Behind government spin: Policy change disses the disabled

Made You Look, the magazine of the government’s ‘Don’t DIS My Ability’ campaign. The NSW government’s lack of consulta

For years the Ageing, Disability and Home Care department (ADHC) has run a “Don’t DIS My Ability” campaign to celebrate International Day of Persons with Disabilities. In partnership with Accessible Arts, an arts program has been designed to supposedly boost and foster arts and disability practice in New South Wales.

These initiatives coincide with talk at the national level about social inclusion policies targeting those classed as disadvantaged in the workforce. The federal government appears to be setting ambitious goals for greater participation and integration into the workforce.

However, beyond the hype is the possibility the government will simply dump people with disabilities onto the harsh regime of Newstart Allowance, with “tough love” breaching and pernicious activity agreements, as happened to mothers during the Howard government’s “Welfare-to-Work” reforms.

International Day of Persons with Disabilities comes around every year leaving us with feel-good statements and plenty of spin. But rather than slick advertising campaigns, people with disabilities prefer to be properly consulted on issues that affect our lives. Such public relations exercises can conceal a return to paternalistic policies that disempower those of us with disabilities, reinstituting the “we know what’s best for you” regime of rule from above.

What people with disabilities need is acceptance and accommodation rather than trivialisation of disabling conditions that make it harder for us to compete in a tight job market.

Advertising slogans such as “don’t diss my ability” or “focus on ability” can have positive effects of raising self-esteem and social acceptance, particularly for children with disabilities. But without concrete measures to support adults with disabilities entering or re-entering the workforce, they are meaningless. There is no affirmative action legislation to back up the fine sentiments, so many adults with disabilities find such slogans empty and hypocritical.

Alongside slogans, we need 10% of all taxpayer-funded part-time jobs reserved for appropriately qualified job applicants with disabilities. This would not only provide genuine social inclusion, but paradoxically also help to secure merit-based employment in the private sector. Wherever service provision contracts are paid for by the public purse, governments need to ensure employers don’t discriminate against job seekers with disabilities.

In the disability service sector, affirmative-action employment measures should be at least 20% to guarantee qualified jobseekers with disabilities get a fair go.

Employing a significant proportion of disabled workers in the disability service sector would provide encouragement and positive role models for all those living with disabilities who access these services. The wider community would also benefit from coming into contact with a more inclusive workforce.

This would help those living with disabilities to reach their full potential and allow them to contribute to society without the shameful social apartheid of sheltered workshops.

Additionally, nepotism in the increasingly privatised disability services deprives the sector of a more diverse, better qualified talent pool. Take the following example.

As an artist living with disabilities who has a Bachelor of Art Education and a Master of Fine Art qualification, I have been an arts practitioner and educator for more than 30 years. Yet when I tried to get part-time work as an art facilitator at a taxpayer-funded private company that provides art training services to the disabled, I was told they wanted my unpaid contributions only.

When I asked this company’s art facilitator whether his job had been advertised or if there had been any public call for expressions of interest for his position he told me no. He said he was a recent art school graduate without teaching qualifications. I then explained my qualifications and experience and asked him how I could obtain paid part-time work as a disabled art facilitator at companies like his.

He told me that Accessible Arts had a website where I could put down my particulars and any employer who needed my skills could contact me from there. I asked him if that was how he got his job and he replied: “No I was lucky, because my cousin works here.”

Unlike the public service, there is no objective examination to guarantee merit-based employment in the private sector even when financed with public money. There is also less accountability to clients and job seekers than in the public sector because they are not subject to Freedom of Information laws and can always claim commercial confidentiality.

However, it is not just disabled job seekers without connections who are disadvantaged by the privatisation of services.

When I looked at the website of a non-government training provider I was horrified to see a photograph showing homeless youth being trained to silkscreen printed T-shirts, without any protective gloves, breathing mask or eyewear. As a trained high school art teacher I know this is a huge occupational health and safety issue but apparently if you are homeless and unemployed, then life is considered cheap by these private sector job trainers.

Just like convicted prisoners, the government has legislated to ensure that unemployed people are unable to sue job service providers or Centrelink if they are harmed by their negligence. Will this discriminatory legislation also be extended to people with disabilities?

Behind all this talk of focusing on ability is the brushing aside of individual needs and failure to enable supported workforce participation, refusing to listen to what we need and even failing to include us in the anti-vilification laws that protect other minorities.

When it comes to social inclusion initiatives, policymakers are still not on the same page. Professor Corinne Mulley, Sydney University’s Chair of Public Transport has proposed not allowing welfare recipients to concession travel on Sydney’s public transport during peak hours to solve congestion, the July 26 Inner West Courier reported.

Considering that most people with disabilities cannot work full-time and must access welfare payments to survive, this divisive proposal if implemented will cause further disadvantage. It is dehumanising and denies us any hope of social acceptance and full workforce participation.

Whatever happened to all the hoopla about social inclusion? The silence from relevant government departments and the disability services lobby over this proposal has been deafening. It just shows why the “Don’t DIS My Ability” public relations campaign lacks credibility.

If policymakers are serious about focusing on ability then they should recommend quotas for employing disadvantaged job seekers in all publicly funded positions such as the job service sector, the creative industries and promised new green enterprises.

Either that or change the policy settings for the economy away from controlling inflation towards controlling unemployment, as was done from the end of World War II until the mid 1970s. Most economists believe it’s harder to control inflation if unemployment falls below 4.75% so Reserve Bank and government policies now ensure there is never full employment.

But if unemployment is so important for lowering inflation and guaranteeing the health of our economy, why not rotate under/unemployment and give everyone a turn at being employed? The unemployment queue is perhaps the only queue, where the longer you wait your turn, the less chance you have of reaching your destination.

Why should the burden of under/unemployment be placed exclusively on disadvantaged Australians such as the long-term unemployed and people living with disabilities or those with insufficient class connections? Why not advance Australia fair?