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An open letter to Tony Abbott
Saturday 2 April 2011
Dear Tony, let me tell you about my disabled career
In an address prepared for delivery in Brisbane today [Thursday 31 March] at a Queensland Chamber of Commerce lunch, Mr Abbott will propose welfare reforms, including reforms to disability welfare payments.
Ahhh, the old tough love chestnut again! Give us less cash and we'll be inspired to abandon our sweet, sweet deal watching daytime TV and living off the hard-working Aussie taxpayers.
Great idea Tony. But I'm afraid you're forgetting a fairly big factor in this proposal; the intense, deeply-rooted discrimination that occurs in every facet of life for people with disabilities, including employment.
I've been a recipient of the Disability Support Pension. It's a tiny bit more money than the dole and you don't have to prove that you're actively looking for work. You do have to prove that you're still disabled every two years.
When I was on the DSP, it wasn't because I wanted to sit around watching Oprah all day. It was because despite having been dux of my secondary college, going straight to uni and earning myself two degrees while doing a bit of volunteering as well, I could not for the life of me get a job.
I wasn't spending my welfare payment on champagne and caviar. I was spending it on the minimum amount of food I could get away with buying (lucky I'm small and don't eat much), rent, taxi fares to job interviews, wheelchair maintenance, a cleaning lady to come and do my vacuuming and medication to make sure I could stay healthy enough to eventually have a job.
The whole time I was treating getting a job like a job in itself. Having completed a Dip Ed in Secondary Education (after a journalism degree), I was all ready to head into a school and set about making sure young people were able to reach their potential in life. But I found those doors firmly closed. And up a huge flight of stairs.
I applied for dozens of jobs, at schools I could find that had wheelchair access, and even some that didn't. I decided that the three week teaching round I did at a school that didn't have a disabled toilet wasn't really all that bad, and a strict regime of no fluids til after 3pm was a small price to pay for a career I so desperately wanted.
After 6 months of meeting school principals whose biggest concern was how I was going to write on the blackboard, I gave up. Partly because of the access, and partly because of the attitudes.
I got a job at a disability organisation where I knew there'd be an accessible toilet, and they'd be gagging to employ a real live wheelchair user. It was a good job, I liked it. It wasn't teaching, it wasn't working with young people. It was a waste of my education and my passion, but it took away the shame of having to claim welfare. That's right Tony, a great many people who claim the DSP keep pretty quiet about it. Partly because of folks like you running about calling us bludgers.
In the seven years since I claimed the DSP, the very real, very solid barriers to employment for people with disabilities haven't melted away.
Our education system continues to fail students with disabilities. I was extremely lucky that my parents insisted on me attending a mainstream school, and that I was born in a rural area where there wasn't another option. The fact that I have an education because I'm "lucky" is actually pretty terrifying.
An enormous number of kids with absolutely no cognitive impairment are still locked away in special schools. They'll finish when they're 18, with the numeracy and literacy of a grade 4 kid, and they'll be expected to compete in the labour market with their non-disabled peers who've been educated and socialised appropriately.
People come out of special schools with no confidence, no skills and no clue. And it's not their fault. The system fails them.
So Tony, I can only assume that you'll have spent the morning extending your lunchtime speech to include your plans to address these systems as well. Because you can reduce the amount of money we can access in the blind hope that it'll inspire us to drag ourselves away from Oprah and into the workforce, but until you take that big stick of yours and wield it in the right direction, you might as well be a cat burying crap in a marble floor.
The above originally appeared here.
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