19.

‘I found it fulfilling’

“I was looking for something to do because I was doing a lot of physio and stuff at the time,” Waterman says, “just trying to keep myself occupied and busy.

“It had been seven years since I last had a job. I had started work at 15 in the railways, and I’d been having a ball there.

“I found the work at AQA, for want of a better term, fulfilling. I left for work about 8am and wouldn’t get home until six at night.

“A lot of people at Yarra-me would get up at 11 and would be back in bed by three in the afternoon.”

Facing closure

About 1986 the Melbourne office faced a loss of funding, and the Australian Quadriplegic Association, under its able-bodied CEO at the time, Bill Saville, decided to shut it down.

Bennett, who had incomplete quadriplegia from a road accident when he was 21, but could walk, had been recruited to serve the Melbourne branch as its bookkeeper. By then it had relocated to 70 Station Street, Fairfield.

Bennett had previously operated two businesses, and he believed that the branch could survive. Motivated by a wish to preserve the jobs of his less able colleagues, he had won it a six-month reprieve and had restored its funding.

Clash over branding

“We agreed at that time, through the management committee, that we would call it AQA Victoria Limited,” Bennett recalls.

“The CEO rang me and said we could not call an organisation AQA. He said that was their logo in New South Wales, and it was an acronym.

“I said, ‘I hate to tell you Bill, but that’s what it is.’

“I had studied marketing for 12 months, and I knew the benefit of branding and keeping that name.

“He wrote to me and said he was very disappointed that we had pinched his name, AQA. I wrote back to him and said: ‘You’ve got the name Australian Quadriplegic Association; we’ve got the name AQA.’

 “We incorporated in 1987 as AQA Victoria Limited.”

‘We’re all quads’

The Australian Quadriplegic Association rebranded in 2003 as Spinal Cord Injuries Australia (SCIA).

“There were people in NSW who were doing the same work as our guys down here,” Bennett remembers of the years before the break. “Our guys had got on well with those guys – they would talk and chat on the phone. That sharing of the knowledge worked well.

“Even though the CEO had basically severed ties with us, the guys still kept communicating after the breakaway. They were quads, and they communicated in the background. There was a little bit of, ‘We’re all quads, so we’ll all work together.’”

  • December 30, 2020

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