International Day of People with a Disability

CEO Social Justice Blog

This week we celebrate the United Nations  sanctioned International Day of People with Disability. It’s a time when around the world people come together  to honour the achievements of people with a disability and their contribution to community life. We have certainly come a long way over the decades from those early days when they were hidden away in large residential centres or were totally ignored or ridiculed if they did live in the community.

These international events have certainly helped.

I remember well that the International Year of Disabled Persons in 1981 had a huge impact here in Australia. Many of us became involved in developing a plan of action to assist people with disability to enjoy living conditions and opportunities similar to everyone else. People with disabilities formed their own organisations and called for self determination. ‘Nothing about us without us’ was their slogan.

New disability legislation was enacted, and large residential centres began to close. Public servants undertook ‘normalisation’ training and group homes were established across the country, many managed by NGOs.

However by the mid 90’s, energy for reform had begun to wane. Group homes were sometimes quite isolated, expensive to manage and the funding required to respond to needs was totally inadequate.

I remember  the closure of the infamous boarding house in Lake Macquarie, Carinya Oaks / Watagan Centre in 1993, where some 150 residents, most with a significant disability, had lived for years without government support. The stories of abuse were scary and the then Minister for Community Services described the unfunded centre as a ‘valley of lost souls’.

Parents who had secured a place for their son or daughter at Stockton must have rejoiced at finding accommodation safe and properly funded.

Energy for reform in disability services has returned with the introduction of NDIS in 2013, where the hunter region is a launch site. People with a disability are finally getting the chance to enjoy community living with the choice of where to live and who to live with;  hopefully with adequate support for their success.

Again we have been influenced by international movements.The UN Convention on Human Rights for People with Disability,  adopted by Australia in 2008, challenged communities to recognise that they may have set up the barriers which have kept people with disability separate in the past. Communities were in fact causing the disabilities for people who had an impairment. In other words buildings, workplaces, transport, education and attitudes had to change to help integrate people with impairment. No more segregation.  Already some 20,000 people are participating in the scheme with the vast majority reporting significant improvement in their quality of life.

When the scheme is fully rolled out across the country, numbers will increase to some 400,000.

Here in Newcastle however I can understand the concern of parents when the remaining large residential centres have to close. It would have been fairer to wait until the NDIS  is fully rolled out before deciding whether centres such as Stockton are still needed. There are countries in Europe which are further down the track than we are in giving people control over their own funding budget and the freedom to determine how it is spent…however all seem to have one or two institutions which continue to exist so the carers here do have a point to make.

There is certainly a long way to go in Australia if people with disabilities are to achieve the rights spelled out in the UN Convention and the support services they need to fully achieve their goals . But we should all enjoy the International Day of People with Disability, especially if we, or a family member, have a disability. There is much to celebrate.