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People are only disabled by our response to them

By Brian Harradine - posted Monday, 25 October 2004

The Coalition’s success in last week’s federal election, giving it even stronger control over the Australian Parliament, offers a great opportunity to tackle the difficult issue of social exclusion. There are few examples of social exclusion so glaring as that experienced by people with a disability.

The exclusion of people with a disability from the mainstream is reflected in many parts of the Australian community. It is time for a renewed effort to combat that segregation.

The Productivity Commission found that people with a disability are less likely to finish school, have a TAFE or university qualification or be employed but are more likely to have a below average income, be on a pension, live in public housing or be in prison.


The average personal income for people with a disability is 44 per cent of the income of other Australians - the lowest rate among the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) countries.

There are laws in place to discourage discrimination and room to improve those laws. But laws on their own will not be enough to reach the goal. We need to transform structures and attitudes to achieve a real integration and acceptance of people with a disability in our community.

The issue the re-elected Howard Government should address is how to improve the inclusion and participation of people with a disability, helping them to fulfil their potential. The focus should be on helping people live better lives, not on budget-cutting exercises like reducing spending on the Disability Support Pension. People with disabilities need to be at the centre of working towards solutions.

While most of us are intellectually convinced of the need for a better deal for those people in our community who have a disability, we can still be awkward on meeting a person who has a disability, afraid of saying or doing the wrong thing. This is part of the deep underlying problem we have to overcome.

British think-tank Demos points out that people are disabled not because of whatever physical or mental characteristics they have, but because of our response to them.

Most attempts to accommodate disabled people involve installing special devices to help them to negotiate the everyday environment. But why not design and construct things so they can accommodate everyone equally, rather than having to modify more restricted designs? Inclusive designs accommodate everyone, removing barriers that fragment the community.


Part of the change needed is to adapt workplaces to better accommodate the employment of people with a disability.

Work is important for self-esteem and wellbeing. A community’s success is often measured in terms of employment levels and productivity. So improving the employment rates of people with a disability, where unemployment rates are 70 per cent higher than the general population, is very important.

The best job may not be standard nine to five office work. But it could involve part-time work with flexible hours or working from home, making it easier for people to make a contribution. Imagine what great ideas, insights and enthusiasm are being missed by the under-representation of people with disabilities.

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Article edited by Maggie Dunphy.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

An edited version of this article appeared in the Canberra Times on October 18, 2004.

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About the Author

Senator Brian Harradine was an independent Senator for Tasmania.

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