Tuesday, 11 May 2010

Dignity for Disability? Absolute Farce

This week Kelly Vincent became the youngest woman to be a representative in an Australian Parliament at age 21. She won the last Senate spot in the South Australian State election held last March. She has Cerebral Palsy and is confined to a wheelchair just like me. She is intelligent, articulate and perceptive. You would think I’d be overjoyed at her election to parliament as well as the apparent success of her political party Dignity for Disability. I’m not. I’m angry, frustrated and annoyed.

I am a vocal critic of Dignity for Disability. I'm ideologically opposed to single issue parties, particularly within the disability sector. Kelly Vincent was profiled on The 7:30 Report last night as the bastion of hope for the disability sector. The only thing she has ever spoken about is disability services and this trend continued last night. Apart from ideological commonalities, the main reason I joined the ALP is that as a major party they take a whole of government approach. Sure I care about issues relating to disability services, I wish to be a spokesman and advocate for the community should the opportunity arise, but it is not my only, or even my main interest. I want to see health reform, more money for higher education, sensible urban planning, and a forward thinking foreign policy that puts Australia's interests first, just to name a few things. I hope Kelly Vincent does make gains in the South Australian Parliament for people with disabilities, but I believe passionately that this is entirely the wrong way to go about it. It is clear that she is a bright, intelligent woman but it is a pity that her political interests and that of her party are so narrow minded that she can't see beyond her own wheelchair.

A trip to the website demonstrates this more clearly than anything else. If you look under Policies  there’s information on education, the environment and transport. Is there any information on ways to improve on existing government models? How about ways to ensure effective service delivery? How about comparing and contrasting with the other parties in any of these portfolios? Nope. It is all related to the needs of people with disabilities and their carers, their core constituency. There is nothing articulated on how they might pay for these proposed policies. Nope, they just want their money and they want it now. They have nothing to say about other things that affect people with disabilities as basic citizens that are issues beyond their impairments. This party should know better than anyone that there is more to a person with a disability than just their impairment. Their policies would have you believe otherwise.

If I want to be taken seriously in this world I must break down barriers of my physical disability. Dignity for Disability reinforces them, and says 'Look at me I am disabled, and because of this I am not getting enough funding or support.' When I forge my career in politics whether it be as a candidate or otherwise, I want people to look at me and say, 'This guy knows what he's on about, he has a vision for the country's future. Have you been involved in disability services? What's your take on it? How will it fit in to the government's overall agenda?'

Imagine if you were Kelly Vincent. Sure by holding the balance of power you may get more services and money in the short term just so the government can satisfy you and enable it to pass legislation for its own priorities. You'll be gone in eight years because by that time the novelty would have worn off, and you only just snuck in by sheer political luck in the first place. Sure you might have an impressive legislative record when it is all over, but will you have achieved long term structural reform to ensure others are looked after in the future? My guess is no, because in order for a government to take you seriously they must become aware of how your concerns fit into its overall platform and single issue parties by definition are only focused on their own interests. Lots of short term gain, plenty of long term pain, and kids with disabilities who aren’t even born yet will be stuck in the same mess.

If Dignity for Disability are interested in real and positive change for people with disabilities, they would look beyond the obvious. Productive policy making is not a one way street. People with disabilities criticise governments for thinking like bureaucrats, having no knowledge about people with disabilities and the issues they face. Well, this cuts both ways. In order to achieve the change people with disabilities need, advocates must meet governments in the middle. Know the system and know it well. Failure to accept its terms of reference means that parties like Dignity for Disability are pointless if they aren’t already.

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