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Mark Bagshaw
Australian society unmasked: the systemic abuse of people with disability

Disability does not stop people wanting to, or being able to contribute to the economic and social fabric of our nation


When The Able Movement talks about people with disability and their capacity to contribute to our nation at levels way beyond current participation levels, we are deliberately and unashamedly aspirational. We have challenged and will continue to challenge our nation's belief in the capacity of people with disability, and we will celebrate the tremendous contributions already being made by many people with all types of disability across our nation. Our message is simple: disability does not stop people wanting to, or being able to contribute to the economic and social fabric of our nation.

At the same time we won't balk from some of the harsh realities that are making it so hard for so many people with disability to achieve their potential. It's damn hard work living with a disability in this nation for one key reason: people with disability are treated as second-class citizens. And there is nothing more debilitating or demotivating for any human being than to be treated as somehow less valuable than others, to be treated as less capable, to be mollycoddled, to be segregated from loved ones in our living arrangements and from "average" workers in our employment, to be refused access to air travel because the airlines won't provide support, to be denied access to the written and spoken word because websites aren't accessible and Auslan interpreters aren't available.

But there's something far, far worse than all of this. The ritual physical, sexual and emotional abuse of people with disability across our nation is, as this article in The Australian points out so powerfully, nothing short of a shameful reflection on our nation. And the most frightening and disgusting element of it is the institutional nature of the abuse. The parallels to the stories emerging from the current Royal Commission into Institutional Child Sexual Abuse that are shocking our nation are frighteningly obvious. The extent of those stories is almost beyond belief. And here we see exactly the same pattern for people with disability. Powerful people in positions of trust and authority abusing that power in the most heinous way. Decent minded people are struggling to understand how this could have happened, and what we need to do to stop it happening again.

As this article points out, the NDIS is the most exciting development in disability reform arguably in Australia's history. It's massive, it's challenging, and its potential to unlock the capacity of people with disability is profound. But it cannot achieve its potential unless we confront head on the harsh realities about the way our nation views and treats people with disability. The perpetrators of this abuse – including those in positions of authority who have been turning a blind eye to these individual incidences for decades – need to be found, exposed, and removed from any future involvement in the disability reform process.

But even that's not enough. We all need to hold a mirror up to ourselves as well. At best we've been complicit by omission - these stories are not new. At worst we've been part of the problem, perpetuating long held myths about people with disability being less capable than others. As employers we've been denying people with disability the opportunity to contribute to our workplaces. As families and friends we've often been overprotective of our offspring and siblings – an understandable but ultimately disempowering response to disability. As policymakers we've been perpetuating welfare approaches that disempower people with disability.

We spend a massive amount of time and effort thinking and talking about our nation's economy. It seems we hold an unassailable belief that if we get the economy right everything else will come together and we'll all live happily ever after. In what alternative universe is that true?

Right wing political discourse is dominated by talk about the "trickle-down effect" – make rich and powerful people more rich and more powerful and everyone will benefit. Left-wing rhetoric is not much different.

The trickle-down effect. Really?? So tell, me how on earth has that helped people with disability in the Western world? In Australia??? Every single measure pointing to the quality of life for people with disability is bad almost beyond belief, but none more shocking than the reality that 45% of people with disability in Australia are living in poverty. And those numbers have not changed since records began.

Perhaps it's time we truly examine our hearts and minds and ask ourselves "what society do we want to live in?". Are we really such animals that all we care about is our own survival and personal wealth? Do we really believe that life is better when we've accumulated more gadgets than the next person? Do we think it's none of our business when our fellow human beings are living in poverty, are being physically, sexually and emotionally abused by others, are devoid of any hope of a better life, are feeling unfulfilled and wasted? Do we really think that this is just the way things are and that we can't do anything about it? That it's someone else's problem?

The Able Movement believes that our world will be a better place when every one of our citizens – with or without disability – is welcomed as an essential part of the most powerful and valuable resource our society has ever known. Our people. And we believe that unlocking that valuable resource is the responsibility of every one of us, in every community across this wealthy nation.

How do you value these issues? Join an Able community and have your say.

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