A Step Forward For Indigenous Disability


During NAIDOC week, we gathered and celebrated together, shared our stories and culture, in person, online, through social and traditional media. I spent part of this week in Alice Springs with colleagues chairing a new committee to set Closing the Gap targets for disability. As the week ended, I was struck by the opportunities we have in the coming years to bring real change to the lives of Indigenous Australians with disability.

By any measure Indigenous Australians with disabilities are among the most disadvantaged in our society and often face multiple barriers to meaningful participation in the community.

DisabilityCare was launched a fortnight ago, and we have a lot of work to do in order to ensure that all Australians with disability can access the support and services they require, on their own terms, in order to lead fulfilling lives and in order to contribute to community life. As the Executive Officer of the First Peoples Disability Network, I am motivated by this prospect.

We have an important and challenging task ahead. It will take time to achieve this and we must approach it from within community so as to ensure the roll out of DisabilityCare in Indigenous communities is effective, sustainable and “owned” by the people.

My colleagues, my board and I have travelled this land, we have spoken to our people with disability, to families and carers. We have heard many stories of strength and resilience, of struggles and entrenched social issues. This knowledge and this experience formed the foundation for the 10-point plan for the implementation of DisabilityCare in Indigenous communities that we launched at Parliament House in May. 

I am also leading a working group to develop a target, under the Closing the Gap program, to address Indigenous disadvantage and improve access to disability services. Minister Macklin appointed me to this role in May, and announced it will become a key federal government target of the national DisabilityCare scheme.

This was a welcome step. The fact that Indigenous disability had not been included in the Closing the Gap program was a glaring omission. The opportunity to work constructively with people across the country in order to contribute to and affect change in this area is a task we are privileged to take on. Next week, we report back for the first time.

The prevalence of disability amongst Indigenous Australians is significantly higher, approximately twice that of the non-Indigenous population. This occurs for a range of social reasons, including poor health care, poor nutrition, exposure to violence and psychological trauma and substance abuse, as well as the breakdown of traditional community structures in some areas. Often this is the impact of removal from family and community. Indigenous Australians with disability are significantly over-represented on a population group basis among homeless people, in the criminal and juvenile justice systems, and in the care and protection system (both as parents and children).

The combination of the national disability scheme and the focus on Indigenous dsability in the Closing the Gap program presents an opportunity for many to engage for the first time with the disability service system in a substantive way.

Most Indigenous Australians with disabilities remain at the periphery of the disability service system. This continues to occur for a range of reasons, some of which are well established. Many are reluctant to identify as people with disability. The reasons why are poorly understood. Obviously, this could be a fundamental barrier to successful roll out of DisabilityCare.

It's worthwhile to note that this is not because of the perceived stigma of disability, although it could be. Culturally, our people treat disability and impairment as a part of life, a part of our community and just get on with it. In other words, it is not always an obvious step to seek out help and support from outside family networks. But the opportunities that are on the horizon now will transform lives. DisabilityCare will bring independence, respite and greatly improved quality of life.

We at the FPDN know that for positive change to happen in the lives of Indigenous people with disabilities the change must be driven by community itself. It cannot be imposed, implied, intervened or developed with well meaning intention from an external service system that the vast majority of Indigenous people with disabilities have little or no experience of in the first place. 

Throughout many communities across the country Indigenous Australians with disabilities have been supported and accepted as members of their communities. However it is the resources to support Indigenous Australians with disabilities that many communities lack. Right now we have the potential to address some of these concerns by giving Indigenous Australians with disabilities the opportunity to self-direct their funding for instance. The challenge in this area however will be that many Indigenous Australians with disabilities have had little or no experience in self-managing funds. 

In many ways this is a social movement starting from an absolute baseline position. This is reflected in the fact that very few Indigenous Australians with disabilities have an understanding of the language of the disability service system, for example. It is critical to get the roll out right — as it is the experience of Indigenous Australians that they are the first to be blamed when new programs are not taken up.

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