Power to the Poor – Silent No More Conference

Speech to the Power to Poor – Silent No More Conference
October 21, 2016

Thanks for inviting me along today.  I’m Kelly Vincent, Dignity for Disability’s member of the Legislative Council.  I acknowledge that we meet today on Kaurna land.

I will start by sharing a little of my journey of advocacy and something about my party and my work in parliament.    I will then lead on with a few thoughts about current government policy, and the barriers to inclusion and employment for people with disabilities, and I hope this gets you thinking about how we can be empowered to create the future we want.

Dignity for Disability is a small, South Australian based political party and I am the sole elected representative so far.  We hold regular fundraisers to support our election campaigns, and I will be up for re-election in 2018.

Since I was elected to Parliament in 2010, I have been inundated by constituents seeking advocacy on every issue you can imagine – mostly relating to disability in some way.

I should point out that my work covers the full gamut of portfolio areas, and that as an upper house MP I represent the whole of South Australia.

It is a huge workload, managing the parliamentary commitments, constituent matters, invitations to events and also keeping an eye on the horizon for the policy development we need to create ongoing positive change.

As I mentioned, because I am a member of the legislative council I represent all South Australians.

I regularly get calls from people requiring advocacy on issues, advice around legislation or policy, or other broader systemic matters surrounding disability.

These could include viewing matters through a disability lens in health, transport, housing, the justice system, discrimination, employment, education, disability services, planning and universal design, and well pretty much anything else you can think of.

I am sorry to say that in our society, most people with a disability live in poverty.  Forty eight percent of those living on the Disability Support Pension live below the poverty line, according to ACOSS.

ACOSS also found that the higher than average risk of poverty for people with a disability is likely to be due in large part to what is describe as our “weaker employment prospects”.

I’d like to share something I found in The Canberra Times that made me think about one possibility for citizen action.

It’s the story of a university student, Tom Wade, who found the process of trying to get in touch with Centrelink frustrating.

So he set about using the Commonwealth government directory to contact senior executives in the Department of Human Services.

Instead of calling the general inquiries phone number and waiting ages, Mr Wade found going to the top actually worked for him.  I guess he was gaming the system.

Naturally, you will understand the department is not enthusiastic about what we could call the Wade Method, because naturally they prefer people to go through the usual channels.  Based on his experience, Tom Wade has now encouraged other frustrated clients to take their grievances up Centrelink’s food chain.

The way I see it, Tom’s is basically a method of civil disobedience, and why not.

When people are frustrated, ignored, treated as second-class citizens and at risk of severe life impact due to bureaucratic processes and decisions, why not move up the food chain and cause trouble?

As an MP this may not appear to be a very responsible suggestion.  But after the year that has seen the crash of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) computer system result in initial denial and a raft of platitudes from those responsible, I don’t think passively waiting in line for your call to be answered cuts it any more.

Some of you may not be aware of what happened when the NDIS rolled out their new My Place web portal, because in the case of SA,  it only affected the first recipients of NDIS services – young children and their families.

Not being able to access the computer system left people on both sides of the financial transaction, that is service providers and families, out of pocket, and it took a lot of time for individuals to work out what was happening even to be able to make a complaint (and of course that system was also broken).

Now, the NDIS is enthusiastically and wholeheartedly supported by Dignity for Disability, let there be no doubt about that, and over time we have helped many families and service providers to work through the issues this computer fiasco brought about.  But the point here is that the system was broken, communication was broken, and people’s lives needed to go on.  So there are times when escalating a complaint, or going up the food chain is the appropriate response.

Of course when it comes to financial support for adults with disabilities, the elephant in the room is the massive federal government crackdown on the Disability Support Pension.

Just when you think they can’t tighten the process any more, they come up with a new way to reduce access and tighten eligibility requirements.  The last federal budget announced that thirty thousand Disability Support Pensioners are to be downgraded onto the Newstart payment.

It’s not acceptable, and it is happening now to people who have no prospect of gaining employment, and for whom the compliance with Newstart is simply not possible.  Currently, only about fifteen per cent of applicants are granted the DSP.  That figure is down from thirty per cent in the previous financial year.  The vast majority are rejected.

This government policy is going to have a big impact on recipients of the Disability Support Pension who have had their payments reviewed.  We know that increasingly high numbers of applicants are being rejected for the Disability Pension, and that over one-quarter of Newstart recipients have a diagnosed disability.

In Australia, eighty two per cent of people without a disability are in the workforce, compared to only fifty three percent of those who have disabilities.

I am sorry to say that a recent Australian survey actually showed that fewer people with disabilities are participating in the workforce than they were 20 years ago.

It feels at times as though we are slipping backwards, because by some measures we are.  The statistics indicate that there are still significant barriers to people with disabilities getting a job, and importantly getting a position that provides them with a living wage.

Some of those barriers are physical – ramps, adjustable desks, screen readers and accessible toilets – the everyday practical kind of things.  Transport to and from work can also be a barrier to overcome.  But the bigger issue, and the one that can’t be seen, is the attitudinal barriers that people with disabilities face from potential employers and workmates.

Now, I think it can be said that politically I don’t have much in common with George W. Bush, former President of the United States, but he used a phrase to describe institutional discrimination and bias that seems as apt today as when he spoke it, back in 2000.  He described it as the “soft bigotry of low expectations” – the soft bigotry of low expectations.  And that is out there, right now, as I speak in 2016 and it is forming a barrier around people with disability every day and in all aspects of their lives.

So, when it comes to employment it seems that there exists this culture of low expectation, there is also fear, and there a view that it is absolutely fine to pay someone with a disability three dollars (or less) an hour when the rest of us are supported by laws that guarantee us a minimum wage.

Time and time again I hear about the resistance, ignorance and outright prejudice of employers when it comes to having a conversation around employing people with disabilities.

Employing people with disabilities works on both a social and economic level, because it has been shown that increased diversity in the workplace leads to measurable bottom line business benefits.

The Australian Network on Disability states:

“The benefits of employing people with disability are immediate and measurable. An Australian Government review of research found that workers with disability are no more likely to be injured at work than other employees.  Similarly, studies conducted in Australia and overseas have found no differences in performance and productivity, and found that employees with disability actually have fewer scheduled absences as well as increased tenure.  On average, employing people with disability does not cost any more than employing people without disability.  Assistance with the cost of making workplace adjustments is available through the Australian Government funded Workplace Modifications Scheme.”

So if an employer is looking at two potential employees, and one has a disability, statistically they will be more loyal, and take less leave than the other candidate.  These statistics need to be widely available, it is a story we need to be promoting more.  And what better way to do that than by asking employees with disabilities to share their experiences.

In Australia we have an ageing community; it is estimated that four in ten workers will be aged 45 or over by 2020.   We know that disability increases with age, so clearly there are some significant workplace implications with this ageing workforce that will increasingly include more people with disabilities.

Australia is also facing skills shortages, and economically, our employers and service providers simply cannot afford to ignore this substantial market segment of the community.

The most significant barrier for people with disability, however, continues to be stereotypical assumptions and attitudes of employers about what people with disability can and cannot do.

It is clear that people with disabilities must have equal work opportunities and equal pay when they perform work of equal value.

We also need systems in place to provide technical and vocational guidance, ongoing access to vocational training, support through adequate and appropriate placement services, work experience through the open labour market as well as ‘on-the-job’ support and training.

But not all of what needs to change is centered around the person with disabilities, because we need to overcome these barriers of ignorance in the community.

We need to identify the thoughts that are preventing some employers from taking on staff with disabilities.

The education system at school and university level needs to include modules on understanding people with disabilities.

We need to de-mystify disability and ensure ongoing disability awareness training in both the public and private sector.  And can I add there, disability awareness training needs to be more than box ticking, and if I may be frank: arse covering, and cut and pasting disability access and inclusion plans.

Valid, respectful disability awareness training is urgently needed.

As Tom Wade found, the personal is political.  I will leave you with my three keys to getting it right, whoever you are and whatever you are dealing with.

They are: “fairness, innovation, and respect”.

Fairness, because everyone deserves a fair go.

Innovation, because we need to collaborate to discover the synergy of creative solutions, and

Respect, because, – it doesn’t matter whether or not you can help someone, showing them respect means we can all hold our heads high.

We are all in this together, times are certainly tough, but I hope we can take every opportunity to set ourselves the highest standards.