Merit, Deaf Australia and All That!

womenI hate the word merit. Merit is one of the most abused words in the human language. By definition merit according to Google means – The quality of being particularly good or worthy, esp. so as to deserve praise or reward. The word merit is getting a lot of airplay at the moment. Prime Minister Abbott has elected his frontbench and within it there is just one woman.  Prime Minister Abbott says there are plenty of skilled and talented Liberal women just knocking on the door but that they are not quite there. He chose his Front-Bench on merit he said.

Of course this is totally insulting to all women everywhere. Why? Because Prime Minister Abbott is saying that only one of the Liberal women is good enough and that the rest simply cant hack it. And if you go by the definition he also means these women are not deserving. To add insult to injury Prime Minister Abbott also suggested that the women who were part of the Labor Party ministries were mere tokens.  What an insult to such brilliant women such as Macklin, Ellis, Wong, Rishworth et al. It is not that the women in the Liberal Party cant do the job rather it is, as Jenna Price notes in the Canberra Times, “There are talented women in the Liberal Party who have been marginalised.”[1] And Tony Abbott is responsible for that.

Merit is a horrible way to select people. Why? Because it does not take into consideration a raft of social reasons as to why a person might not have the same experience as another. In the example of women they may have been guided in a way that was ‘traditional” and in the early stages of their career chose “female” specific occupations. Often it may not have been until much later that they realised this was an error and redirected their career. This may put them five to ten years behind their male contemporaries in terms of experience. Then of course there is childbirth and being a mother which can take years out off a woman’s career. It is not for nothing that women are paid less than men and have fewer opportunities to climb the corporate ladder.

People with a disability are in the same boat. They have a whole host of challenges to confront. Just getting educated is one of them. It might just be being able to access a lecture theatre so thatone can get a degree. It might be the language issues confronted by many deaf people. Deafness means that access to information through overhearing, media and social avenues is often hindered. For many young people who are Deaf or Hard of Hearing what this means is that when they leave school they don’t quite have the experiences and maturity of their hearing peers. This often means it takes longer for them to complete their studies. For a whole range of reasons people with a disability are constantly playing catch up.

It’s not for nothing that unemployment and underemployment is rife among people with a disability. When they do finally get employment they are confronted with attitudes and barriers that often keep them in base grade work for many years. Of course when they apply for higher management jobs they are over looked because of that nasty word, MERIT. “You are highly skilled” say the bosses, “ …but you don’t quite have the experience and we chose the position on merit.”

Well good for the bosses. It didn’t take them double the time a non-disabled person did to get through University did it? They didn’t lack support at school did they thus making University an even greater challenge? And of course they didn’t have to confront Australia’s inherent prejudice and discrimination towards disability did they? It’s not for nothing 45% of Australia’s disability population live below the poverty line.

What this means is that people with a disability, like women, are constantly playing catch up. No matter what the skills and the experience they have they are simply hindered when it comes to competing on merit. This is why so many advocates, including myself, are now pushing for quotas and affirmative action when it comes to employing people from disadvantaged backgrounds. Let’s not call them minorities shall we because women can hardly be called a minority. Paradoxically, combined it is women, disability, Aboriginal and other groups that are actually the majority.

So what Mr Abbott has done by citing merit as his argument for appointing only one woman to his cabinet is put Australia back 40 to 50 years in terms of social gains. It is a never ending battle to try and overcome the meritocracy. Without proactive policies and policies that recognise ABILITY as integral and the disadvantage that many face, the lot of women, people with a disability, the Aboriginal community and other groups is unlikely to improve. We advocates are rightly frustrated that the minimal gains we have made in recent years appear to have been almost lost under the new Abbott regime.

Deaf Australia has recognised this with there recent and quite brilliant media release that questions the Liberals new front bench.[2]  Deaf Australia made their view clear, Tony Abbott shocked the nation on Monday when he announced his new cabinet; eliminating key ministerial portfolios, including Disability, Women, and Mental Health. Deaf Australia has condemned the move, saying it will take Australia backwards.”

This is what Deaf and Hard of hearing Australians want from their advocates. They don’t want pussy footing diplomacy they want things to be said as they really are. The media release makes riveting reading, “With this decision, Tony has already broken his promise made in his victory speech, saying there would be “no surprises, no excuses’,” said Deaf Australia Acting President Todd Wright today. “He has shown his true colours by further marginalising one of the most vulnerable minority groups in Australian society.”

Mr Wright outlined Deaf Australia’s concern at the alleged cutting of Auslan and caption funding for employment for Australians who are Deaf and Hard of Hearing. Already the amount given is pitiful. My own funding lasted barely 2 months this year. Mr Wright warns of the ramifications of cutting the funding when he forcefully points out, “If the EAF is cut, many Deaf people will be at risk of losing their jobs, as their employers will not be able to afford to pay for interpreters and other requirements. Forcing Deaf people back onto the dole is irresponsible and old-fashioned and will cost the government much more in the long run.”

This is simple and brilliant advocacy. I was inspired when I read it. After years of soft approach advocacy someone was finally telling it as it is. I know there are times for diplomacy but this is not one of them. People are worried and concerned, it is a time when we need forceful and brave advocacy.

Deaf Australia has made it very clear their concerns. Mr Wright, in what can only be described as laying down the gauntlet, let rip – “Abbott is washing his hands from disability issues by removing critical ministry and parliamentary secretary roles in his cabinet. He is out of touch with what the disability sector needs and will drag down long-term productivity gains in the workforce contradicting key Liberal policy.”

And after two weeks of staunch Laborites like me whinging and moaning about the Abbott Government Deaf Australia has done what we all needed. It has laid down the challenge. How the Liberal’s will respond is any one’s guess but now’s the time to cease the whinging, get our hands dirty and work with what we have. If this media release is anything to go by it shows that Deaf Australia are up for the fight. Let’s get in behind them!

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