After promising to put disabled people at the centre of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), Labor did not choose those who are open about their disability to chair the NDIS Senate committee, set up in July.
Instead, it appointed Labor Senator Libby Cocker as chair and Liberal Senator Hollie Hughes as deputy chair, despite Western Australian Greens Senator Jordon Steele-John’s offer to chair it.
Hughes’ appointment has disheartened disability advocates, such as the Autistic Self Advocacy Network (ASAN), because of her well-known and long-term promotion of autistic conversion therapy, also known as Applied Behavioural Analysis or Intensive Early Intervention.
ASAN campaigned for Hughes to be disqualified from a Select Committee on Autism in 2021, saying: “She has not kept up to date with the latest research and her knowledge of autism is firmly stuck in the past” and that “her assertion that intensive early intervention, more commonly known as ABA, constitutes best practice is grossly misguided and contradictory to the research evidence.”
Intensive early intervention is abuse, ASAN said, as it seeks to “correct” autistic traits.
Autistic conversion therapy was invented by Norwegian-American psychologist Ole Ivar Lovaas, who also pioneered gay conversion therapy through the “Feminine Boy Project” in the 1970s.
Hughes has been a long-term advocate of autistic conversion therapy, recently attending the opening of AEIOU, a centre that practices the conversation therapy.
Hughes, meanwhile, has accused those who criticised her appointment as engaging in “vile online abuse”. Online abuse is abhorrent, but characterising criticism as “abuse” is a distraction from legitimate criticism.
Steele-John, who is one of eight committee members, told Green Left that having disabled advocates leading a review into the NDIS does matter.
Asked about autistic conversion therapy, Steele-John said it is connected “academically and socially” with conversion therapy and missionaries.
“It’s all about send your child early to this space and we will ‘normalise’ them. They’ll be Black, they’ll always be Black, but they will be able to act like a ‘white’,” he said.
“They may always have feelings for someone of the same sex as themselves, but they’ll be able to repress it, and have a child, and do the white picket fence thing.
“They’ll always be autistic, but they’ll be able to function as a ‘normal human being’.”
Steele-John said he understands where the desire to fund and promote autistic conversion therapy comes from. However, he said that those in positions of power who push for autistic conversion therapy “must reckon with the lived experience and the scientific data”, and “the impact of the treatment” as well as its “long-term mental health effects”.
People in decision-making positions must be challenged to listen to the voices of the community who are saying “this is abusive, I experienced this as abusive”, Steele-Jordon said.
“I understand that if you have made that decision for your child already, you feel a need to defend that position. But that does not absolve you of the need to listen to the affected community.”
Steele-John said the disappointment in the chairs of the NDIS committee was not unexpected. “[Governments’] failure to centre disabled voices is at the heart of why the NDIS has struggled so profoundly,” Steele-John said. Decisions have been poor because “so many” have been made by non-disabled people.
“Labor has failed to draw on the expertise that is inherent in our lived experience. That generates a fear that a lot of these mistakes will continue to be repeated.”
However, Steele-John is hopeful that disabled activism will prevail and improve the NDIS.
“The disability community is so much stronger than before. We are not willing to take scraps off the table anymore. We created our NDIS, we defended our NDIS, and we demand to be at the centre of fixing this process, fixing our scheme.”