Friday, 9 April 2010
How One Person Might Change the Landscape for the Disabled
When she was asked to run as the Dignity for Disability party’s second candidate in last month’s election, Kelly Vincent was told she would not have to do much.
However, the death of lead candidate Dr Paul Collier days before the election thrust the young Ms Vincent into the spotlight, and yesterday she was elected to serve an eight-year term representing people with disabilities in the state’s Upper House.
At 21, she is the first person in a wheelchair to be elected to the South Australian Parliament, the youngest elected to the South Australian Parliament, the youngest elected Upper House MP in Australia’s history and the youngest female ever elected to an Australian parliament.
About 8 per cent of the population live with some form of disability, including about 20,000 people with serious and multiple disabilities, and Ms Vincent now holds their hopes for more understanding and support.
However, Dignity for Disability founder David Holst has warned against piling too much pressure on her young shoulders.
“Her election will deliver great outcomes in the future but people need to make sure they do not have unfairly high expectations of Kelly,” he said.
“You can’t change 30 years of systemic and chronic underfunding overnight.”
However, installing the first successful candidate to run on a disability platform in Parliament has sent a message to all sides of politics that disability policies and funding are not up to par. D4D says it is “our first step in bringing the often disconnected disability community together to effect real changes for people living with disabilities”.
The first changes are already happening – inside Parliament House. The North Terrace building can be a confusing rabbit warren at the best of times and some fundamental alterations are needed to accommodate Ms Vincent and her wheelchair.
Asked what her first priority would be on entering Parliament, she quipped: “It starts with finding my office.”
Ms Vincent said the House was “not as unwelcoming as you might think” and “some great work has already been undertaken to make the previously inaccessible areas more accessible”.
Legislative Council President Bob Sneath said changes had “already started”, with new disabled toilets and ramps being put in place outside the chamber and a specially made desk designed to accommodate a wheelchair to be installed inside.
“Her office will be on the lower level near the entrance she uses to come into Parliament House,” Mr Sneath said. “I just hope that when we’re allocating offices some of the able-bodied people in there will be tolerant and we might have to shift a few of them around to accommodate her and that’s what I’ll be doing, whether they like it or not.
“Now we’ve got a permanent person there elected for eight years we’ve got to make it as comfortable as possible for her and there’s got to be some changes and, yes, it probably is time that we made it even better for handicapped people.
“We’ve got everything moving for her to make her as comfortable as possible.”
Mr Sneath agreed Ms Vincent’s election sent a message about the public’s support for a greater emphasis on disability issues.
“It’s an area I’m sure all politicians from all sides think is very important. And now Kelly’s in there they’ve got a voice in Parliament and I’m sure there’ll be people tapping on her door to see what she wants and see what can be done to better their lives,” he said.
Asked her thoughts on the state’s Disability Minister, Jennifer Rankine, Ms Vincent conceded she “as many people in the disability sector do, has some unhappiness about the current services, but that is essentially why I and D4D as a party exist”.
“I’m not here to whinge. All I can do is say this is the way things are and what can we do to improve it,” she said.
Ms Rankine said she looked forward to working with Ms Vincent on “a range of important issues including the needs of people in the disability sector”. Former Liberal disabilities spokesman and now Opposition attorney-general spokesman Stephen Wade said an MP who had “lived experience” of disability would now inform all policy and legislation in a way that could not be done by existing parliamentarians. “The South Australian Parliament and legislation will be better for it,” he said.
“Disability will be a major focus in the next Parliament and I’m confident we’ll be able to see real outcomes and improvements.”