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Mark Bagshaw
Disability Reform in Australia: Teetering on the Edge of Greatness
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In this article, The Able Movement director and social reform activist, Martin Stewart-Weeks, explores the three pieces of the disability reform jigsaw – funding, practice and culture – that we must get right to enable people with disability to participate fully in every aspect of our society.

We’re going to get disability reform right in Australia when three pieces – funding, practice and culture – come together in a compelling puzzle that unlocks a very simple proposition – that people with a disability get a chance, a sustained chance by right, not by charity, to participate equally in work, learning and the community.  

The evidence that we’ve made that happen will be just as simple and just as compelling – when people with a disability can get up every day and make their way through the world, in pursuit of their particular version of success and happiness, without encountering unnecessary and unfair barriers to getting around and, at the same time, being welcomed by the rest of us.

It doesn’t seem so hard, does it? And yet the evidence tells us that it is. 

Almost half of those living with a disability live below the poverty line. People with a disability are 40% less likely to have a job or be in education and training.  Too often, people with disabilities don’t get to choose where they live or determine a life worth living that is motivating not because it is especially grand or dramatic, but because it is theirs. 

These are markers none of us should be proud of in a story whose unhappy contours have proved remarkably stubborn.

But no matter how thick the blizzard of statistics, the stories that people with disabilities themselves tell remind us how unutterably hard it can be for them to reach for, and live, the kind of lives of purpose and opportunity the rest of us take for granted (even if we don’t always make the most of the chances we get, some of the time at least).

So back to the puzzle.

The first piece is funding.  And of course, the big story here is the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).  Not a complete story and not for every person with a disability, but a massive, mould-breaking leap into the future, away from doing things “to and for” people with disabilities, and bravely in pursuit of a world of support and services “by and with” them.

I sometimes think many of us underestimate the enormity and sheer magnitude of the NDIS reforms.  In one fell swoop, and over a relatively short period, we are basically turning around the oil tanker of disability reform so that, in the future it steers more consistently by a compass pointing to choice, empowerment and opportunity.  A whole new market of services and support is being wrought from a past characterized essentially by centrally-driven and “other determined” choices that tended to keep people with disabilities passive and dependent.

It’s a big job and it’s not surprising that its progress is characterized by uneven and mixed evidence of energy and sustained, deep change.  But for all the evidence of frustration – try reading some of the Facebook and blog platforms where people with disabilities and their families and carers share their lived experience of transition and change – the funding and service design revolution is on foot and, it seems, unstoppable,

A second piece of the puzzle is practice. 

In any revolution of this scope and magnitude, the real test in the end is not its reach or ambition but the evidence that, in the way people with disabilities are treated and the way they experience the services and support they need, new practices are emerging in line with the revolution’s animating values.

Across the new provider markets and from the depths of the policy and service design work inside the public sector, the changes that will be weighed most heavily will be the changes of attitude and practice evident in the interactions people see and feel – open, engaged, empowering.

To be complete, the puzzle demands evidence of new behaviour and mindsets attuned to the big themes of these changes – choice, a shift of power and authority towards people with disabilities themselves and the journey through each day less cluttered with the visible and invisible barriers to its smooth and easy navigation.

But the third piece of the puzzle – culture – might be the most important and the toughest piece to get right. 

What do I mean by culture in this context?

I mean the set of interlocking and subtly reinforcing beliefs and attitudes from which we define what it is we actually think, and therefore what we do, when we define what people with disabilities are capable of in the first place. This is basically the “hearts and minds” piece, the stuff that digs deep into the layers of assumptions and barely acknowledged values we’ve accumulated about the way things work.

In this case, the culture piece is all about how a whole society, and the individual communities of which it is made up, welcomes the participation of people with disability.  Do we actually think that the very large majority of people with a disability are capable of contributing fully to the life and work of their communities?  Do we instinctively assume that the same very large majority of people with disabilities can reach for the highest aspirations for a life worth living? And do we think this capability goes beyond the superb examples of those whose rare and special achievements at the highest level in sport, the arts, business and education we rightly celebrate but which sometimes suggests there is a kind of heroic exceptionalism which only a few people with disabilities can access?

To the extent we don’t entertain these assumptions and beliefs about what we think people with disability can and should be expected to achieve, we tend to fall into the equivalent of what Noel Pearson once brutally pinned as the soft bigotry of low expectations. We expect less, people with disabilities attempt less, we see less, we expect less again and so it goes.

Unless we decide to break the cycle.

That is the work The Able Movement wants to do as its distinctive contribution to this complex, difficult but vital piece of Australian dreaming that we must get right this time. 

There’s plenty of people in the broader mix of course.  The NDIS itself, the service providers and people with disabilities and their families too.  Lots of people have been working hard for a long time on this. 

And so have plenty of the people now gathering around the Able Movement campaign to marry a shift of attitude, practical innovation and networked, community activism to show the world that people with disabilities are “ready, willing and able” to jump the higher bar of rising expectations and new opportunities.

This is not about doubling up or getting in any one’s way.  This is about adding to the mix and fueling the momentum for deep change.

Nowhere in the world have we yet seen what happens when these three pieces – funding, culture and practice – combine to shift bedrock beliefs, attitudes and actions that show forth in better lives for people with disabilities.

There’s no reason why that breakthrough shouldn’t be Australian.  If we think agile and innovative are the hallmarks of our national success, where would it make more sense to apply those instincts and practices than in the work we still need to do to wrangle the revolution in disability reform.  That way it’s possible that, for people with disabilities too, this will turn out to be the most exciting time to be an Australian.

We’re teetering on the edge of greatness.  We’re not there yet.  But it’s possible.  It has to be.

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