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The Ability to Make a Change


Monday, 19th January 2015 at 11:17 am
Xavier Smerdon, Journalist
Craig Wallace has never been one to shy away from a challenge. As the President of People With Disability Australia he represents an entire section of the Australian community. Wallace is this week’s Changemaker.

Monday, 19th January 2015
at 11:17 am
Xavier Smerdon, Journalist


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The Ability to Make a Change
Monday, 19th January 2015 at 11:17 am

Craig Wallace has never been one to shy away from a challenge. As the President of People With Disability Australia he represents an entire section of the Australian community. Wallace is this week’s Changemaker. 

Craig Wallace has used his experience of living with a rare disability to ensure that other people with disability have a voice.

He campaigns for greater services and was pivotal in the creation of the National Disability Insurance Service.

Despite the personal toll his multiple roles have on him, he says that he feels like he is doing what he was always meant to.

What are you working on at People With Disability Australia at the moment?

I actually have two roles, I’m the President of the national peak body for people with disability and I’m also the marketing manager for Nican.

With PWDA we are currently entering the pre-budget cycle, one that doesn’t take too long to get going.

There’s some major reform fronts opening up, we expect to be involved in conversations around welfare reform, tax reform and the wider rollout of the NDIS.

There’s also a lot of change in the advocacy sector at the moment due to the DSS’s new way of working with grants process. A lot of people are feeling a bit rattled and unsettled.

There’s a bit of a note of sadness throughout our sector at the moment too I think because of Stella Young’s death, so we’re entering 2015 in a challenging environment.

I’m keen that this year we will do some really strong advocacy on employment and jobs. I think too often the conversation tends to be about people with disability on welfare and as rorters rather than emphasising what the community and what employers need to do to create jobs.

I’ve also just finished a round of talks and articles that I’ve generally called Disability: Unfinished Business for Australia, and it’s kind of making the point that there is still a lot for us to do post the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

This year PWD are also convening a citizens jury on the NDIS which will be ordinary people having a say about how the NDIS is going from the trial sites.

On the Nican side the Government has not funded our information service. That’s caused us to look around and really reevaluate what we’re doing.

We’ve found that we still need to be doing what we’re doing so we’re very anxiously exploring other options to keep the service going and to make sure that we can still provide that information which is really important under the NDIS.

It’s a challenging but nonetheless exciting time.

When did you find out that the Government was not going to continue funding that service?

We found out two days before Christmas like a lot of other organisations.

It doesn’t make for a good Christmas for anybody but we’re lucky that we’ve got a very resilient crew.

I’ve been in the public service sector and the community service sector for a long time so I’m sort of used to he swings and roundabouts of it, but I don’t think I’ve seen anything quite so brutal and abrupt as some of the funding cuts that we’re seeing now.

What’s your verdict on the way the Government is handling some of the issues in the sector at the moment?

On the disability front what I can say is that whenever there is a change of Government you have things that you are hoping to get out of that new Government.

The things we thought we could get out of the Liberal Government obviously weren’t the same sort of things we knew we could get out of a Labor Government.

What we were hoping that we might get out of the Coalition were some market driven reforms of disability employment services and some action on jobs.

But I have to say I am disappointed that we’re not getting more of that kind of engagement, more of an adult conversation with the Government about the areas we’ve got in common.

They’re simply not talking to us.

That’s why I tentatively welcomed the change in Minister and I said this was a real opportunity for (Social Services Minister Scott) Morrison to start engaging with the disability sector in a meaningful way and bringing us with them.

There are things that we will disagree on, there were things that we disagreed with the last Government on as well, but we attempt to work with the Government of the day the best that we can.

We are finding it difficult with this Government.

Do you mind if I ask you about your own disability? Were you born with that disability?

Yes, I’ve always had a disability. I have a very rare condition called Central Core Seize which our family was actually one of the first in the world to be diagnosed with.

It’s a rare form of Muscular Dystrophy and myself and my brother and other members of my family have got it.

Have you always required the use of a wheelchair?

I used to walk but only with crutches.

I was never able to walk unaided and it was really clunky walking with crutches and in some ways using a wheelchair was quite a liberating thing because I wasn’t able to walk well at all.

Obviously people with disability in Australia face more challenges than people without a disability, but have you found that it has stopped you from achieving the things you want to achieve, or is Australia a fairly good country to live in if you have a disability?

One of the things that inspired me to get involved in disability advocacy is the fact that it can be quite a hard road.

I went to special schools. I spent some time in institutional environments on and off. I had a really poor educational experience as a result of disability and it’s those kind of pervasive barriers that you encounter every day.

I think it causes you to get to a point where you look around and say “is this actually the best there is and could we be doing better?”

For me the lights went on when I started looking around and asking questions about how well they do stuff in America and the United Kingdom and I realised that Australia seemed to be really behind the eight ball.

What were you doing before you entered the disability sector?

I actually started out in the public sector where I learned a lot of things. I spent about 15 years in the Australian public sector after graduating from university.

I had a background in student politics before that so I guess the representational bug has never left me.

I learned a lot of technical skills in public service, like how Governments work, and I did get to a point when disability started to come onto the boil again.

I worked in a lot of non-disability policy areas like housing and youth and when in about 2007 and 2008 disability started to become a public policy issue again I thought should I make the leap now and try to provide some leadership and some of those skills in the disability advocacy sector.

I thought to myself, how would I feel if I got to 70-years-old and I’d squibbed the opportunity to take a leadership role at the very moment that it was needed.

My philosophy was to come in at the right time with the skills that I thought were needed and to make a difference at the time when it was at the front rank of public issues.

Do you find being the President of PWDA challenging?

To be honest, yes.

I think in the past leadership in the disability community looked very different. We weren't in the front rank of the media cycle, there wasn’t a lot of public interest in what people did and there wasn’t a lot of accountability.

Part of what I’ve consciously done is make myself very available on social media and in the general media so that people know that I’m accessible.

However, ordinary people feel that they own you, that they’ve got a stake in what you do and you should be on tap 24/7.

That has got costs as well personally because it means that you need to be able to go at a moments notice.

My philosophy particularly with the media is that part of it is about turning up and being available.

For me it’s just been about accepting that this is our moment, this is out time, you just put other things aside and go for it.

You don’t often get the chance to just get into something that you are good at.

On a personal note, what do you consider your greatest achievement to be?

I actually think by far, I’m not saying it’s the thing we’ve put the most work into, but the best thing we’ve done in the last couple of years is we ignited the debate about funding for the NDIS through the Medicare levy back in 2013.

I wrote an article in the Financial Review in the lead up to the Budget that said it was time to consider the funding word.

Up until then funding hadn’t been mentioned. We didn’t want to talk about it and we didn’t want to confront it.

We didn’t want to start talking about taxation because of the discussion around the Carbon Tax, there was a view that it was toxic.

I made a decision that it actually was the right time to start talking about funding, to go out there and call for this to be funded through a levy and to ignite that debate.

Once we set fire to it, it just rolled and rolled and rolled. It gave people permission to do something that they already wanted to do.

Our gamble that the Australian people would see the common sense in this paid off and they supported it.

That means that the NDIS is very hard to remove because there is a funding pipeline that goes to the States and Territories in perpetuity. It binds the Australian people to the NDIS.

Without a doubt I think the most significant thing of my Presidency has been kicking off that debate.

How do you think the rollout of the NDIS is going so far?

On the positive side, they’re getting the packages out, there’s no cost blowouts.

My concerns are turning to the withdrawal of some State and Territory services outside of the launch sites too soon.

It’s almost like the States and Territories are saying “OK, we’ve done it, we’ve got this NDIS going, we no longer need to do stuff”.

The reality is this is a trial in seven jurisdictions around Australia and some of them are geographically limited. That is not a reason for the States to start pulling out services before they’re ready all over Australia.  

Some of the problems we get when that starts happening is that people assign that to the NDIS and they think that it is the NDIS that is causing those services to be withdrawn.

What can people without disability do better to help people with disability?

What I would like to know is two things. I think we need to know a lot more about what community attitudes towards people with disability actually are.

Unlike the UK for instance, we do not do benchmarked research on what the attitudes of the community are.

The biggest set of attitudes that I think need to change is the idea that people with disability are objects of pity and charity who cannot take part in the workforce and make a meaningful contribution through, volunteering and ordinary activity.

I think there is a kind of dichotomy in public attitudes towards people with disability – we’re either super-humans like the Paralympians, or people are just at home on welfare not making a contribution.

The reality is the disability community is so much more diverse than that. That’s the story we’re not getting out there.

That was some of the great work that Stella Young did. She advocated for a change of attitudes, didn’t she?

Yes she did, but she actually did so much more than that.

She managed to change the language and change the culture around disability.

That’s why I think that Stella is the preeminent advocate of our generation. She actually got people thinking and talking about disability in a mainstream sense.

She cut through in ways that simply hadn’t done before using terms like “inspiration porn”.

She created a conversation that we needed to have but had been afraid to have within the disability community about whether this was a tragedy in our lives or whether we should have some pride in our own identity.

Stella came strongly down on the idea that disability is an identity. It’s like being black or being LGBTI. It is a legitimate part of the Australian diaspora and we are here, we have a right to be here and we should be proud of who we are and what we’ve achieved.

People had said bits of that along the way but nobody captured it like Stella and personified it like she did.

What would you like to achieve ultimately through the work you're doing?

What I would actually like to see is that we actually have a really different approach and attitude to people with disability in Australia, that people with disability have economic opportunities and jobs into the future, that we have a NDIS that is settled and blended and that we finally break through on some of the entrenched community barriers.

I would like to see disability rights to be big bold mainstream, bipartisan and recognised.

I’d like it to be the kind of mainstream iconic force that no one messes with again.

Part of the problem is that disability has been bracketed as a narrow issue when in fact disability is within one or two degrees of separation from all of us.


Xavier Smerdon  |  Journalist |  @XavierSmerdon

Xavier Smerdon is a journalist specialising in the Not for Profit sector. He writes breaking and investigative news articles.

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One Comment

  • It's been very interesting to read Craig Wallace's interview. However, I had problems to read such small print – and I am not vision impaired, and use only reading glasses. I've only notice for he first time, that your website doesnt have a mechanism for enlarging print – and when you do interviews , why isnt audio provided so that vision impaired people can listen ? Many thanks, SLG

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