There is a bit of discussion going on at the moment about the Disability Peaks. Disability Peaks are organisations that are funded to provide advice and advocacy at a policy level to the Australian Government. They look at the system as a whole and try to develop campaigns to influence positive change for people with a disability. The discussion that is happening focuses on how effective these Peaks are. The general consensus seems to be that many are not very effective at all.
Possibly they are not very effective because there are so many of them. I took the liberty to investigate just exactly how many of them there are. Through a quick desktop search I discovered no less than 15 Disability Peaks. The targets of these groups are varied and include carers, brain injury, mental health, cerebral palsy, physical disabilities, disability services, Multiple Sclerosis, blind, ethnic people with a disability, deaf and women with disabilities. The 15 that I uncovered probably is not all of them. I can think of the First Peoples Aboriginal Disability Network and Blind Citizens Australia. Both of these organisations were not listed in the data base I discovered.
It is easy too conclude that there are too many Disability Peaks. However, there is a need for many of these groups. The danger of having one all encompassing Disability Peak is that smaller groups such as the First Peoples Disability Network, Multiple Sclerosis and ethnic people with a disability would get swallowed up in the larger issues. One size does not fit all. There is sometimes a need for smaller groups to have their own individual representation so that they do not get swallowed up by the larger and more influential groups.
If you look at the list of Disability Peaks you have to ask whether all of them are necessary. There seems to be a fair amount of duplication going on and one wonders whether a lot of resources are swallowed up by having organisations that essentially duplicate each other. As an example People with Disabilities Australia and the Australian Federation of Disability Organisations appear to be doing essentially the same thing yet funding is being provided for two CEOs, the administration of the organisations and on costs such as rental and so on.
One of the criticisms that is commonly directed towards the Disability Peaks is that, in developing their advocacy strategies and in advising the Government on issues, that they do not consult widely. The disability community as a whole often bemoan the fact that they feel ignored by the Peaks. They complain that the Peaks are controlled by a small Board and the decisions that they make do not have a lot of relevance to the general disability population.
To overcome this perceived lack of relevance the disability community urge the Peaks to consult. The Peaks in turn will turn round and say that they consult as much as they can. They will say that they are largely underfunded and lack the resources to be able to consult as widely as they would like. This is a relevant argument. BUT – could this be overcome if some of the duplication that is currently happening was eliminated. Would a larger, better funded and resourced organisation have a better capacity to consult with the community that they are supposed to represent? This issue of duplication needs some serious consideration.
The Deaf sector also has two Peaks, Deaf Australia and Deafness Forum. Deaf Australia will argue that they are a completely different organisation from Deafness Forum. They will point out that they are representing a cultural and linguistic group. They will point out the Board structure of Deafness Forum lends to it a danger that the needs of the smaller signing Deaf community run the risk of being overwhelmed by the larger group. Having sat on the Deafness Forum Board I can confirm that this is certainly true. There were times, particularly in my first spell on the Board, that there was evidence of negative bias towards the Deaf community. In my second spell this was less evident but if the wrong people are elected to the Board there is a real risk that the needs of the Deaf community would get lip service.
Even though this is the case you still have to ask the question as to whether there is a need for two Deaf Peaks. Is it possible to structure one Peak so that its constitution ensures the rights of the Deaf community are not swallowed up by the issues of the larger hard of hearing groups? Let’s face it so many of the issues that Deaf Australia and Deafness Forum advocate for are essentially the same. Education, captions, technology, employment and the NDIS are all issues that both organisations represent. Perhaps the time has come to revisit whether there is a way to combine funding and resources to develop a larger Deafness Peak. This would be a Peak that protects the rights of the smaller cultural and linguistic Deaf community within its constitution. If it could be done it would certainly have the potential for a more powerful and effective organisation.
Before Bill Shorten moved on from the disability portfolio I recall he was in the process of reviewing how our Peaks operated. One of the things that frustrated him, if I remember correctly, was that our Peaks are often in conflict. He bemoaned the fact that they often presented conflicting messages to the Government. He argued that this often meant that the Government just ignored them completely. He was encouraging the Peaks to work smarter. Before he moved on there was a lot of concern that through his review many of the current Peaks would be defunded. Disappointingly the mooted review of the Peaks died a silent death. It was something that is much needed.
Perhaps it is time to revisit this review. There has to be a better way to represent people with a disability than is currently happening. Too often the larger and powerful National Disability Services control the agenda with minimal consultation with people who have a disability. Meanwhile the smaller and underfunded Peaks are busy squabbling with each other and struggling to make ends meet. If we really want representation that follows the slogan, “Nothing About Us Without Us” then some tough and smart decisions need to be made. Amalgamation of those organisations that are essentially duplicating each other is something that seriously needs to be considered.
Einstein once said that the definition of insanity was making the same mistakes over and over again. It certainly seems this way with our Disability Peaks. Change and forward thinking is desperately needed.