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Shirley Newsome Dibden (1921–1996)

by Robert Fitzsimons

This article was published online in 2021

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Shirley Newsome Dibden (1921-1996), community worker and specialist in learning disorders, was born on 26 April 1921 at Mount Lawley, Perth, younger child of New South Wales-born Henry Archibald Barton, draper and later retail manager, and his Victorian-born wife Nellie Cordelia, née Jackson. The family resided at suburban Mount Lawley before moving to Sydney in 1931, and to Melbourne in 1934. There Shirley attended Lauriston Girls’ School, but her education was cut short as the family experienced acute financial difficulties. She found work, mainly in the clothing trade, and trained at the Melbourne Technical College’s applied art school. In 1937 her family relocated to Adelaide, after her father was appointed general manager of Miller Anderson Ltd. She joined them there and undertook courses at Chartres Business College. Employed at Sonotone Hearing Aids in 1939 and 1940, she demonstrated an aptitude for working with deaf clients.

On 20 July 1940 at St John’s Church, Adelaide, Barton married William Andrew Dibden, a recent medical graduate who would specialise in psychiatry. It was an enduring marriage, and they would have five children. During World War II she volunteered as a driver for the Australian Red Cross Society and as a secretary of the Hospitallers’ Club of St John of Jerusalem. Later she was a ‘Torch Bearer’ for Legacy.

In 1956 Dibden joined the South Australian Association for Mental Health. Her proficiency in fund-raising helped the association to realise several of its objectives, including founding the Citizens’ Advice Bureau, establishing a chair in mental health at the University of Adelaide, and organising an annual mental health week. She also acted as a counsellor and, with her husband, was involved in the production of psychodramas—short, open-ended plays with a mental health theme—for the theatre and television. From 1967 to 1973 she was a member of the SAAMH council, and was made an honorary life member.

As a parent of children with specific learning disabilities, Dibden had long been concerned that schools did not cater adequately for these conditions. During the 1950s, she began independent research in that complex field, reading widely in the international literature and corresponding with experts. In 1968 she was part of the steering committee that established the Dyslexia Association of South Australia, renamed the Specific Learning Difficulties (SPELD) Association of South Australia in May 1969.

Until her retirement in 1991, Dibden was a major influence on the structure and growth of SPELD (South Australia). She served as honorary secretary and from 1985 as director, setting up educational programs for the learning-disadvantaged and endeavouring to attract the support of educators and politicians. Persistent in her efforts to improve public understanding of dyslexia and other conditions that impeded an individual’s capacity to learn, she publicised research findings in the quarterly newsletter, arranged for international experts to visit Australia, and presented lectures to a wide range of audiences.

Under Dibden’s guiding hand, the association offered innovative educational programs including study groups for parents, classes for adults with learning disabilities, and annual camps for learning-disabled children and teenagers. She also worked with the Department of Correctional Services to identify young adult offenders in need of SPELD’s assistance. Her approach to education was holistic, and she drew on ‘the expertise of psychologists, neurologists, school health workers, [and] speech pathologists’ (Dibden 1980), among others. She received strong support from her husband, who maintained a specialist interest in learning-related problems.

In 1974 Dibden, with Yvonne Stewart of SPELD (New South Wales), made representations that resulted in the appointment of a Federal parliamentary select committee on specific learning difficulties. The committee’s report (1976) marked an important advance in official attitudes, and State government grants to SPELD increased appreciably. In 1983 the South Australian minister for education appointed Dibden to a working party to advise on the formation of a research institute. The Institute for the Study of Learning Difficulties at the South Australian College of Advanced Education opened in March 1984 and she was an active member of its management committee for several years. She also collaborated with others at SPELD to study the effectiveness of tinted lenses in the treatment of reading disability, research that attracted international attention.

A strong personality, generous and compassionate, Dibden was known for her ‘warm sense of humour, optimism, and insight’ (Rees 18 October 1996). She had been appointed AM in 1976 and was awarded the honorary degree of doctor of the university by Flinders University in 1994. On 8 January 1996 she died in the Mary Potter Hospice, North Adelaide, predeceased by her husband (d. 1993) and survived by their son and four daughters. A private funeral was held at St Saviour’s Church, Glen Osmond, where her ashes were later interred.

Research edited by Nicole McLennan

Select Bibliography

  • Australia. House of Representatives. Select Committee. Learning Difficulties in Children and Adults. Report … on Specific Learning Difficulties. Canberra: Australian Government Publishing Service, 1976
  • Dibden family. Personal communication
  • Dibden, Shirley Newsome. Address at Underdale College of Advanced Education, 11 November 1980. Shirley Newsome Dibden papers, PRG 1094/10/7. State Library of South Australia
  • Dibden, Shirley N. ‘A Brief Autobiography, Written for the BHP Pursuit of Excellence Award Application.’ Unpublished manuscript, n.d. Copy held at SPELD (SA) Inc
  • Dibden, W.A. Specific Learning Difficulties: The Australian Scene. [Glenside, SA]: [SPELD (SA)], [1972]
  • Rees, Roger. Address at Ayers House, 18 October 1996. Shirley Newsome Dibden papers, PRG 1094/8. State Library of South Australia
  • Rees, Roger. ‘Dr Shirley Newsome Dibden AM.’ Australasian Journal of Special Education 20, no. 1 (1996): 70-71
  • Specific Learning Difficulties Association of South Australia. ‘A History of SPELD SA 1969-2019.’ Unpublished manuscript, c. 2019. Copy held by the Association
  • Specific Learning Difficulties Association of South Australia. SPELD (SA) News. Glenside, SA: The Association, 1971–91
  • State Library of South Australia. PRG 1094, Shirley N. Dibden papers
  • State Library of South Australia. PRG 842, William A. Dibden papers

Additional Resources

Citation details

Robert Fitzsimons, 'Dibden, Shirley Newsome (1921–1996)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2021, accessed online 19 July 2024.

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