In memory of JOHN BRUCE MOXON: 1938–2022
John Moxon, who has died in Sydney aged 83, was a transformative advocate, leader, mentor and elder of Australia’s communities of people with disability. He was once described as “the angriest person with disability” a sheltered workshop manager had ever met. But John was never simply angry about the barriers faced by disabled people, although anger was not unreasonable.
John was impatient for change. And he got organised to make change happen.
For 40 years, John, his wife Margaret, friends and colleagues across the country worked to extend the 'Fair Go'. They campaigned for disability rights and equitable participation. For decades, led by John and others through organisations they created, a growing movement of people with disability became active, agitating for improvements in all aspects of life.
Open the door, they demanded. Let us in. There must be nothing about us, without us.
[John Moxon (right) next to his restored Formula V car, with son Bruce at the wheel and granddaughter Alana at Oran Park in April 2021]
John would later acknowledge it was only after becoming a wheelchair user that he began to consciously see himself as an agent for change. By then he was studying at Macquarie University. It was 1980.
“One day,” said John, “I was approached by this funny little man who wanted to talk about disability.” That man was wheelchair user Ian Irwin, with whom John would form a lifelong friendship.
“I didn’t want to [talk]. I felt uncomfortable around disabled people. I didn’t see myself that way. I was just me, after an accident that left me using a wheelchair.”
[John Moxon in the spinal injuries unit of the Royal North Shore Hospital in 1970.CREDIT:FAIRFAX]
Fortunately for Australians with disability, Ian and John kept talking. “Back then there were no wheelchair accessible taxis, no access to trains or buses, or to motel rooms, schools, shops or most workplaces,” John later said. “People could refuse to give you a job just because you had a disability".
"We can change all that,” Ian said to John.
John Bruce Moxon was born in Sydney in 1938. His parents belonged to what John described as the “progressive left”. But not in a straightforward sense.
Ten years before John’s birth, Bert Moxon had been secretary-general of the Communist Party of Australia then, in 1932, he was expelled. It is, perhaps, from such restless, radical, anti-authoritarian origins that John acquired his own independence of spirit and thought, taking his father’s subsequent advice never to join a political party.
John's life experiences, before and after a motor accident in 1970, were to change his life. They gave him a passionate urgency for change, a lifelong commitment to action and a deep, abiding wisdom that nothing gets done on your own.
Young John was miserable (his own word) at Sydney’s Fort Street Boys High School. He left as soon as he could at the age of 15. But he was never loath to learn.
John’s eldest son, Bruce, spoke at his father’s funeral of how, in 1956, John became an apprentice fitter and turner while also studying mechanical engineering at Sydney Tech because, “typical of dad, who couldn’t be the guy who did just one thing … he wanted to build his own racing car. Which he did.”
John’s earliest passion was for speed.
A neighbour took the 10-year old to watch speedway. From that moment his future was set. He became, in the words of Bruce, “a petrol head, a rev-head … as soon as he could, he bought himself a car, an Austin 7”. It was a rust bucket, falling apart, but John fixed it. By 1964 he was racing.
Throughout the 1960s John worked in a range of engineering and managerial roles. He married Pauline and they become parents to Bruce, Ray and Karen. Meanwhile, John built his reputation as a racing driver: in a “very fast BJ Holden”, the Studebakers of Bernard’s Auto Spares Team, then, finally, in his self-built Formula Vee monocoque which John drove at Surfers Paradise, Warwick Farm, Bathurst and other tracks.
[John in the self-built Formula V car he crashed in 1970 at Oran Park. The track closed in 2010.CREDIT:AUTOPICS]
John was driving a test lap at Oran Park before the Captain Cook 200th anniversary race in 1970 when he crashed into a concrete wall and broke his neck. He was not expected to live through the night. An ambulance arrived with only the driver, who asked one of John’s mates to drive them back to Camden Hospital while the paramedic and another racer attended to him.
John lived the next 52 years as a C7/8 [vertebrae] quadriplegic wheelchair user. The first decade was challenging in many ways. Wheelchair accessible housing was rare. No one wanted to employ disabled people. John and Pauline divorced. And John experienced disability discrimination. Exclusion and prejudice made matters worse.
Not only for John. His sons were drawn into fights at school for being children of a “spazzo”.
After unsustainable years of self-employment, first in insurance then in specialist hand-control fitting for disabled drivers, John sat his HSC to re-connect with learning before enrolling in psychology at Macquarie University. While there he met Irwin. A new path opened-up. John described it as a “wake up call”.
Together they established the Macquarie Association of Disabled Students, a cross-disability peer support and student advocacy group of which John became president. At Ian's suggestion John also volunteered at a weekly community radio programme called Wheeling Free, focused on raising awareness about disabled people’s rights.
At Ian’s graduation party John was introduced to Ian’s friend Margaret Tucker who was working at the Disabled Persons Resource Centre. John went on to volunteer there after difficulties finding work upon graduating in 1983. Margaret became John’s boss. A few years later, after both had joined the NSW Public Service, they became an item and later married. Margaret calls it “the best 36 years of my life”.
During his time working at the centre (and later in a specialist role at the NSW Public Service Board) John was president of the Australian Quadriplegic Association (now Spinal Cord Injury Australia) between 1984-1990. This cemented John's role within Australia’s developing disability movement. He became an active and engaged leader.
When the Public Service Board was abolished John moved into senior Public Service roles, including human resources, industrial relations, and managing training and development.
John was a catalyst to activism in organisations which operate successfully to this day. He was central to the formation of the Physical Disability Council of NSW, of which he was president between 1996 and 2002. He was a founding member and President of the Physical Disability Council of Australia (now PDA), funded in 1995 through the Commonwealth’s national advocacy program.
[John Moxon with Scarlett Finney, 8, leading a disability access protest outside the Federal Court in Sydney in 2000. Scarlett was excluded from a private school because she used a wheelchair.]
A long-time resident of western Sydney, John was appointed in 1992 as the inaugural chair of Parramatta Council’s Disability Access Advisory Committee. Later, he would write the Council’s first Disability Action Plan through Moxon Green & Associates, the independent consultancy business he created with his friend Jenny Green in 1998.
John’s involvement with non-government disability advocacy organisations was always about making social change and promoting human rights that are now set out in the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability.
John’s generation of advocates, and the organisations they created, focused their activism on the issues of their time. That activism was a precursor to the crucial wave of subsequent advocacy by People with Disability Australia (and others) which culminated in Australia becoming one of the first nations to ratify the UN Convention in 2008.
In 2013, in the Great Hall of Australia’s Parliament, John received the Lesley Hall Memorial Award for lifetime achievement at the national disability awards.
Jeremy Muir, of Physical Disability Australia, sums up well John's influence. He wrote:
“When entering an accessible building, riding on accessible transport, attending an accessible concert or event, know that it is because John fought for it, John audited it, John campaigned for it, John contributed to the policy and legislation for it. The world is a better place because of John Moxon and I’m a better person for knowing him.”
John contracted COVID-19 in August. After a week in hospital (including time in ICU) he was discharged. Breathing difficulties forced John back to hospital where, despite his formidable struggle against a series of emergencies, he died in the early hours of September 5.
Family was central to John Moxon’s life. He is survived by Margaret, children Bruce, Ray and Karen, five grandchildren and one great grandchild. Of his time with Margaret, John said this in May 2022 (as part of an oral history project) “she’s a bloody wonderful woman, I’m just so glad we found each other.”
Vale John Moxon.
The published version of this article can be viewed on The Sydney Morning Herald website here. John Bruce Moxon.