Australia ratified the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD) over four years ago and designated the Attorney-General with responsibility for overseeing and coordinating its implementation (article 33 CRPD) – an obligation it shares with the Department of Families, Housing, Community Services and Indigenous Affairs (FaHCSIA). Since 2008 the Federal Government has designed the National Disability Strategy to implement the human rights embodied in the CRPD and recently initiated the National Disability Insurance Scheme to finally provide choice and control in disability services and supports for people with disability. So as AG for the day I might be tempted to take the opportunity to make a few calls to people with disability and ask them how they thought we’d been performing, to find out what we could be doing better, and to enjoy the feedback earned from a job well on its way to being done. The day may well start slowly, however, as I flick through my contact list to realise I don’t have any people with disability on my speed dial, and then frustration would set in as the representative organisations of people with disability that I called replied that they were too busy to speak to me; a sorry situation for an AG responsible for “closely consulting with and actively involving persons with disability in the development and implementation of legislation and policies” (article 4 CRPD). Perhaps then I’d begin to understand the seriousness of my obligation to effectively and meaningfully engage with people with disability, the detrimental impact on people with disability of the failure to do this well, and the obstacle that poor consultation processes become in realising the human rights of people with disability.
In Australia today it is possible for parents with disability to have their children removed at birth, for girls and women with disability to be sterilised without their informed consent, for people with intellectual disability to be imprisoned indefinitely, for people with psychosocial disability to be detained if they don’t take their medication as prescribed, and there are frequent cases of children with disability being restrained by their teachers as a punishment for challenging behaviour in school. These are flagrant abuses of human rights and they happen every day. So why is it so important for government to spend time and money to consult people with disability, when it is so clear that practices such as these are wrong?
It’s important because a person with disability would likely not choose to create the laws that permit such practices. It’s important because the laws which permit these practices can only be created, and can only persist, when people with disability are excluded from decision-making processes. It’s important because without the full and effective political participation of people with disability there will be no significant change, and it’s important because the failure of government to support people with disability to speak up or to listen to their voice when they do implies contentment with the status quo.
The obligation to consult with people with disability is not a difficult one for government to discharge, but it does require planning, time and a serious intent to do it well. Luckily, Australia is a wealthy country with adequate human and financial resources to commit to such endeavours; less impressive is the fact that nearly half of all Australians with disability live on or below the poverty line.
Task 1 then is straightforward: for engagement to be adequate it should be conducted where, when and how it is suitable for people with disability and not the other way around. The traditional style of public forum where all are invited but few can attend is not satisfactory, and reeks of tokenism. Short timeframes, ad hoc invitations to meetings in buildings which are not accessible, to comment on materials that are also inaccessible are obvious no-nos. The internet is useful but computers don’t have “listening ears”; face-to-face is always better.
Task 2 is again simple: for engagement to be meaningful governments need to consult with and involve actual people with disability(!), as well as the most appropriate representative organisations for the purpose at hand. It’s estimated that 20 percent of Australians either have or will at some stage in their life acquire a disability, the statistic alarmingly rising to 40 percent for Aboriginal and Torres Straight Islanders. But these 4 million people are not an homogenous group, and it’s no good applying a “one size fits all” model of engagement; a person who becomes paraplegic as a consequence of a car crash at age 40 has different needs, concerns, aspirations and life experiences to a 10-year-old child who was born with a cognitive impairment as a result of foetal alcohol syndrome.
The decision as to which individuals or groups represent the views and opinions of people with disability should be re-negotiated in every instance. The process should be open and transparent, based on merit, expertise and life experience, and unrelated to any existing contractual arrangements with government. Not all people with disability need to be consulted all of the time, but the same people with disability must not be consulted every time. Relying on the voices of the loudest or most organised people and organisations dilutes the integrity of the process. Moreover, outsourcing consultation processes to the disability sector curtails their independence, and puts the onus on people with disability to achieve successful outcomes when it is the responsibility of government to gather quality, inclusive, timely and relevant input.
Task 3 requires a little more effort: in order to actively involve people with disability in the policy process government needs to build the skills and capacity of people with disability (including self-advocates, user-groups and independent disabled peoples organisations) to advocate for their human rights effectively at community, state and federal levels, to share knowledge, develop leaders, collaborate successfully with others, plan strategically, and to have the confidence to challenge exclusion, lobby the government to initiate change based on their own priorities, and to bring about systemic change.
Task 4 will only be achieved when tasks 1, 2 and 3 are executed sufficiently: for engagement to be effective people with disability must be and feel listened to, and see recognition of their concerns reflected back through policy and legislation that respects their right to political participation on an equal basis with others (article 29 CRDP). Participation must be empowering and produce ownership of ideas. Intention matters, being asked to merely authorise decisions already made will only result in apathy from people with disability and further disenfranchisement.
In conclusion, if I was AG for a day I’d renew my commitment to people with disability by prioritising their political participation and active involvement in the policy process above all other concerns. At its heart, “close consultation” is about building trust with people with disability who have a long history of social, political, economic and cultural invisibility. Silenced through exclusionary and restrictive practices, their needs have remained unaddressed and their human rights unfulfilled. Involving people with disability in the decisions that affect them is not only a necessary human rights practice, or the very least that can be done to begin to address human rights violations; it is the only way to ensure that such abuses will not continue unabated. Yet the conversation is only just beginning, as unfortunately the implementation gap between rights on paper and rights in reality is as wide as ever for people with disability in Australia.
Ngila Bevan is the Advocacy Projects Manager with People with Disability Australia.