Tuesday, 3 August 2010

The National Disability Strategy: The Hard Work Has Only Just Begun

You wouldn’t know it given all the talk about leadership struggles and blandness in the current election campaign but last week the ALP returned to its roots and announced the most groundbreaking social policy in two decades. Prime Minister Julia Gillard unveiled the National Disability Strategy, a set of aspirational goals for the Government’s disability policy for the next decade. Yes, I said ‘aspirational’, but its important to realise that the National Disability Strategy is the first document of its kind ever attempted by any Federal Government.

Like the higher profile areas of transport and health, disability policy has always been a victim of Australia’s Federal system of government. The Federal Government is responsible for allocating the funds to the State Governments so they can implement necessary services to various disability organisations, advocacy groups and charities. The problems here are numerous. The State Governments blame the Federal Governments for not allocating them enough money and the Federal Government blames the States for ineffective service delivery. History has demonstrated that both levels of governments no matter their partisan persuasions have been equally culpable.

Yet nothing has been done about it despite the fact that nearly 10% of the Australian population are eligible for a Disability Support Pension. Why? It doesn’t change votes purely and simply. Unless you are a disabled person or a carer, very few understand (including many disability sector organisations) how a couple of small but vitally important steps can change thousands of lives.

That’s why I applaud the announcement of a National Disability Strategy. It symbolises the start of something that should have begun decades ago. The real test will come after the election when real and tough policy decisions will have to be made. However the Strategy represents the first time that policy bureaucrats have truly understood the issues that face people with a disability on a daily basis. Here’s why:

The shared vision is for an inclusive Australian society that enables people with disability to fulfil their potential as equal citizens.

Simple words, but this represents a seismic shift in the way that Governments have viewed disability policy. Previously they have relied on ‘the medical model’ where people with disabilities are characterised by what they cannot do rather than what they can contribute to the community. Accordingly the National Disability Strategy focuses on six key but interrelated policy areas:

1. Inclusive and accessible communities
2. Rights protection, justice and legislation
3. Economic security
4. Personal and community support
5. Learning and skills
6. Health and wellbeing

Of course the main focus of the media has been on the 'Learning and Skills' paradigm which focuses on early intervention and support for special education in schools. As a young adult with a severe disability I am acutely aware of how important such measures were on fostering my own development, when such policies were barely in the gestation period. I would not be the university educated professional academic I am today if I did not receive specialised educational support and I welcome the Gillard Government’s promise to increase funding in these areas.

Despite this, I feel that everything else needs the media’s attention too. Everyone loves a cute disabled kid who smiles at the camera (Hell I WAS that kid in the 1980s and early 1990s) but what happens when the cute kid turns 18 and the current system essentially fails them at every opportunity. At 17 years, 364 days old organisations will provide all the support a person with a disability requires, the next day they are left to fend for themselves. Any policy for adults with disabilities must address these questions:

How do you help a young adult find a job?
What if they want to move out of home?
How do you help them have some semblance of a social life?

The answers to these questions are the ones that will truly test the mettle of the strategy’s aspirational targets. It is one thing to talk in flowery bureaucratic language, quite another to deal with advocacy groups, carers and the actual person with a disability: the person who often gets neglected the most in the policy process. It might seem obvious to readers out there, but this in my opinion is what makes the National Disability Strategy so compelling. It’s clear that people with disabilities were actually consulted and not people ‘who think they know what’s best’ for them. This is the strongest indication that the strategy is heading in the right direction. My life and millions of others depend on it.

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