In The Media | 13 January 2015

Were disability advocacy groups too successful? It may explain their funding cuts

In the final days of 2014, the meagre funding granted to disability advocacy groups was cut. It ended an annus horribilis for the sector

By Graeme Innes

When there’s cricket on the radio, the sun is shining, and boats and beaches beckon, it’s easy to forget how tough last year was for Australians with disabilities. The final blow from the government, in typical Christmas Grinch style, was the defunding of the peak representative bodies of people with disabilities.

2014 was our annus horribilis.

In May, the Daily Telegraph painted people with disabilities as “shirkers” and “slackers”, and this was reinforced by the “lifter” and “leaner” mentality of federal government commentary. The story was about how some us are “existing” on the disability support pension of less than $20,000 a year.

We lost the position of disability discrimination commissioner at the Australian Human Rights Commission following the politically motivated appointment of a “freedom commissioner” early in the year. In contrast, both the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander commissioner and the sex discrimination commissioner were re­appointed – very appropriate appointments, but demonstrating the relative disregard for the disability sector.

Our voice on the ABC, through the disability portal Rampup, lost its funding.

The Medicare co-­payment, in whatever form it may finally take, will hurt people with disability more because more of us need to attend the doctor more often.

While there was a welfare plan – to move many of us off welfare – there was no jobs plan for people with disabilities, in contrast to the much­-needed initiatives to ensure that older Australians are employed.

The Australian Law Reform Commission’s report on decision ­making for people with disabilities, which sets a new paradigm in this area, was virtually ignored by the attorney-general. There was no government representative at the report launch.

And then, in the final days of the year, our voice was further silenced by the defunding of our peak advocacy bodies.

The continued implementation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme was the only surviving glow-­worm in the stygian darkness of disability policy reform.

The peak bodies that have been de­funded represent people with intellectual disability, brain injury, blindness, deafness and physical disability. They are made up of people with disabilities and provide our representative voice. They received a total of $1.5m of funding each year. In contrast, organisations providing services to people with disabilities, and bodies representing carers of people with disabilities receive around $30m of funding each year. Of course these other bodies should receive significant funding, but the contrast in amounts is stark.

Those who support us can be funded, but our own voices cannot.

These peak bodies do practical but important advocacy work. While I was disability discrimination commissioner they successfully campaigned for regulations on access to transport and public buildings; captions on free-­to-­air and pay TV; accessible voting in federal elections; improved employment conditions for people with intellectual disabilities so that they don’t have to work for $1 a day; early intervention for kids with Down’s syndrome; and, of course, the National Disability Insurance Scheme.

During the past decade, these bodies have significantly changed the lives of Australians with disabilities by facilitating our inclusion into the community. And they did it for $1.5m a year.

200 years of expertise will be lost when the money runs out in three month’s time; expertise that can never be regained. Their 200,000 supporters – people with disabilities who have the greatest need – will be further disadvantaged. The government will lose the benefit of this expert advice on issues as critical as income support for, and economic participation of, people with disabilities.

It’s hard to understand the reason for this funding cut. Is it the lack of importance to this government of expert advice on disability issues? Is it that these organisations were such good value for money that they were achieving too much change too quickly? Is it that the best way to silence government critics is to take away their money? Or is it just that they were collateral damage in the government’s continued cuts?

It’s easy to understand that the result of the cuts will further entrench the disadvantage of those living with a disability. The statistics are already stark – 45% of people with disabilities live in poverty, they are employed at a rate 30% below the national average, and – due to lack of adequate services –­ are significantly over-­represented in the prison system.

Why weaken their voice for a saving of less than the spend on the relationship counselling scheme? Go figure.

Source: The Guardian Australia