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Yvonne Eliza Stewart (1915–1997)

by Paul R. Whiting

This article was published online in 2021

Yvonne Eliza Stewart (1915–1997), teacher, advocate, and specialist in learning disabilities, was born on 24 July 1915 at Mosman, Sydney, youngest of four daughters of Victorian-born Robert Matthew Kidston, solicitor and later barrister, and his locally born wife Olive Owen, née Pretious. Yvonne was educated at St Kilda Girls’ Grammar School, Mosman, and Sydney Kindergarten and Preparatory Teachers’ College. After graduation in 1935, she taught in schools and worked as a photographic model for department stores. On 14 January 1942 she married Allan Lindsay Stewart, an engineer, at St Philip’s Church of England, Sydney. That year Allan was appointed as a technical officer at the Standards Association of Australia (SAA), and they moved to Melbourne. He was promoted through the association’s ranks and the couple, with their young family, returned to Sydney when he became SAA director in 1953.

From 1960 Yvonne worked privately as a remedial teacher helping children experiencing difficulties at school with reading, writing, and spelling. Most of these children, she believed, could be helped to overcome the conditions impeding their ability to learn. She also became acutely aware of the frustrations experienced by parents, and the paucity of assistance offered by the Department of Education. In 1967 she heard MacDonald Critchley, president of the World Federation of Neurology, speak at the Royal North Shore Hospital. He maintained that ‘many children who are really intelligent, have been written off as dull and lazy’ (Canberra Times 1967, 9) but were in fact suffering from word blindness or dyslexia. Inspired by his lecture, she formed (1968) the Specific Learning Difficulties Association of New South Wales to secure recognition and appropriate help for such children.

Known by the pseudo-acronym SPELD, the association had among its members parents, teachers, doctors, and allied specialists. Denby Bowdler, a doctor at the Royal Alexandra Hospital for Children, was elected president; Stewart was one of five vice-presidents, and her husband a member of the management committee. From August 1969 she filled the role of honorary secretary. By 1970 membership was more than 1,500 people. In March that year she arranged a visit by Sam Clements, professor of psychology and paediatrics at the University of Arkansas, to present a series of addresses in Queensland, New South Wales, and Victoria. Well publicised, his lectures attracted large audiences, the meeting in the Sydney Town Hall drawing a capacity crowd of 2,500 people. Stewart later credited these events with helping to shift established professional opinion away from blaming parents for a child’s learning difficulties.

In May 1970 representatives from sister associations of SPELD formed in Victoria, South Australia, Queensland, and Tasmania; provisional bodies in the Australian Capital Territory and the Northern Territory; and the Dyslexia Association of Western Australia agreed to establish an organisation to provide a united approach to the Commonwealth government. It was dubbed AUSPELD, the Australian Federation of SPELD Associations, and Stewart served as secretary from its inception until 1990. Allied organisations would also develop in New Zealand and later Hong Kong.

A woman of energy and enthusiasm, Stewart was fully occupied in producing monthly newsletters; lobbying Federal and State politicians; organising workshops and conferences; and counselling parents and teachers, as well as adults who continued to be afflicted with specific learning difficulties. She spoke at meetings in country towns and cities across New South Wales, and six branches formed in centres outside Sydney by 1972. Assisted by volunteers, she administered the association from a rumpus room in the lower part of the family home at Mosman.

It was always Stewart’s ultimate aim to persuade the Department of Education to provide better support for the teaching of children with specific learning difficulties. By 1970 SPELD reported that a ‘worthwhile liaison’ had been ‘established and consolidated’ with officers at the department (SPELD NSW 1970). Persistent lobbying secured a rise in the number of remedial teachers from fifty-five in 1971 to one hundred in 1973. Over the same period, special language classes began in some schools, reading centres were established at Albury North and at two teachers’ colleges, and provisions were introduced to assist children with learning difficulties in examinations. From 1973 the department set up resource units in schools to support children with special needs. This was followed a year later by the establishment of diploma-level courses in special education at three teachers’ colleges.

Stewart believed that SPELD’s main function was as a ‘respectable pressure group’ ([1974], 3). Combining ‘charm, diplomacy, and a deep knowledge of her subject’ (SMH 1997, 31), she wrote numerous letters to politicians and drafted submissions for government enquiries. In 1974 she and the secretary of SPELD South Australia, Shirley Dibden, secured the support of the then leader of the Opposition in the Federal parliament, (Sir) Billy Snedden, for a select committee to examine the needs of children with specific learning disabilities. Tabled in 1976, the report—Learning Difficulties in Children and Adults—called for regular national surveys to determine the prevalence of learning impairments in schools; and training for teachers in identifying and teaching students with learning difficulties, alongside an increase in the number of specialist educators. Disappointed, Stewart pointed out that the report ‘failed to recommend funding’ or ‘give consideration to legislation’ (Stewart c. 1978). Yet it did raise the profile of the problems championed by SPELD, and she believed its recommendations had a positive influence on teacher training.

In June 1976 Stewart was appointed AM. Her husband, who had retired from the SAA in 1974, was a SPELD committee member until his death in 1989. Yvonne remained active and was elected State president in 1991. Her annual reports noted that the office continued to respond to more than 2,300 enquiries a year from parents or teachers. She retired in November 1996. Survived by her daughter and one of her two sons, she died on 19 July 1997 in Royal North Shore Hospital, St Leonards, and was cremated.

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
  • Australia. House of Representatives. Transcript of Evidence. Select Committee on Specific Learning Disabilities, vol. 1. [Canberra]: [Australian Government Publishing Service], 1975
  • Canberra Times. ‘“Lazy” Children Who Are Not.’ 5 May 1967, 9
  • Personal knowledge of ADB subject
  • Specific Learning Difficulties Association (SPELD) of New South Wales. Annual Report. [Mosman, NSW]: SPELD (NSW), 1970, 1990–91, 1995–96
  • Stewart, Yvonne. ‘The History of SPELD in NSW.’ Unpublished manuscript, c. 1978. Copy held by SPELD (NSW)
  • Stewart, Yvonne. ‘How It Is SPELD Down Under.’ Unpublished address to the 11th international conference of the Association for Children with Learning Disabilities (ACLD), Houston, Texas, [1974]. Copy held on ADB file
  • Sydney Morning Herald. ‘Yvonne Stewart AM.’ 13 August 1997, 31

Additional Resources

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Citation details

Paul R. Whiting, 'Stewart, Yvonne Eliza (1915–1997)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2021, accessed online 14 July 2024.

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