Australia's Shame

I was in Townsville. I was staying at Jupiter’s Casino.  I was there for work. Jupiter’s had a special deal. If you stayed two nights it was only $128 a night. My room was overlooking the bay and the magnificent Magnetic Island. The Island in all its splendour filled the horizon from my hotel window. It is one of the perks of my job that I travel and see beautiful places like this. Thursday was a great day. For the first time ever I had sign language interpreters beamed up to my conference through Skype saving the organisers thousands of dollars. It went without a hitch. This simple way of delivering access for Deaf people was the result of five years of work. I should have been celebrating, and I did quietly, BUT I felt a great sense of shame. My celebrations were tempered by the fact that I am living in a country that treats people with a disability worse than most countries in the developed world. In fact in Australia more people with a disability live in poverty than 20 of 29 comparable countries.  Even the beauty of the awesome Magnetic Island cannot camouflage this ugly reality.

It struck me that this rich country, with its vast pool of natural resources and its rapidly increasing wealth is nearly LAST. This rich country has more people with a disability living in poverty than 20 other comparable countries that make up the OECD. It struck me that a large part of the reason that I have been working on online remote Interpreting for these several years is largely to make it cheaper because this rich country will not invest properly in services to make employment and education accessible for deaf people. It struck me that countries with comparable, and probably far less wealth, were investing in and providing for people with a disability far better than Australia.  This is an Australia that CAN afford it but simply will not cough up the required investment.

And the Guvner  General, Quentin Bryce, says we can fix it with an attitude change. Perhaps the Guv is right but the reality is that what is needed is that the Governments of Australia need to start recognising the real value of people with a disability. Under- valuing people with a disability is not unique to Australia. The under-valuing of people with a disability is something that David Hingsburger explores in his article, The devaluation those with disabilities.  This article was published at Canada.com .

Hingsburger is critical of Governments the world over that are obsessed with getting people with a disability off pensions and into the workforce. It is not so much that Hingsburger doesn’t want people with a disability to work it is more the fact that the debate to get the disabled off pensions and into work portrays the disabled as bludgers that are a draw on the public purse.

Hindsburger, who uses a wheelchair, tells a wonderful story of how he was attempting to wheel himself over a shag carpet. It was tough going and a colleague came up and asked if he would like a push. Hindsburger replied that he was ok, and that the workout would do him good. His colleague replied, “Well, it’s nice to meet one of you people that’s not simply lazy.” His colleague had thought he was paying Hindsburger a compliment. But in Hindsburger’s view he had slapped him across the face. Hindsburger observed, “His remark had risen me up from the “lazy scum” who don’t work. I took offense at his compliment.”

What Hindsburger’s story demonstrates is that society sees people with a disability as a drain on its resources. Look at Australia’s immigration policy. Any hint of a disability and people are refused entry. Why? Well because the view is that they will eat into Australia’s welfare and health dollar. Australia’s view is that people with a disability cost and don’t contribute. Australia’s view of disability is, “The less the better.”  Hence this is why the bulk of people with a disability who apply to come to Australia from other countries are refused entry. Australia’s Shame!

And Australia has norms for people with a disability. People with mental illness are dangerous and prone to violence or self- harm. If you happen to be a person with a mental illness who is neither violent nor causes self -harm then you are the exception, not the norm. Of course the truth is the complete opposite but this is the myth that the media perpetuates and Australia hangs on to.

We have norms for Deaf people in the Deaf sector too. This year Colin Allen was elected as President of the World Federation of the Deaf.  One of our CEOs wrote in their organisations newsletter congratulating Mr Allen. The CEO gushed about how she had had conversations with Mr Allen and was delighted to work with him. She described him as, “A very clever man.”

To me this is the ultimate insult to Deaf people. The President of the World Federation of the Deaf is CLEVER. Well of course he is. Do we hear Julia Gillard, PM of Australia described as, ”A very clever woman”??   Imagine welcoming Julia Gillard to the stage, “I would just like to welcome Julia Gillard, who is a very clever woman, to the stage.” It just wouldn’t happen. What the CEOs comment highlighted to me was that for the CEO to meet a highly intelligent, effective and successful deaf person was not the norm, it was an exception.  Perhaps I am over-reacting but the CEOs comment highlighted a perception in the CEO that Deaf people are generally not clever so we need to highlight the ones that are because it’s not NORMAL. This is very much like Hindsburger being separated from, “those other lazy scum”, as an exception rather than the norm. This is very common in Australia and, if Hindsburber’s story is anything to go by, the world over.

Recently I attended a conference on employment. At the conference they were talking about addressing the skills shortage in Australia. They were talking about apprenticeships and the need to encourage more young people to take up apprenticeships. If memory serves me right the target was 400 000 in the next five years or so. There was talk about people with a disability and Aboriginals being an integral part of these 400 000 placements. I was quite excited about this until I saw the targets. Of these 400 000 placements they wanted 1.5% of them to be people with a disability. For Aboriginals it was .44%. The speaker was waxing lyrical bout having achieved over the target in placing people with a disability.  They had achieved 2 %.

I was gobsmacked.  Australia is reliably quoted as having 20% of its population with a disability of some sort. Certainly in the younger groups, and this is where most apprenticeships are targeted, it would be slightly lower as it does not take into account the aging population who acquire disabilities as they age.  But 1.5% is a paltry percentage. It should be much higher and representative of the total number of people with a disability in Australia. If I was gobsmacked at the disability figure imagine how Aboriginal people would have felt at having only .44% of the total as their target. This is Australia’s Shame in that it refuses to acknowledge the true worth of people with a disability, (or indeed any minority group.) It is not for nothing that people with a disability are largely living in poverty. Australia simply refuses to acknowledge their worth and invest properly in them.

Graeme Innes, Disability Commissioner for the Australian Human Rights Commission, also spoke at this conference. Mr Innes is blind. He is a qualified lawyer and he spoke at length about his struggle to find employment when he graduated in law. For a period of time, because no one believed he could do the job, he had to work as a base grade clerk earning a pittance. What was his job?  Reading out winning lottery numbers to people that phoned in wanting to know which numbers had come up.  Mr Innes is particularly critical of the Australian Public Service and the number of people with a disability that work within the public service. Over a period of time the number has decreased rather than increased. Today the figure is around 3% – Australia’s Shame!

Mr Innes wants the Australian Public Service to increase this percentage drastically and proactively target people with a disability as part of the Australian Public Service workforce. Mr Innes wants to see AFFIRMITIVE ACTION. He believes, given the barriers that people with a disability face in getting employment in Australia, that if a person with a Disability shows that they are more than capable of doing the job they should be given the job over their able bodied colleagues. Why? Simply because the lack of opportunities for people with a disability means that they often simply do not have the same level of experience as able bodied applicants. The playing field needs to be evened.

And this brings us to our Deaf sector organisations. How many deaf people work for them? What is the percentage of our deaf sector organisations workforce that have deaf people at management level? What percentage of their workforce has a Deaf person at the helm? How many of our deaf sector organisations proactively seek out experienced and qualified deaf people to make up their workforce? How many want to lead the way to show DEAF people at the forefront? How many have had Deaf people working in the same job for many years with little opportunity or encouragement to advance?  Which ones overlooked Deaf people with years of experience in the Deaf sector and disability sector for applicants who were more academically qualified but with absolutely no background in deafness? Which organisation overlooked the Deaf Human Resource Manager with qualifications in Human Resources for a Human Resource manager with more experience when they could easily have employed the Deaf person and provided them with an opportunity to advance?  Which one has sacked an imminently qualified Deaf person simply because that person’s manager was intimidated by that person’s knowledge and background?  Worse, which Deaf people have been party to these decisions simply because they wanted to maintain their status quo? Sadly all of the questions asked above relate to real situations within our Deaf sector organisations.  Australia’s Shame indeed!

Australia’s Shame! For a rich country, an advanced country and a country that prides itself on a fair go it simply isn’t good enough!  Australia is near bottom of the league for Disability access and opportunities.  Our Deaf sector organisations are down their too, if not even further behind.