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Action in Australian Disability Rights

By Peter Gibilisco - posted Tuesday, 14 June 2011


In May 2011 a few thousand people attended a London rally to protest against cuts in government spending for services to disabled people.

Here we witness people with disabilities demonstrating their political power. The mood is captured in an article published before the rally, which explains why the government had actually triggered this protest: The government are replacing Incapacity Benefit by Employment and Support Allowance (ESA), and have contracted a private company, Atos Healthcare to carry out tests on all claiming it to assess whether they are capable of working. The tests Atos uses are computer based and are carried out by health workers, many of whom are not qualified doctors, and who are only allowed a short time to reach decisions on what are often complex cases.

Of the demonstration the Guardian reported that the protest was a part of a 'National Week of Action Against Atos Origin' organised by disability activists, claimant groups and anti-cuts campaigners and supported by over 50 groups around Britain. Among those present at this action were Disabled People Against Cuts, London Coalition Against Poverty, Mad Pride, Right to Work, and the Solidarity Federation. Many disabled activists are unable to get to demonstrations such as these, or fear to do so as it might prejudice their capability to work assessments, and are instead taking part in on-line protests as a part of the 'Armchair Army.'

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So is such a demonstration of such obvious political anger possible in Australia? I think it is improbable. Even though there was a call for such action in the last South Australian state election, the election of a Dignity for Disability Rights candidate to the legislative assembly perhaps shows a greater depth of public sensitivity to those cared for, and their carers, and support workers. Not to say that we are perfect simply because we don't have to face the draconian testing which seems to appeal to the Conservative Liberal Democratic Coalition government in the U.K.

Here I think the question is about keeping up the political pressure to enhance disability rights in Australia. Why does this prove to be so difficult? A clear example of what we are up against was visible in 2007 where I was a Senate candidate for the Carers’ Alliance. In that capacity I happily arranged to attend a few disability rallies, but when only a handful turn up its hard to make any media impact and therefore all the more difficult to bring political pressure to bear on other candidates and the agendas of party debate.

Yet we have seen some "disability awareness" in a cogent political sense with Kelly Vincent taking her seat in the South Australian legislative assembly. Kelly is the first person to use a wheelchair to be elected to the South Australian Parliament and also the first Australian Parliamentarian elected on a disability platform. The opportunity is there for disability rights activists to generate greater awareness and thus for Australian society to place greater value upon changes that will enhance the rights of disabled people. There is a need for much more political acceptance and action from the major parties, which will then make it feasible for more candidates, like Kelly, to take on public political roles around the country. This will also allow the voice of the disabled to be heard where it needs to be heard.

One doesn‘t have to be a genius or mentally gifted to realise that a significant growth of political awareness would result if people directly related to disability would stick together and find ways, including voting, to have their voice heard in Australian political life. A federal, state, or local party that insists upon upholding the full political dignity of disabled people - which has to include encouraging their active political participation - will in time gather support from the "disabled community" but the task is also to see that such changes to our view of political participation must be of benefit to everyone.

Political power today becomes decentralised when it is dominated by a view that gives in to arguments about the budget bottom line. That has proved a sure way to avoid the most urgent social justice needs. Lobby groups that are active in backing and promoting such services, in particular for people with disabilities, their carers and support workers, in Victoria, for instance, are quite poor, to the point of being almost irrelevant. Nevertheless there is a vital job here to politically assist, promote and empower such groups. Victorians who are directly and indirectly involved with disability should take time to ponder the question about our own political responsibility: how can we best utilise the abilities of the many people and groups involved in disability to make ourselves more visible and to convince our neighbors of the great relevance of our cause?

The political progress of disability rights in Australia is indeed out of whack with, and fails most measures of, social justice. We live in a society where our most vulnerable are forced to carry the load of this imbalance. It is viewed as an individual's burden rather than a shared responsibility. This in itself brings with it new forms of social ignorance, where many people not only forget but encourage an ethos of social impoverishment. Let it be said that this may also indirectly be the result of how our politicians and their parties have set their agendas to argue over bottom line management.

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This is an ongoing political fight for every one of us not just for people with disabilities. There should not be the constant battle about a politically enforced social justice compromise that holds us all back.

In reports of the London rally, Frederick Douglass said: "Power concedes nothing without a demand." The article went on to say: "Disabled people, and all people, must demand our rights every single day, until the people in power are forced to concede." A different society is possible; one that is not reliant on the exploitation of others, but which stipulates the equality of all human beings. Australia has some way to go before we can say we have got to the point where those who indirectly and directly benefit and make use of such services are also making a political difference for the entire country.

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Article edited by Jo Coghlan.
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About the Author

Peter Gibilisco was diagnosed with the progressive neurological condition called Friedreich's Ataxia, at age 14. The disability has made his life painful and challenging. He rocks the boat substantially in the formation of needed attributes to succeed in life. For example, he successfully completed a PhD at the University of Melbourne, this was achieved late into the disability's progression. However, he still performs research with the university, as an honorary fellow. Please read about his new book The Politics of Disability.

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