Margaret Cooper OAM

From Geoff Dean’s speech at PPV’s 2018 AGM.

I accompanied Margaret on one her “pollie stirring” raids. As we left MP Russell Broadbent’s office I enquired if there was a café handy to get a coffee and a sandwich. At the doorway to the café was a 150mm step. This was a barrier to Margaret’s wheelchair. We asked if we could have a table outside; but no their food-handling licence didn’t allow anything so sensible. We had to make do with balancing our coffee cups on our laps. This was very difficult for Margaret who needed a longer straw. The waitress obligingly joined two small straws together to make one long straw, but the creamer failed to flow up the now long straw. All this while we sat on the footpath like lepers. The politician’s secretary who had directed us to the café happened to walk past. I pointed out the situation. He was very embarrassed and apologised. He had not given it a thought. People just don’t think. Architects, shop owners, local government, politicians just don’t think.

These embarrassing, frustrating situations would have happened to Margaret on an hourly basis and yet she just pressed on. Despite these regular frustrations she achieved an amazing amount of work for people with disabilities, and, in particular with polio. Her research and advocacy has benefited us all and will remain a wonderful legacy.

Susan Shaab tribute message

I met Margaret Cooper in 1965. It was the year we both started studying social work at Melbourne University. In a sense Margaret was a year ahead of me, as she was in the 3-year diploma course, and I was in the combined degree/diploma stream. I didn’t see her much that year; we had only one common unit. At the end of that year, the Social Work School asked for volunteers (from those who had completed their first year) to plan Orientation Week for the new students in 1966. About half a dozen students volunteered. This meant we had to return to university, two weeks before the University’s first day on March 12th.

After more than 3 months in recess, Victorian universities curiously commenced on a public holiday. By the end of the first week of returning, the Committee was Margaret and myself.So we planned activities for 60 new students each year, on a limited budget of $100 for Orientation weeks of 1966 and 1967, producing campus maps, tours, times and spots for subject enrolments, lecture timetables, tertiary student clubs, and introductions to lecturers and tutors.

Getting around was difficult for Margaret. She had a wheelchair that she moved by hooks on her wrists, which she attached into the wheel spokes. Moreover, the Social Work School was in a tiny building in Royal Parade opposite the main campus. She never complained and rarely asked for help.

She was a nuanced observer and commentator of campus consumer commodities. I met the Orientation Committee of a large, male dominated faculty. They suggested that we go halves in ticket profits for the Thursday night Orientation Week Ball, no matter how many tickets we sold. Margaret said; “Agree. Any of our students who want to dress up and dance will find a free ticket!” On Friday, honouring their agreement, the male faculty OW committee handed over $60. “After the morning lectures, on March 12th, we will put on lunch at the Social Work School.”

Before lunch hour, students aplenty fronted to dash to shops for food, drinks, ice, chop vegetables, and, make sandwiches. It was a great meet and greet for students and staff. Sandwich, cheese and biscuit platters and pizzas were passed up and down the narrow stairways. To drink we had bowls of alcoholic and non- alcoholic pineapple fruit punch. People dropped in and out throughout the afternoon. Confusion reigned. Without a glance at labels, students grabbed bottles to top up the punch bowls. Cherry brandy was put in the punch meant for the underage and teetotal students. Happily sloshed students and staff talked for hours. The long lunch, born in Royal Parade concluded after 6.00 pm. Margaret’s advice brought it to fruition.

Margaret went on to work full-time, to study, and, champion the rights of people with a disability to be able to live like everyone else. For this, we are all indebted to her.