Removing Ramps And Silencing Disability Issues

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It was announced recently that the ABC's disability website, Ramp Up, launched in 2010, will be scrapped by the end of the month.

Seed funding for the website — provided by the Department of Social Services — was scheduled to cease at the end of June this year. The previous government had expected that the ABC, by this time, would have incorporated Ramp Up into their core operations.

Sadly the ABC board and management chose not to. It is the only dedicated online outlet for news, opinion and discussion by writers with disabilities in the mainstream media.

The outrage expressed by members of the disabled community has been significant and understandable. The Facebook group Save ABC Ramp Up, has already attracted almost 1,000 members since the announcement. A petition on change.org addressed to ABC Managing Director Mark Scott and Assistant Minister for Social Services Mitch Fifield, has been signed by about 17,000 supporters.

There is a sense of urgency to keep Ramp Up alive with suggestions of crowd funding models and alternative websites. A member of the Facebook group, expressed disbelief, stating that "it's shocking because Ramp Up acted as a voice for all of us".

A protest, outside ABC head office, with black duct tape over the mouths of disabled supporters was proposed.

This is some powerful symbolism, from members of a community that often feel their voice is not being heard.

An article on Crikey by Shakira Hussein suggests that scrapping Ramp Up, looks like an attempt to suppress disability dissent at a crucial moment for the sector.

The recent abolition of the disability discrimination commissioner position held by Graeme Innes, makes it hard to disagree; literally and figuratively.

A major avenue of complaint has been closed off and a platform for critical discussion silenced.

The devil's advocate in me, would see this as politically expedient for the government. After all, it's tough keeping the masses silent when applying 'crippling' reforms to the disability support pension.

Unable to type, I'm hammering out this article with voice recognition software and an on-screen keyboard.

I have a genetic condition and a set of wheels, I'm a card-carrying member of the disabled community.

We call each other cripples, we express our opinions, we work, we have families, we have ambitions and some of us even do very little.

We are Steven Hawking, we are Oscar Pistorius (yes, we can be distasteful too) and the unknown person down the street.

The fact is, we are a diverse community without stereotypes. This is a point that is sadly missed in the bulk of mainstream media outlets.

They set the discourse for us, portraying us in a certain light—usually negative.

The academic field of disability studies, has produced a great deal of literature about the media representation of disability.

Disability is often presented as a personal medical issue, impairment, sickness or disease in need of a cure, i.e. the medical model of disability.

There are usually two types of representations in the mainstream media. The first is the 'hero', who overcomes their disability, inspires the audience and gives them a warm fuzzy feeling; "look what she can achieve and she's not even 'normal', what am I complaining about!"

Then there is the sad, tragedy of a human being who deserves our pity and sympathy; perhaps a donation to charity every now and then.

If the audience is often not exposed to realistic images of disability, how are they able to imagine, that a lot of people with disabilities, are not noteworthy at all. Most are just regular chumps going about their lives.

It is crucial to have a dedicated platform for discussion, like Ramp Up where people with disabilities, can set the discourse.

It gives them a voice and a means to break stereotypes.

According to the editor Stella Young, in an article announcing the closure "over the last three and a half years, Ramp Up has published over 500 pieces of original content, facilitated discussion on a broad range of disability issues", representing a diverse array of opinions, from a bunch of talented writers with a disability.

Disability issues, it was also stated in the article, would continue to be covered by the ABC, "in an integrated way across its online, radio and television platforms".

Ramp Up allowed people with a disability to challenge the medical model of disability.

They could explore issues of social exclusion, discrimination and physical barriers to inclusion (e.g. building accessibility).

This is the social model of disability, which sees society as the main cause of disablement, rather than individual impairment.

If people with disabilities are marginalised in the mainstream media, that could be seen as a form of social exclusion. It restricts people with disabilities from expressing their opinions — which is essential for citizenship in a liberal democracy.

It is too early to tell if the integration of disability issues in other ABC media will occur.

At this stage, however, by removing a dedicated website like Ramp Up, the ABC is contributing to the exclusion of people with disabilities from public discussion.

For the disabled community, this is a huge step backwards. If the response on Facebook and change.org is any indication, they will be anything but silent about the closure of Ramp Up.

Ryan Struk is an Arts student majoring in Media and Communication studies and International Relations.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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