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This Woman Is A Hero To Millions Of Australians – And Almost No One Knows Her Name

Explore the aisles of Australian libraries and you will find incomplete histories of our country.

One noticeable gap relates to people with disabilities. For most Australians, the name Susan Schardt doesn’t ring any bells or resonate with any familiar story. But for people living with disabilities, Susan is the single reason that we now have leading providers of world-class disability services.

The untold story of Susan Schardt, a trailblazer who led the disability support movement in Australia, is now being given the recognition she deserves -- 120 years later.

Australia’s history tells a tale of people with disability being ignored and locked away from society in institutions. One hundred years ago, the estimated 18 percent of Australians living with disabilities today would have been labelled as ‘incurables’ or ‘invalids’. Society saw them as having brought it onto themselves by their own ‘foolishness or conduct’, even if the individual was born that way.

Before 1908, the Australian government provided no support to people with disabilities. It was up to individuals, like Susan Schardt, to rise as heroes to support people who were most vulnerable.

Australian disability services pioneer and "Angel of the Ward" Susan Schardt. (Image: Supplied)

Susan Schardt was born blind. Growing up she attended a school cruelly named "for the Deaf, Dumb and Blind". She chose not to marry because of the difficulties she would face taking on the role of wife and mother. Seeking greater purpose in her life, Susan visited Royal Prince Alfred Hospital in Sydney to council and comfort patients living with many forms of disability. She was called the "Angel of the Ward” as children’s eyes would brighten whenever she came to their door.

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One day in 1899 changed the trajectory of Susan’s life, and set the wheels in motion for the birth of our disability services. Susan was drawn to the bedside of a man who was sobbing. He had lost both legs and the hospital was preparing for him to be discharged. With no relatives or people to care for him, he was destined for a life on Sydney’s streets.

Overcome with compassion, Susan enlisted the support of like-minded friends to collect money for a room for him in Surry Hills. She secured a place with basic furnishings and hired a carer to look after him.

From that single act, Susan devoted her life to caring for ‘incurables’, as she would have been labelled herself.

Many people with disabilities in the late 1800s were homeless. Susan collected money in small amounts until she was able to purchase a 16-bed cottage in Redfern. Opening in 1900, the cottage was named the Commonwealth Homes for Destitute Invalids. It represented the development of one of the first charity organisations for people with disabilities in Australia.

However, Susan’s dream was almost destroyed only six years later. The home was declared structurally unsound and she was given one year to find alternative accommodation for those she was caring for before the place was demolished.

Susan collected money in small amounts until she was able to purchase a 16-bed cottage in Redfern. (Image: Supplied)

Desperate for money, Susan held a meeting at Town Hall to attract supporters. She pleaded for the community to see the value in helping people with disabilities. Thankfully, the sentiment swayed successful cattle farmer Sir Henry Moses MLC. He agreed to sell his home in Ryde at half its market value so Susan could continue her work.

The New South Wales Home for Incurables opened its doors in 1907 with 65 beds and a greater capacity to help more people live their lives off the streets.

In a final act of selfless devotion, Susan embarked on a tour of NSW to raise money to keep the facility open. She spoke at schools and public meetings, travelling throughout the state by train with her guide companion. The tour lasted two decades. By 1930, Susan collected £35,000 (close to $3.5 million in today’s economy), saving the NSW Home for Incurables from being shut down.

Susan and guide companion Beatrice Ricketts fundraising during the last year of Susan's life, 1934. (Image: Supplied)

After a lifetime of commitment and compassion to others, Susan died in 1934 at the Ryde facility she founded. And in the years following her death, others carried on her work to improve disability support.

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The organisation was renamed Royal Ryde Homes in 1954, on approval by Queen Elizabeth II. The new name reflected the shift in the way society perceived and accepted those living with disabilities. Shifting even further, the team expanded to include more allied healthcare professionals to help those living with a disability adopt a healthy lifestyle and encourage independence.

The New South Wales Home for Incurables opened its doors in 1907 with 65 beds and a greater capacity to help more people live their lives off the streets. (Image: Supplied)

Royal Ryde Homes established the Residents Committee, recognising those living with disabilities as residents instead of patients. The residents were not hospitalised as such, but rather lived with a disability and in need of support.

The organisations’ royal connections remained, when Princess Diana, Princess of Wales, met with clients in their Spinal Unit and Extended Care Services in 1996, not long before her tragic death.

Princess Diana meets Ben Robertson at Ryde Rehabilitation Centre. Robertson was paralyzed during a school rugby match. (Image: Supplied)

Today, Royal Rehab still stands proudly in Sydney’s Ryde suburb. One of the leading providers of rehabilitation and disability support services in Australia, Royal Rehab has since served 61,000 people facing some of life’s biggest challenges of serious injury and debilitating illness.

Royal Rehab is celebrating 120 years since Susan dedicated her life to helping others.

In the not too distant past, people with disabilities were forgotten citizens and given no options to thrive in their communities. Susan’s heroic actions reflect how one person’s generosity and unwavering perseverance can leave a lasting impact on the world today.