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Remembering Anne McDonald

A portrait photo of Anthea Skinner

Disability advocate and author Anne McDonald died recently. Anne had severe physical disabilities. She grew up in a hospital. Anne was not treated well. It was not until Anne was 16 that her carer Rosemary Crossley discovered she could communicate. Anne later fought in the courts to be able to make her own decisions. Her court victory changed the way many people thought about people with a disability. Anne spent the rest of her life fighting for the rights of people with complex communication needs. She will be missed by many people around the world.

Posted by: Anthea Skinner, on 04/11/10

A portrait photo of Anne McDonald smiling

Anne McDonald: "Communication is essential for life".

People around the world are mourning the loss of Victorian disability advocate and author Anne McDonald. Anne died suddenly on October 22 from a heart attack. She was 49.


Anne was born in country Victoria in 1961. She sustained brain damage at birth. The damage caused severe athetoid cerebral palsy. At three years of age, Anne was misdiagnosed as profoundly intellectually disabled. She was placed in St Nicholas Hospital in Carlton. Anne spent 15 years neglected at the hospital, unable to communicate with those around her. Anne estimated that 160 of her friends died in the hospital she called hell

Anne’s life changed when she was taught to communicate at age 16 by Rosemary Crossley, a worker at the hospital. Ms Crossley supported Anne’s arm and head while she pointed to letters on an alphabet board. It is a process known as facilitated communication. When Anne asked to leave the hospital and live with Ms Crossley, it sparked a landmark court case. The case changed the way the law understood the rights of people with a disability.

Court battle

Anne’s Victorian Supreme Court case received a lot of media attention. Anne successfully fought for her right to decide her own future. There were concerns that Ms Crossley was unwittingly manipulating Anne’s answers as she supported her. But these concerns were proved unfounded.

On May 17, 1979, the Supreme Court ordered that Anne was capable of managing her own affairs. She went to live with Ms Crossley and her partner Chris Borthwick. Anne would live with them for the rest of her life.


Anne and Ms Crossley wrote a book about their experiences titled Annie’s Coming Out. It was later made into a major film of the same name.

But escaping from St Nicholas was not enough for Anne. She continued to fight to free her friends. The institution was finally closed five years later.

Throughout the rest of her life, Anne continued to advocate for the rights of people with complex communication needs. Her work influenced the deinstitutionalisation of people with a disability both in Australia and world-wide.


Despite receiving little education at St Nicholas’ Hospital, Anne completed a Higher School Certificate and a degree in humanities at Deakin University. Anne liked a drink, particularly enjoying going to pubs and clubs. She also had a passion for travel and bungee jumping.

I only had the pleasure of speaking with Anne once at a party. She confided to my partner (a comedian) that she would like to try her hand at stand up comedy. If the jokes Anne told us were anything to go by, she would have been a hit.

Having our voices heard

As a child Anne McDonald was shut out from the community. As an adult she helped change the world. Her life taught us that we all have the right to have our voices heard, whether or not we can speak.

Communication falls into the same category as food, drink and shelter, Anne said. It is essential for life, and without it, life becomes worthless. 

Update: Celebratory service

A celebration of Anne McDonald's life will be held at 1.30pm on Saturday, November 13 at St. Paul's Cathedral, Melbourne.

Rosemary Crossley and Chris Borthwick invite all of Anne's friends, and those for whom her story was important, to join them in remembering Anne and her unfinished fight for recognition of the right to communicate.

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Readers comments (5)

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Posted by: Kermit, 09/11/2010 at 10:31am

Thanks for the update about the service on Saturday. I'm sure there will be plenty of people who would like to come.


Posted by: Carl Thompson, Macleod 09/11/2010 at 08:10pm

Great article Anthea! Institutions are frightening things. I hadn’t heard about Anne prior to this article, so thank you for telling us readers a little about her. Whilst things certainly have changed for the better, the whole idea behind advocacy is consistent improvement, and the concept that we should never just ‘settle’ with what we have.


Posted by: Yvonne and Alan Pearce, Echuca, Vic 29/12/2010 at 01:29pm

Have only just leanrt of Anne's sudden death in November. We would like to express sympathy to Rosie & Chris on the loss of their family member and colleague. Fond memories of Anne's enjoyment of life and her comment years ago re her visit to Echuca : " The most exciting place is the cemetary " City girl at heart. Love, Yvonne xx


Posted by: lisa Hayes, Sydney australia 26/01/2013 at 09:06pm

I never met annie, but when i heard of her death i grieved for her and wish i'd met her, don't let what she fort for die with her. We must keep fighting.


Posted by: Roxanne Houk, 14/09/2013 at 10:16am

This was an amazing article! I have a 19 year old brother with cerebral palsy due to a birth injury, just like Anne. They said he would never walk, talk, eat on his own, or do anything that "normal" children could do. He does walk (with a limp), he talks (you just have to pay closer attention), and eats like a horse! I owe much gratitude to the work of Anne McDonald! :)


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