Journey to making a difference
5 July 2021 at 7:15 pm
As the deputy CEO of the First Peoples Disability Network, Gumbaynggirr Dunghutti woman June Riemer is fighting for a fairer world for Indigenous Australians with disability. She’s this week’s Changemaker.
First Peoples with disability and their families are among the most disadvantaged and disempowered members of the Australian community, with research showing that Aboriginal people with disability are twice as likely to be discriminated against than their non-Aboriginal counterparts.
It’s an issue that June Riemer has dedicated her career to fixing.
After developing a passion for helping people with disability by working in therapy centres and home-care, she’s spent the past decade as the deputy director of the First Peoples Disability Network (FPDN), giving power to those without a voice.
She has taken her advocacy to the United Nations and international forums in the Pacific, and has led national campaigns for better, culturally appropriate access to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS).
In keeping with the 2021 NAIDOC Week theme, Heal Country, Riemer believes taking a holistic approach to health by listening to the needs of First Nations people and prioritising connection to country is the way forward.
In recognition of her work, Riemer was named NSW Aboriginal Woman of the Year at the start of 2021.
In this week’s Changemaker she discusses her journey to FPDN, the importance of listening and learning from those that have come before you, and finding a passion.
You’ve had a career that has spanned decades in the community sector. What drew you to the First Peoples Disability Network?
First off, I’d just like to say I’m a Gumbaynggirr Dunghutti woman from the north coast of New South Wales, so I’d like to acknowledge our elders past and present.
My journey to FPDN was through family connections. I worked in the community service sector with Uncle Lester Bostock, a Bundjalung man who was the founding member of the FPDN. He was one of the first people talking about double disadvantage in Australia. If you’re an Aboriginal in Australia, it’s a disadvantage, but if you’re an Aboriginal person with a disability, it’s a double disadvantage.
I always looked at Uncle Lester as a mentor and keenly listened to his credible words. He was a genius in thinking about how things look different to Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and building the disability sector around that. FPDN got their first money in 2010, and at that time I was working for the New South Wales Council for Social Services and Uncle Lester contacted me and said there was a position with the FPDN and that I should apply. I had always wanted to work for him because I knew that I could learn so much from such a distinguished Elder who had done so much for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
The theme of this year’s NAIDOC Week is Heal Country. What are some of the key messages you’re focusing on at FPDN during the week, and beyond?
At FPDN it’s always about listening and being the representative voice for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability and their families. This year’s NAIDOC theme is really important in that narrative.
We did a research report a couple of years ago called Culture is Inclusion. What that report found was that when people were on country, connected to family, connected to their culture, connected socially and emotionally, their health and wellbeing outcomes improved. But what we found particularly in very rural and remote regions, is that most people with disability had to leave their country to get some form of health support.
FPDN’s journey has always been about being that voice and being that representative body to talk for those people that are unable to have a voice, particularly in government policies. And at the moment, the NDIS is talking about having independent assessments, which we’ve always said will not work for our people. How can you have a stranger who doesn’t know your culture, doesn’t know your country, doesn’t know your connections to that country, come into your home and assess you in a two hour period on what your needs may be or will be into the future. It just doesn’t make sense for any person with disability, let alone Aboriginal people who are strongly connected to family, mob and culture. I don’t believe that our current systems acknowledge culture and country, which is wrong because we all know the best health outcomes are when people are feeling connected emotionally and spiritually.
What are some of the things that have informed your leadership?
For Aboriginal people, it’s always about our Elders and our leaders. So what has informed my work is our founder Uncle Lester Bostock; the previous chairperson and founding Elder, Aunty Gayle Rankin; and our current CEO Damian Griffis. It’s always about listening to those that have come before you. It’s been really important in my journey and in all of the work [that] I’ve done that I sit back and listen, and try to learn what that journey means and hear others that have been around for a long time.
We are lucky enough to be able to go to the United Nations in New York and Geneva every year and listen to the experts there, but also share the stories of the disparity with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living with disability. I, like many Aboriginal people, have family members with disability, so I always see myself as the person with a voice for those who don’t have a voice. My strong fortitude comes from my grandmother and mother that didn’t have the same opportunities to have that voice. It’s really important to remember where you come from and move forward to try and make a difference and open pathways for other people.
And what advice do you have for others wanting to make a change in the world?
I think it’s about never giving up. I only completed up to year 10 at school, but did many courses after school to try to improve my education.
I also think you need to find a passion in life, whatever that passion is, because when you find your passion everything becomes quite easy. That’s not to say that the work we do isn’t hard. The stories we hear are very full on, and we can’t always make change, but I never give up. I’m here for that journey, and I’m happy to mentor the next group of young people coming through that also share that same passion for change.
You may not always see the change you want, but if you feel like you played a small part in making a difference, then that’s the important thing.