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Frank Lionel Watts (1928–2000)

by Paul Ashton

This article was published online in 2023

Lionel Watts, c.1948

Lionel Watts, c.1948

Paul Ashton Collection

Frank Lionel Watts (1928–2000), disability advocate, was born on 20 December 1928 at Narrabri, New South Wales, second child of New South Wales-born parents Frank Watts, railway cleaner, and his wife Teresa, née Lloyd. Educated at Manly Boys’ High School, as a young person Lionel enjoyed surfing. In September 1946, giving his occupation as junior clerk, he entered the Royal Australian Navy and began training as a stoker. While serving (December 1947–June 1948) in the frigate HMAS Burdekin, based at Geelong, Victoria, he met Dorothy Louisa Haskew, a shop assistant, at a dance. He was demobilised in December 1948, and they married in the Methodist Church at Geelong on 16 April 1949. The couple later settled in the northern Sydney seaside suburb of Narrabeen; they had two daughters, Nicole and Kerry. He was employed as a junior executive manager at a city branch of G. J. Coles & Co. Ltd.

In mid-1956 Watts became ill. At first diagnosed as having influenza, he was found to have contracted chronic bulbar poliomyelitis. It left him almost paralysed in three limbs, with the use only of his left forearm and the fingers and thumb of his left hand. His weight dropped to under seventy pounds (32 kg). He spent the next two years convalescing, initially at Prince Henry Hospital and then at Royal North Shore Hospital.

The family moved to Dee Why, and from mid-1958 until the beginning of 1962 Watts stayed at home. He could not find employment and struggled, as he later said in an interview, to ‘come to grips with the mental … and … emotional problems of not being the breadwinner and being totally supported by … [his] family and the state’ (Ashton 1991, 22–23). Rejections from employers led him to start reading about disability, rehabilitation, and psychology, and he studied management as an external student at the University of Sydney. With assistance from his brother, Lloyd, he made an electric wheelchair using parts purchased from disposal stores, which increased his mobility. He also joined a small group of people who had established a Motorised Wheelchair Club.

Becoming deeply involved in the club, Watts began fund-raising activities, including through stalls, bingo nights, door-to-door appeals, button-selling, and eventually a special Art Union lottery. The club was also selected as a special project by the Warringah Rotary Club. Within months £2,000 was raised to build a clubhouse, and the Rotary club’s president, Leon Becker, convinced Warringah Shire Council to donate land in Wetherill Street, Narrabeen. Watts—who would later be elected to the council—renamed the club the Wheelchair and Disabled Social Clubs Association of Australia, changed its governance, and became its inaugural president; from 1972 he would be its executive director, while his wife became president. (‘Social Clubs’ was dropped from the association’s name a little later.) A newsletter, Progress, was published from December 1963. It championed the concept and practice of ‘Community Habilitation,’ which was ‘an attempt to fill the gaps in the present fragmentary system’ (Johnston 1963, 4) for people with disabilities, including by providing independent living accommodation. He was also involved with the Australian Council for the Rehabilitation of the Disabled (ACROD), which was founded in 1963 to, among other things, lobby the Federal government for better policies, legislation, and funding.

By the end of 1964, fifty-seven employees, most physically disabled, worked for the association in its headquarters, workshop, and advisory bureaus. The following year the State government announced a grant of land at Belrose, for which Watts had been lobbying for more than a year. At the dedication, Harry Jago, the minister for health, praised him for ‘giving the Association the drive he showed when in the commercial field’ (Ashton 1991, 40). The site became the association’s new headquarters, named The House With No Steps. A park opposite it was named in Watts’s honour. The first stage—the Dorothy Watts Vocational Training Unit—was opened by the premier, (Sir Robert) Robin Askin, on 15 October 1966. By the early 1970s branches had been established at Lismore, Tamworth, Orange, Wagga Wagga, Newcastle, and Wollongong. In 1973 a branch was opened in Manila in the Philippines.

Appointed MBE in 1968, the following year Watts was invited by the president of the United States of America, Richard Nixon, to attend a meeting of the President’s Committee on Employment of the Handicapped. He was also elected to ACROD’s national executive committee in 1969, and from 1979 to 1981 he served as president. In 1982 he was appointed CMG. He was hospitalised in 1988 after contracting a virus, but continued as executive director of the House With No Steps until 1989. Though permanently bedridden, he remained an active executive committee member until he died on 17 October 2000 at Kirribilli; he was cremated. His wife and their two daughters survived him. In 2018 the House With No Steps merged with the Tipping Foundation under the name Aruma.

Research edited by Karen Fox

Select Bibliography

  • Ashton, Paul. Laying the Foundations: A History of the House With No Steps. Belrose, NSW: The House With No Steps, 1991
  • Ashton, Paul. ‘Changing Approaches to the Developmentally-Disabled.’ In Minorities: Cultural Diversity in Sydney, edited by Shirley Fitzgerald and Garry Wotherspoon, 140–56. Sydney: State Library of New South Wales Press, 1995
  • Johnston, Colin E. ‘Editorial.’ Progress 1, no. 1 (December 1963): 4, 6
  • Kewley, T. H. Australian Social Security Today: Major Developments from 1900 to 1978. Sydney: Sydney University Press, 1980
  • National Archives of Australia. A6770, WATTS F L

Additional Resources

  • profile, Canberra Times, 28 March 1979, p 9

Citation details

Paul Ashton, 'Watts, Frank Lionel (1928–2000)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published online 2023, accessed online 25 May 2024.

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