Progress, but not for people with disability
27 June 2019 at 7:30 am
When disability activist Asher Wolf received an email days prior to the 2019 Progress Conference asking what her accessibility needs would be, alarm bells started to ring.
“Usually, the best way to do inclusion and access is that it’s already there,” Wolf told Pro Bono News.
“So you don’t ask people if they need a ramp, the ramp is there. You don’t ask people if they need a lift, because the lift and the access to the lift is there already.”
Upon entering the packed Melbourne Town Hall, where the conference was held last week, she realised there was no crowd control.
For an able-bodied person, this might not be more than a minor inconvenience.
But for a person with a disability like Wolf, who has Ehlers-Danlos Syndrome (EDS), it can be seriously dangerous.
“There were people banging into each other because there wasn’t anywhere for people to go,” she said.
“People were also shoved like sardines in the lifts, and I was shoved to the back of the lift, with a fractured shoulder and my arm in a sling.
“It’s one of those things where you think that if you’re at a conference with a whole lot of people who work in progressive organisations, they would see a woman with her arm in a sling and not shove her.”
Wolf was not the only person with disability who said they were made to feel unwelcome at Progress, which the event description said aimed to: “showcase ideas to drive change and grow the impact of organisations in the civil society space”.
El Gibbs, head of media and communications for People With Disability Australia, said on Twitter that she found the first day of Progress so difficult she ended up leaving early.
“I am angry about being excluded yet again; angry about finding access to be so marginal; angry that disability rights are so absent; angry that all that I do is missing from a progressive event,” Gibbs said.
Carly Findlay, a disability activist and an official speaker at the event, also described the poor levels of access and inclusion on Twitter.
“There were no ramps for the stages. No Auslan interpreters that I saw. The crowds were huge. People had to disclose their disability to get easy access to the town hall. The lighting on stage was both too bright and too dim to read. Lifts were hard to navigate to,” Findlay said.
The organisation behind the event, Centre for Australian Progress (CAP), issued an apology for the poor access and inclusion, and asked Findlay to speak to the issues on the second day.
Findlay said in her speech that while the apology was welcome, it was hollow if there was no action, particularly because the same issues of access and inclusion had been raised at the last conference in 2017.
“A lack of improvement around access since last Progress shows that we are not listened to, that our work goes unnoticed,” Findlay said.
She said that it shouldn’t be up to people with disability to advocate at events when they encountered poor access.
“I don’t feel I can enjoy myself at a conference like Progress. I’m always waiting for disability rights and access to be mentioned, and I’m always noticing and vocalising the inaccessibility. I’m always worried that the disabled and chronically ill community that I am a part of and cherish are ok,” she said.
“This isn’t a way to have a good time. This is a huge amount of emotional labour. Today was supposed to be my day off.”
She said that change needed to be enacted within the entire civil society space to create better accessibility and inclusion.
“Employ disability access consultants and disabled staff. Ensure your board has a disabled person. Plan and budget for accessibility from the start,” she said.
Wolf also said it was important to recognise that issues around inclusion and access were a problem for the entire progressive space, and not just limited to Progress.
“Inclusion and accessibility within Australia’s NGO sector is often limited to what’s easy and what’s tokenistic, rather than universal regards to working with people who often face really tough challenges,” she said.
She said she had experienced this personally.
“One of the last jobs I got before I got diagnosed with EDS I had to quit because I was severely ill… they said that when I had it under control could I please come back,” she said.
“That was over a year and a half ago, and I never heard from them again. The reality is that it’s very nice [to pay] lip service to inclusion, but when the practical realities of working with people with disabilities are actually raised with progressive organisations they’re very stand-offish. It’s very much an afterthought and it’s very tokenistic.”
She said that putting people with disability at the centre, and asking them what worked best was the only way forward.
“Good allyship is centering the needs of people other than yourself, and what that means is asking them what they need rather than going out and deciding what you think would work best,” she said.
In a formal apology regarding inclusion and accessibility at Progress 2019, issued on Wednesday, CAP pledged a number of ways it would improve the program for 2021.
Kirsty Albion, the deputy director of CAP, told Pro Bono News that while they had measures in place to make the venue accessible and inclusive, they were not best practice.
“We should have done the work to get ourselves training, especially off the back of the feedback from the last program… and in the future we will engage experts within the people with disability community to make sure that accessibility is prioritised and adequate,” Albion said.
“We need to really take the time to listen and learn and foster strong relationships with the disability movements because if we’re failing to do that, we’re failing not just people in the people with disabilities movements, but the broader progressive movement.”
She also said that the voices and experiences from within the disability rights space were not reflected in the programming of the event, which she said the organisation would improve upon next time.
“We had a few great people with disability who presented, but it was nowhere near as prominent as it should have been within the programming because disability affects so many issues from incarceration, to housing, social welfare and tax,” she said.
She said the organisation had similar feedback around First Nations justice following the 2017 conference, and it had worked with First Nations representatives this year to rectify the issues raised. She said the same would be done with the disability community for the future.
“We will work to change this and we hope that Progress 2021 can be deeply grounded in the experience of the people with disabilities community,” she said.
She added that this highlighted an issue the community sector needed to tackle head on.
“We really see our role at Progress as not only building the capacity of movements to create systemic change, but also recognising that we need to think systematically in order to do it.
“There are systemic and structural issues in society where people with disabilities are not included and that is manifested within the broader progressive movement.
“As embarrassing it is to be the ones who have made so many mistakes so prominently in front of 1,500 change makers, we really hope that this will motivate not only us to do a lot better, but a lot of those progressive organisations in the room to do better too.”