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The Voice of the Disability Community Stifled in One Fell Swoop

29 January 2015 at 10:01 am
Lina Caneva
The Federal Department for Social Services approach to funding peak disability bodies discriminates between one type of disability experience and another and results in the “undignified spectacle” of competition for funding, according to Robbi Williams, CEO of disability Not for Profit JFA Purple Orange.

Lina Caneva | 29 January 2015 at 10:01 am


The Voice of the Disability Community Stifled in One Fell Swoop
29 January 2015 at 10:01 am

The Federal Department for Social Services approach to funding peak disability bodies discriminates between one type of disability experience and another and results in the “undignified spectacle” of competition for funding, according to Robbi Williams, CEO of disability Not for Profit JFA Purple Orange. Robbi photo 8.jpg

A person’s voice has greater chance of being heard when connected to the voice of others in similar circumstances. The closer the similarity the stronger the voice. For people in the disability community this has given rise to agencies like Blind Citizens Australia, Deaf Australia and the Deaf Forum of Australia, Physical Disability Australia, Down Syndrome Australia and Brain Injury Australia. These peak bodies serve as a conduit for information and voice. Specialists in their subject matter, these agencies play a critical role in charting the diversity of disability experience.

As people living with disability await the improved life chances promised in the National Disability Insurance Scheme, their presence is critical.  However, two days before Christmas the Commonwealth Government’s Department for Social Services (DSS) stopped their funding, the result of a tender process that saw a reduced pool of funding distributed across fewer agencies.  The Government determined a portion of funding would be reserved for certain disability demographics– children, women, Aboriginal & Torres Strait Islanders, and people from diverse languages and cultures – while all other peak disability agencies would have to compete for the funding remnants.  This approach demanded the undignified spectacle of these groups having to pitch why their voice might be more important than the others.

However, you cannot determine the voice of a person living with Down Syndrome is more or less important than the voice of a person living with Multiple Sclerosis, or that a blind person’s opinion trumps his deaf neighbour.  In its effect the DSS decision effectively discriminates between one type of disability experience and another, contrary to Article 5 of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities where people shall not be discriminated on the basis of disability. In reality, all these voices are important, and the funding should reflect this.

Meanwhile, the Government reserved a portion of this funding for service industry peak body National Disability Services – arguably already well-endowed through other government funding and its own membership revenue – while removing funding from the Disability Advocacy Network of Australia, the collective voice for local disability advocacy groups around Australia who have access to no other significant sources of funding. The Australian Federation of Disability Organisations, the peak forum for agencies governed by people living with disability and their families, has also lost its funding.  The collective voice of service providers is important – Australia’s disability community needs reliable access to skilled and flexible service providers – but it’s hard to see how its voice is more worthy of funding than agencies characterised by the voice, concerns and rights of people living with disability.

Nor is it more important than the voice of people living with intellectual disability, the largest single stakeholder group in the NDIS, and whose collective national voice – Inclusion Australia, formerly the National Council on Intellectual Disability – also lost its funding.  Their work has brought attention to important issues such as inclusive education, individualised supports, decision-making, and fair-waged employment.  That will now be gone.  It is unrealistic to assume other funded agencies will somehow be able to routinely pick up this momentum, because it’s not their history, their network or their expertise.

Whatever issues the Government may have with these agencies, closing off their funding is not the answer; and projected savings will have the tiniest impact on the federal budget. In one fell swoop the decision has removed voices essential to the development of good policy across all areas of government; education, employment, health, transportation and, of course, the NDS and NDIS.

In one fell swoop, the decision undermines disability rights the Australian Government has previously signed up for, including people’s right to join representative organisations – hard to do when such organisations have been removed.

In one fell swoop, the decision removes people’s choice of how and where their voice is heard, on the mistaken conviction representative networks can be allocated to people, instead of being chosen by people.

The decision is catastrophic because it undermines the diverse voices within the disability community at a time when those voices need to be heard the most. The first of the de-funded agencies will fold within weeks; the Australian Government needs to act now to put things right.

About the author: Robbi Williams is the CEO of JFA Purple Orange, the social policy agency of the Julia Farr Association Inc. The organisation is a non-government, social profit organisation that conducts research and engages in dialogue with people with lived experience of disability to develop policy and practice.

Lina Caneva  |  Editor  |  @ProBonoNews

Lina Caneva has been a journalist for more than 35 years. She was the editor of Pro Bono Australia News from when it was founded in 2000 until 2018.

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One comment

  • Jane says:

    I know this is a long article but please read and share it. This action by the Federal Government will have a direct impact on the quality of life for many people with a disability, including our son David. All the work of advocacy and awareness raising we and so many others have put in over time could well be lost. As we grow older I don't think we will always have the capacity to fight his battles. This destruction of advocacy and other agencies is just wanton vandalism on the part of the government whose members show complete ignorance and insensitivity to the needs of people with a disability – I suppose that is just because they are treating all vulnerable groups with the same disregard and lack of compassion. I best stop now before I say something that will get me sued but I will comment that I hold this Federal Government, their members and policies, in total and utter contempt.

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