I have been in the disability sector for over 30 years. As a deaf professional I have pretty much seen it all. I have been lucky, most of my managers have been great. But, there is always someone, somewhere who screws things up. There are people that simply should not be anywhere near disability, or any group with a disadvantage for that matter. Yet, somehow they make it all the way to the very top. These are the Ogres of the Disability Sector.
I once was refused interpreters by an organisation that catered for disability. They were doing a training course on counselling children with language issues. Counselling by play they called it. So I asked for interpreters and the boss of the training company told me that they would not provide. It was not financially viable they said. They offered me a free registration if I could arrange my own interpreting. I pointed out that the registration fee was actually more than what it would cost to pay for the interpreters. They still refused. Said the boss, ” Come on Gary. if people in wheelchairs bring their own wheelchair, surely you can bring your own interpreter?” Yes, that happened. The old joke of burying their interpreter with the Deaf person when they die rings true.
I got a six month contract as a Senior Planner with the NDIA. I was approached by Hays Recruitment to ask if I would be interested. I was interviewed and won the contractor job on merit. I started work with the NDIA and did the mandatory training. To their credit, the NDIA arranged interpreting for this. After four weeks I commenced my job proper. Suddenly the NDIA would not provide interpreting. They argued that it was the job of Hays to pay for this because, technically, contractors are employed by them. Hays didn’t want to pay for the interpreters either. I even applied for interpreting via JobAccess and asked the NDIA to confirm my employment. They told me to get Hays to do it. This went on for eight weeks or so. In that time I, a Senior Planner, was sat at my desk waiting for the management of Hays and the NDIA to sign the form so that I could get interpreters or captioning to do the job.
Neither of them would sign it. So I couldn’t meet with clients. I was sat at my desk for eight weeks doing virtually nothing. I completed every item of the NDIA online training. I am sure I am still the only person in the world to have done so. Eventually the manager approached me and asked me to vet a few plans to make sure they met requirements. ” I have every confidence that you can do this, Gary”, said the manager. Well, I would bloody hope so given that I was a Senior Planner. I was livid and as the manager walked away I signed something non to complimentary to her back.
Eventually the NDIA offered me an 18 month contract so that I became their employee. To be fair, from then on they provided for all my needs. But still the episode left a foul taste in my mouth. How could management let this happen? How could the NDIA put me in the middle of toing and froing over the issue of access? IT’S THE NDIA, surely disability should be a priority? But it wasn’t. I do not care who was responsible, management dealing with the biggest disability program in Australia needed to do better than this.
I also worked for a local council. My responsibility was access and inclusion. I had a heavy focus on making things like grant proposals requiring applicants to outline their disability access plan. I was determined to ensure the council emergency response considered disability needs. The latter included things like ensuring town hall type meetings were held in accessible buildings, that interpreters be provided, plain English versions developed, videos captioned and so on. I was really powerless and had to convince respective directors and managers to make these changes.
And you know they would promise the Earth and not deliver. Now, being deaf I don’t use the phone, I communicate by email or text. On a regular basis I would remind these people of their commitments and ask for action.
Do you know what happened? Not only did they not do as promised they refused to reply to emails. I brought this up with my manager. I said that they had stopped communicating and that they would not follow through with their commitments. They were basically giving the middle finger to disability access. I will never forget being told by the emergency services manager that disability was not their remit and that the neighbours were responsible to help and ensure their neighbours with a disability were supported. No, I do not jest, nor do I exaggerate.
My managers response to this was to tell me that when I had a meeting and an Auslan interpreter was present I should go around the building with the interpreter after the meeting and try and grab the offenders. I pointed out that this was not feasible because after meetings interpreters had other jobs to go to. She said she would write an article in the employee’s newsletter to let staff know I was deaf and make them aware of my needs. I got quite angry. I said, “NO! these people have to adjust too. They have to meet me half way. Not following through on promises and not responding to emails is simply unprofessional.”
Naturally, nothing happened. Nothing changed. It was, of course, my fault. My manager tried to blame me. I asked what I was supposed to do if these offending people had simply stopped communicating and following through on their commitments. She basically accused me of exaggerating and lying. That was until forwarded her no fewer than 67 unanswered emails, just concerning ONE manager! It was a tough time and it made me quite ill.
Oh, and there was the lovely manager who asked me to go back to my desk and, “do more important things”, because they didn’t want to adjust their communication style. I was cramping their style you see. And then when I was challenging them on important staff issues they tugged their ear lobe and told me to listen. I probably didn’t help myself by telling them that I had listened to them for the last hour and a half and now it was their turn to listen to me. It should really come as no surprise that this same manager made a person with a physical disability move because they considered them an occupational health and safety risk. They might fall on someone you see. A real Ogre that one.
Before writing this I asked colleagues with a disability to share with me their own experiences. There were some shockers;
- The deaf man told to get a mental health plan for reporting someone who secretly recorded a meeting with staff. Instead of acting on this appallingly unethical behaviour of the said staff member they turned it back on him, implied that he was the problem and that he should fix himself up through a psychologist.
- In the 90’s, the deaf person working for a deaf organisation who was questioned by the CEO about their need for interpreters because they had indicated in their interview that they were a good lipreader and mostly coped by lipreading.
- The deaf professional told by her manager, who could barley finger spell, that her signing skills were not up to scratch. (This was very recent.)
- The Deaf professional told to leave a planning session because the meeting would be fast paced and she would hold them up and not be able to follow.
- The manager who asked a clinical staff member to look up some mental health information on a student, with out permission or consent. This was reported to HR who refused to act.
- The manager who chased an in pain staff member to her car with an implied threat. Apparently, associating with certain people on social media would be bad for their prospects.
These anecdotes are but a fraction of what people have sent to me. A large percentage of them happened very recently and all were targeted at people with a disability.
I have long stated that people who work in the disability sector need to have experience in disability. They need to be culturally sensitive to the needs of people with a disability. Most importantly they need to demonstrate that they have the right attitude and knowledge. I have pushed this view often in the disability sector only to be told that disability can be taught and can be learnt on the job.
This is why we see within the NDIA an assortment of heavy handed bureaucrats. We see within LAC positions people who were previously policemen and even bank clerks and who get the job because they have people or IT skills. Bugger the fact that they have minimal knowledge of disability. This is why many NDIS plans end up being a dogs breakfast. Too many people simply do not know what they are doing!
Yup there are Ogres working in management in the disability sector and they are doing enormous damage. Usually it is people with a disability who are targeted unfairly. There are simply not enough people with a disability in management roles and far too many ableist managers who do not know what they are doing. It is widespread and causing immense damage.
It is not just indirect discrimination, it is often outright abuse. Like the elephant in the room, the Ogres in the disability sector need to be addressed!