Remembering Elena Down

Remembering Elena Down

 |  CBM news, disability-inclusive development, Elena, Down

CBM Australia is deeply saddened to acknowledge the recent passing of our cherished and highly-regarded colleague Elena Down.  Elena passed away suddenly while flying to a workshop in Geneva on Saturday 18 March.

Elena began working with CBM Australia in October 2012.  As a Disability Inclusion Advisor she dedicated herself with tremendous commitment and energy to ensuring those who are often overlooked, have a voice. She was a passionate advocate for people with disabilities, particularly deaf people, as she herself was deaf, and cared deeply about the rights of people with disabilities everywhere – especially those who live in poverty in developing countries.

Before joining CBM Australia Elena played an important role in Australia’s negotiations and subsequent signature of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and assisted in the development of Australia’s first Disability Inclusive Development Policy ‘Development for All’.

Elena leaves a legacy of positive change in the lives of so many.  Driven by her Christian faith, she had a deep passion for social justice. We, at CBM Australia, are touched by the tributes flowing in from around the world.  This is testament to the extraordinary impact of Elena’s contribution, both personally and professionally.

Elena will be remembered for her warmth and kindness, and great sense of humour that made her a treasured friend to all she worked with.

Our prayers and thoughts are with Elena’s family at this time.

If you wish to send a message of condolence to be passed onto Elena’s family please email

Details for Elena’s memorial service will be announced once they are known.

Elena Down, Disability Inclusion Adviser, CBM Australia

In 1997, Elena completed a Bachelor of Arts / Bachelor of Laws (Honours), at the University of Melbourne and was admitted to Practice in the Supreme Court of Victoria and High Court of Australia in 1998. 

Being deaf herself, Elena had a continuing interest in disability rights, particularly the rights of deaf people. After a volunteer placement in rural India at a deaf women’s project, she worked first as a lawyer at the Australian Government Solicitor in Melbourne and Canberra.  She then spent eight years at the Attorney-General's Department, where she advised the Attorney-General initially in copyright and international law, then later human rights policy and disability discrimination in areas as diverse as education standards, transport standards, accessible infrastructure, elections, and employment. Elena nominated, as a career highlight, playing a key role as Principal Legal Officer in processes around Australia's negotiations on - and subsequent signature of - the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

Elena enjoyed a challenge, and took two years leave without pay to work with a development non-government organisation (NGO) in China, where she studied Mandarin, established a parent support program for parents of deaf children and mentored deaf university students in transformational leadership.

She completed her Masters in International and Community Development with Deakin University over several years while working full time.

After a brief stint at the Australian Human Rights Commission, Elena moved to AusAID, where she assisted in the development of Australia's first Disability Inclusive Development Policy - ‘Development for All’ - and its early implementation.  This included AusAID’s first funding agreement to the Pacific Disability Forum and working closely with CBM Australia on a high level leadership and communications strategy for AusAID. Elena also worked hard to embed disability into programming, for example as part of United Nations partnership agreements, Water, Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH), the Financial Inclusion strategy, the Law and Justice program in Indonesia, scholarships, and the new volunteers program. She played a key role in briefing Australian diplomatic missions overseas for Australia’s interventions in United Nations development fora on disability inclusive development, and regularly trained AusAID staff. 

Elena joined CBM Australia in 2012 as a Senior Technical Advisor.  Working within the CBM-Nossal partnership she brought her skills to a range of research, capacity development and technical advice pieces, for AusAID/Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), the Burnet Institute, World Vision, the World Health Organisation, World Federation of the Deaf and numerous disabled peoples’ organisations in the Pacific and Asia, most particularly in Timor-Leste. She provided policy and strategic advice across a wide range of disability inclusive development initiatives at regional and global levels including:

  • Design of a disability strategy for the whole of Australian Aid program in Timor-Leste

  • Design of disability inclusive programs, including a four year national disability inclusive development program in Samoa

  • Applied research for the World Health Organisation on assistive devices

  • Facilitated research on organisational change in disability inclusion by Australian development NGOs

  • Support for the strengthening of Pacific disabled people’s organisations, including the Pacific Disability Forum, and disabled people’s organisations in Timor-Leste

  • Training for Australian Aid program staff and implementing partners on disability inclusive development and policy advocacy

  • Capacity development and programming support for Australian NGO program and partner staff in WASH, inclusive education, disaster risk reduction, livelihoods, and infrastructure, communicating effectively with people with disability

  • Capacity development support for Government Ministries in the Pacific

  • Training for Indonesian and Pacific justice sector actors (judges, magistrates, civil society) on disability rights and responding to violence against women.

Elena provided strong mentoring and support to her CBM Australia colleagues as well as many of those with whom she worked throughout the development and disability sectors. Elena often said how important she felt relationships were to doing good work and, as such, this was central to her approach to her work. Testament is the outpouring of grief from those who have worked with her for short and long periods of time. 

Elena also worked part time as a Human Rights Officer for the World Federation of the Deaf (WFD) through 2016 and was continuing to coordinate a Human Rights Expert Committee for WFD.

Outside her full-time work, Elena also served on the Board of International Needs Australia, a small development NGO, and took on a range of other voluntary and advocacy roles within the deaf community.

Elena enjoyed supporting the arts, particularly ballet and had a passion for justice, theology, and good coffee.  She was also devoted to her family and relished being an aunty to her young niece and nephew.

Elena was a passionate, talented, intelligent, sensitive and kind hearted colleague and friend who will be sorely missed.