Time for us to all do better

Dept of Social Services

This week has been one of the most memorable and exciting moments in my time in politics.

I made an exciting announcement about significant disability leadership appointments for the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

The NDIS supports almost 535,000 Australians with permanent and significant disability and is overseen by a chair and a 12 member board of directors.

Kurt Fearnley AO will lead the NDIS board as Chairman, and Graeme Innes AM and Maryanne Diamond AO have also been appointed as NDIS board members.

It is the first time ever to have an NDIS Chairman with disability and it is the first time ever there are five people with disability on the NDIS board.

The disability sector has been calling for more disability representation in leadership positions, and the announcement made this week is, I hope, just the beginning.

The positive reaction all over Australia tells me that we’re heading in the right direction, and during the media announcement itself, Kurt had some powerful words.

“The single greatest role that I have ever even considered is the one that is right here today. To potentially see people with disabilities look at the scheme and see themselves as chair, as a chunk of the board, I think that’s an exciting time… the hope, I think that I had while we were lobbying for the NDIS, the hope that I had as an independent adviser is still there. It hasn’t changed. The country needs an NDIS that is trusted, that is efficient, that is effective and I hope that I can play a part in that.”

The world is wide awake to changing attitudes and perspectives. Some call this political correctness but in my view, the trait to be more open minded to the way others think is a sign of intelligence and empathy.

This has been a long time coming, and to the naysayers, you should know it’s only going to ramp up.

Some milestones we’ve supported are a decent wage rise for millions of workers, an Indigenous Voice to Parliament, increased paternal leave, cheaper child care and the establishment of an anti-corruption commission.

Things are happening in the NDIS but the important announcement I made this week was almost derailed because of a lack of understanding.

As Minister for the NDIS, I hear regularly from the disability sector and work closely with many people with disability. A common conversation I have revolves around the need to improve of awareness and understanding on how to make the community more inclusive and accessible.

This year’s Australia of the Year Dylan Alcott said in his acceptance speech: “It’s time for you to challenge your unconscious biases, leave your negative perceptions at the door and lift your expectation of what you think people with disability can do. Because it’s always more than you think.”

I think Dylan is one of many people shattering the glass ceiling to make you, make all of us, realise we have work to do to make sure anyone, regardless of their ability, has equal access to their life and to their world.

Dr Innes almost couldn’t make the announcement this week when an airline refused entry on the plane for his guide dog. Even more frustrating was to know it was only in April this year, Dr Innes experienced discrimination while transiting through Adelaide Airport.

It is madness that we are in 2022 and this blatant display of disability discrimination is still happening. I can’t imagine how distressing and humiliating this would be, and I am publicly calling for all companies, big and small, to pull up their socks and get with the program.

In most cases, a magnifying circumstance is that discrimination often occurs for something people with disability cannot be without. In Dr Innes’ case, his blindness means his guide dog helps him to navigate the world and to live his life. It was only last month I met with Vision Australia to discuss their concerns about the difficulties people with vision impairment or who are blind face with the NDIS. They currently experience long delays and confusing barriers.

Working with the disability sector, the NDIA and I want to change this so the NDIS participants who are eligible for an assistance animal can get one in straightforward and timely way. Each dog goes through rigorous training and is matched to a person. They help with their daily tasks and offer the perfect blend of independence and companionship. The dog is an extension of their handler and it is dumbfounding that people think it’s no problem to separate them.

The discriminatory experiences of Dr Innes and countless other people with disability shows how much more people need to learn to even get the basics right on disability. It also shows a glaring gap of education and training that companies need to fill with their staff, regardless of industry.

I will say the collective understanding of accessibility and inclusion for people with disability is improving, but I know we can do better.

So I call on all Australians (and especially all airlines) to do better to improve their treatment of people with disability and challenge their unconscious biases.

Any one of us or our loved ones could have a disability. No one is born knowing everything but by trying to do our best, we help each other along the way.

This opinion piece was first published in The West Australian on Wednesday 28 September 2022.

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