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Disability Taskforce for Queensland Flood Recovery

By Erik Leipoldt - posted Monday, 24 January 2011


Hot on the heels of her announcement of a business taskforce, Prime Minister Gillard today announced the appointment of a 30-member taskforce to aid the recovery of flood-ravaged Queensland. Its members would be those living "ordinary lives", in living with disability.

“Their intimate and common-sense experience of living well within a context of high  vulnerability, limits and dependence, is exactly that experience which Queensland, and the nation needs right now”,  Ms Gillard said, in front of a flood-gutted house, its mud-stained steps leading up to a narrow doorway. Its front door, unhinged, hanging half-stunned in the doorframe.

“The goldmine of disability experience can pay high social dividends indeed. For example, we will rebuild these 28,000 destroyed homes” she said. “In doing so we will take nature’s lessons as to where to build and where not to. We will think of better ways to protect ourselves from future floods. But most of all, sustainable building will also mean homes that are designed to support people over their lifetimes. Regardless of disability or ageing. Having this many homes to rebuild is a golden opportunity to  start implementing our 2020 target for all new housing in Australia to have universal design access. This will be good for all Australians. Let a lotus flower grow in the mud of this disaster”, she ended.

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While we are still waiting for any announcement like this (sorry, not true - yet), we can ask ourselves why this would make sense? Let me explain.

Bob Brown was only partly right when he suggested that Queensland’s coal industry bore a responsibility for the recent floods. Of course they cannot fully shoulder responsibility for effects of climate change such as this one - despite what some might think of as their best efforts. It is more complex than that. However, Nobel Prize winner Prof David Karoly’s assessment of the recent global pattern of extreme weather as fitting within our best scientific projections of climate change phenomena as they escalate, does also lend a ring of confidence to Bob Brown’s suggestion.

Our world as-it-is now seems to involve living within the reality of a permanently changed, disabled planet. We are shown as small, vulnerable and interdependent with nature’s furies and bounties. Tens of thousands of clean-up, rescue, and other volunteers have also shown how caring for each other and our environment in such hard times can transform vulnerability and dependence into something good and meaningful. In such times we find our foundations for enduring unconditional, positive relationships. 

But we don't always behave like this. Our disproportionately materialistic and individualistic values are at the heart of climate change. Too often we behave as if we are independent, disconnected people who apply personal cost-benefit analyses to the purchase of goods and services that we want - now. Such as energy-sucking plasma TVs and four-wheel-drive vehicles for city use. Increasingly, cost benefit principles are applied even to our health and community services. The socio-psychological needs that are at the core of our well-being, and of a sustainable world, are often not met in this market-economic worldview. They are often undermined by it.

Many people with disabilities and their families know about vulnerability, arising from their exclusion, isolation and exploitation. They are also more vulnerable than most during climate change disasters, along with aged people and children. Yet many people with disabilities also know how to live well within a world of limits, where they can transcend their dependence and vulnerability in interdependent supportive relationships.

They fall back on the basics of well-being: our universal need to be socially embedded and valued. They are often also great at doing a lot with low stores of (personal) energy, and money. This is the experience of a personal values change in the face of challenging and otherwise unchangeable circumstances. Its reality has been well researched, including in experience of disability.

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Mind you, not all people make this choice: to live well within the world as it is, or to continually seek to change those bits of it that we do not like, but are essential to life. Living well within this world means to engage with the dependence and vulnerability that we all share. It means recognising and living within certain limits. It means a focus on human needs for flourishing rather than endlessly fulfilling our wants for the latest thing.  It so happens that this kind of disability knowledge is exactly that needed in working towards a "whole" world.

Economics Prof Tim Jackson urges a focus on human flourishing as a practical way out of our economic growth addiction and in meaningfully tackling the causes of climate change. It makes sense. How many products and services do we want but not need? How many greenhouse gases are involved in the manufacture, transport and disposal of our wants?

So this brings us back to Bob Brown. It isn't really then the fossil fuel producers, who are the weather makers. It is us. Just a greater focus on meeting fundamental human needs in an interdependent world can help us tackle, and live with climate change. Doing so will have us engage and transcend our limited world, our vulnerability and dependence.

As a bonus, many essential human needs are freely-met like the wind: good relationships, a sense of belonging, and human development. Sustainable housing with universal access design contains lessons from disability experience and could be seen as a metaphor for a civil and sustainable society where individual people may flourish: getting our house in order. If people with disabilities can do this, then most people can.

And the really good news is that the greater the challenge, the greater the likelihood of personal values change towards seeing the world as interdependent - so we might get there eventually. But it does remain a personal choice and we have to start somewhere. So, how about these 28,000 homes Julia?

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About the Author

Dr Erik Leipoldt is a Dutch-born Australian. He acquired his disability of quadriplegia in 1978, which first prompted his long-term involvement in disability advocacy and advocacy development. He is a past chair of the WA Disability Services Advisory Committee, and member of various former government disability policy advisory committees, including the Disability Advisory Council of Australia. He is a past convenor of the Australian Advocacy Network and past Executive Officer of People With Disabilities WA. He was a Member of the former Guardianship and Administration Board WA and is currently a Senior Sessional Member of the State Administrative Tribunal of Western Australia. Erik is known as an author of many articles, commenting from a disability perspective. His PhD thesis (2003) was entitled "Good life in the balance: a cross-national study of Dutch and Australian disability perspectives on euthanasia and physician-assisted suicide." His main current interest is how disability experience may provide a practical guiding story to a sustainable world. He is an Adjunct Lecturer with the Centre for Research into Disability and Society, Curtin University of Technology, WA.

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