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Fighting for First Australians


Monday, 11th January 2016 at 11:35 am
Xavier Smerdon, Journalist
Damian Griffis has spent his life representing some of Australia’s most disadvantaged people – indigenous Australians with disability. Griffis is this week’s Changemaker. He spoke to Xavier Smerdon.

Monday, 11th January 2016
at 11:35 am
Xavier Smerdon, Journalist


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Fighting for First Australians
Monday, 11th January 2016 at 11:35 am

Damian Griffis has spent his life representing some of Australia’s most disadvantaged people  –  indigenous Australians with disability. Griffis is this week’s Changemaker. He spoke to Xavier Smerdon.

As the CEO of the First People’s Disability Network Australia (FPDN), Damian Griffis is at the coalface of “one of the most critical social justice issues in Australia today”.

A Worimi man who spent many of his formative years with a profoundly hearing impaired relative, Griffis has dedicated more than 20 years fighting for the rights of people with disability.

As Australia gears up to welcome the rollout of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS), Griffis says it is vital that the country’s first people did not miss out on the $22 billion scheme's benefits.

In this week’s Changemaker column he talks about what inspires him, what frustrates him and what Australia needs to do to ensure it does not ignore a severely disadvantaged group of citizens.

What does the FPDN do?

We’re a national organisation representing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability and their families. We’re an organisation that tries to be a voice of and for Aboriginal people with disability. We’re essentially and advocacy organisation and we also do a lot of education, training and community forums raising awareness about disability in our communities.

Tell me about your personal experience with disability and being an indigenous man.

I’ve worked in the area of disability since I left school, so for more than 20 years now. I spent a lot of time around a grandmother who’s profoundly hearing impaired. To me disability is not something particularly different really. I guess I’ve always been motivated by social justice and in a lot of ways it’s hard to think of any more disadvantaged Australians than Aboriginal people living with disability. That’s what’s always motivated me to work in this area.

What kind of barriers face indigenous Australians with disability?

We would say that meeting the needs of Aboriginal people with disability is probably one of the most critical social justice issues in Australia today. Most Aboriginal people with disability deal with discrimination based either on their Aboriginality and/or disability. They’re often facing double disadvantage and generally what the problems relate to is a lack of resources to appropriately support Aboriginal people with disability within the communities that they live. They often experience discrimination within the wider Australian community and often lack opportunity to participate in the education system and in employment in any meaningful way.

How difficult is it to get the broader community to pay attention to those issues?

Historically I think disability hasn’t had enough of a profile in Australia until very recently. Until the advent of the NDIS, that’s certainly seen a much greater profile on the needs and the rights of people with disability, which is absolutely how it should be. I think a lot of Australians probably believe that people with disability have been well supported, but that’s not the reality. In an Aboriginal context it’s the same in many ways.

There’s very high rates of disability in our communities and a lot of Aboriginal people with disability are supported by their family members or in an appropriate way in the sense that they’re not actively discriminated against. But what a lot of communities lack is the resources to be able to provide meaningful support. When I say resources it might even be as simple as footpaths in remote communities for people who are wheelchair users and may not even be able to move around their communities. For another example, there simply does not exist an accessible transport option for Aboriginal people who use wheelchairs.

The NDIS will be rolled out this July. How is this going to affect indigenous people with disability?

The NDIS has got great potential to make really meaningful change in the lives of many of our people with disability but at this stage it’s just that, it’s just potential. It is one of the most significant social reforms in Australia’s history really so what’s really critical is that Aboriginal people with disability have their rightful place in terms of accessing the scheme. For that to be able to happen we developed a 10 point plan for the implementation of the NDIS in Aboriginal communities and a lot of that talked about the need for a concerted outreach approach in terms of engaging with communities so that they can understand their rights and entitlements under the scheme.

But there’s going to need to be very significant investment, particularly at the front end, so that our people with disability can learn how to access the scheme and get what they’re entitled to out of it. It does have very significant potential, no doubt about that, but I guess we want to move beyond potential now and start seeing meaningful change.

Are there challenges around ensuring that indigenous people don’t miss out on the benefits of the NDIS?

We’re very concerned about that because I think the scheme at the moment is such that if you’ve had some previous experience with the disability service system then you’ll more likely be able to get a meaningful outcome for yourself or your family member. A lot of Aboriginal people with disability have been at the periphery of the disability services system, so they don’t have a lot of experience in engaging with services or even with a lot of the language within the sector.

Again, we have to invest significantly in raising awareness of the scheme and raising awareness of how people can use the scheme for their benefit, but if that’s invested in then within a generation I’d hope we’d be able to see some really meaningful change, particularly for our people with disability who live in regional and remote Australia.

Why have you dedicated such a large part of your life advocating for the rights of indigenous people with disability?

I’m personally motivated by wanting to see justice. I had that personal experience of spending a lot of time with a grandmother who is profoundly hearing impaired and that taught me a lot about how isolated she was as an individual and how isolated she felt as a person with disability.

I just believe in the principle that everyone has their rightful place in the world and everyone’s entitled to their rightful place in the world. I’m also very personally concerned, and so is my organisation, about how very seriously disadvantaged Aboriginal people with disability are in Australia. If more Australians knew about that then I think more people would share the same concerns that I have and my organisation has.

How many indigenous Australians with disability are there thought to be in Australia?

This is the staggering thing. At least 50 per cent of Aboriginal people have some form of disability or long term health condition, according to the 2011 census. This is not a fringe issue impacting on a small number of people, this is a major issue. That 50 per cent is actually considered to be a conservative figure because it doesn’t include a measure on the prevalence of psychosocial disability or mental illness.

This is a major issue. It’s been historically viewed as a health issue and disability isn’t a health issue at all, disability is fundamentally a social justice and rights based issue. There’s much to be done in this area, there’s some very serious concerns about the number of Aboriginal people with disability who are in prisons around Australia, for example. That’s just one issue that’s just starting to get more attention. This is not a fringe issue, it’s a major one.

What frustrates you the most about the present and makes you most hopeful for the future?

I’m always frustrated by the pace of bureaucracy and the lack of urgency. I think bureaucracies are inherently very slow and cumbersome and that’s a constant frustration. It’s been a frustration of mine for about 15 years. Bureaucracy when it does get behind an idea then expects you to operate very quickly, so it’s quite odd. That constantly frustrates me.

I’m hopeful about the National Disability Insurance Scheme. At its heart it has a self determination approach to its design. That gives me great hope.

I’m always reminded of the extraordinary resilience of Aboriginal people with disability and that gives me great hope that within a generation or so more and more Aboriginal people with disability will be taking their rightful place in Australian society.


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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