Sharaz Kayani’s self-immolation outside Parliament House in Canberra last year was a wake-up call — not only about the plight of refugees in this country but also the treatment of people with disabilities. An asylum seeker from Pakistan, Kayani had tried since 1996 to bring his family to Australia. His applications were rejected, because his 10-year-old daughter, Annum, has cerebral palsy. Immigration Minister Philip Ruddock said she’d cost taxpayers around $750,000. A bag of chips compared to what we pay for each business we bail out!
Through stringent health checks, the Immigration Department bars people with any kind of disability from coming in — similar to the language tests that once regulated the White Australia policy. So what does that say about people with disabilities in this society? According to the Dickensian neoliberals who run it, they’re a burden and not worth a damn. No wonder we don’t seem to have come very far since the Lunacy Act 1867, which was the basis for establishing Melbourne’s Kew Cottages in 1887. This institution is still in operation, several years after a major fire killed many residents.
Prizing rights out of a system run for profit is a gargantuan battle for any minority group. For the disability rights movement, the Anti-Discrimination Act of 1977 and the Disability Discrimination Act of 1993 were landmarks. In the 1980s, various states implemented similar laws, aimed at encouraging people with disabilities to participate fully in community life. Elizabeth Hastings, then Disability Discrimination Commissioner, said in 1993 that the aim of both acts was to guarantee, by 2011, that everyone would have the same opportunities to do what they want and no barriers would be there to stop them.
Biggest barrier is poverty. Opportunity requires money, especially in our economy, and most people have to earn this by working. As long as our worth is measured by the profit we can make for the boss, then if we’re sick or disabled, we’re shown the door. On the job, the longer hours, increased workloads and rollbacks in safety protections are causing a blowout of the disability population — which in Australia is about 20%. For someone with a disability, income is either the Disability Support Pension or work paid as little $1.50 an hour.
The Howard government is always looking for ways to cut welfare. A few years ago, young people on unemployment benefits became the second group, after Aborigines, to be subjected to “Mutual Obligation,” or work for the dole. In late 1999, people on sole parent payments and disability pensions were going to be next. A huge uproar forced the government to hold off on disability recipients, but sole parents and older workers joined this swelling pool of cheap labour.
A key part of “Mutual Obligation” is the compulsion to do unpaid labour — you know, build self-esteem and get work experience, while the boss pockets 100% profit. People with disabilities have been press-ganged into volunteerism since the workhouses of Dickens’ time. They know this is no way to become equal participants in the community, let alone eat.
Most disabled people living in poverty are women. About 300 million women globally — or 10% of all women — have mental or physical disabilities. Seventy-five percent live in poorer countries. Throughout the world, including advanced capitalist countries like Australia, girls with disabilities do not have the same access as the rest of the population to education and training — thus committing them to a life of unemployment and economic dependency.
Healthcare or Health Scare? Hospital queues are getting longer. Australia’s once universally free health insurance is being privatised, as is the entire public health sector. Howard is cutting back government subsidies, from pharmaceuticals to disability aids.
Healthcare is a litmus test for any society, and successive governments’ de-institutionalisation policies of the 1980s and ’90s have been one big privatisation scheme. In its December report, Australia’s Welfare 2001, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare affirms that the shrinking of institutional services has shifted the responsibility for aged care, disability services and mental health onto the community and families. Says the AIHW: “Home-based carers are the mainstay of de-institutionalisation, especially for younger people with a disability and frail or disabled older people.” In 1999-2000, close to $14 billion of the national economy was spent on paid services, but the value of unpaid services provided by household carers was double. Of all the principal carers under 65 years of age, 40% are mothers with young children — one-third of them caring for young children with a disability.
A major issue is how to care for people requiring intensive assistance. The options are either institutional care in a residential facility or getting support at home. Because of grossly inadequate government funding, the choice is not easy. The Howard government wants the family to pick up the tab, and people usually don’t want to leave their homes. Residential care is in crisis. Many facilities are described by residents as places you wouldn’t put your dog in, and many more are closing down. For most older people, decent facilities are beyond their financial means. Similarly, affordable home care services are drying up.
Part of the vicious circle is the inferior industrial conditions for disability workers. I am a carer for people with dementia. Casualisation is rife. Wages are so low that I work with two agencies, plus part-time in a residential facility, just to make ends meet. Insecurity and the tedium of the work are issues for workers in these facilities. Last year in Victoria, intellectual disability carers, members of the Health and Community Services Union, went on strike for improved health and safety, a minimum standard of qualifications, better training and more pay. Forty percent of workers in the field were untrained, thanks to former Premier Kennett’s removal of mandatory qualifications in 1994. The current government is not meeting its legislative obligations to the service. Each year, nearly 800 carers — or 18% — were resigning.
For reproductive and sexual freedom. In 1992, the Australian High Court heard a case, known as Marion’s Case, involving the sterilisation of a young woman with an intellectual disability without her informed consent. The court ruled, with some qualifications, that legal sterilisation requires authorisation from a court or tribunal. Despite the ruling, more than 1,000 young women under 18 years old continued to be sterilised over the next six years alone. Women with any disability are judged in our society as unfit to be mothers.
Sexuality is also largely taboo. Women and men with intellectual disabilities are stereotyped as being in need of outside control. Recent research at Melbourne’s La Trobe University, People with Intellectual Disabilities Living Safer Sexual Lives, is full of first-hand accounts by people in institutions deprived of privacy and the right to be sexually active. In contrast, the abuse of residents is not so well monitored.
Last year, Katie Ball lost her fight for equal access to a “swingers club” in Melbourne. However her equal opportunity case did attract wide media coverage about the sexual rights of people with disabilities.
Women: a driving force. In the disability rights movement, women have been leading the fight for wheelchair accessibility in transportation services. And they’ve won! Melbourne’s trains have had ramps for quite a few years, and the old red rattlers in Melbourne’s tram system were finally replaced with carriages that provide disability seating. After a long campaign, wheelchair-accessible buses are now being introduced in Victoria.
Accessible transport is not only an important win for people with disabilities, it is also a victory for all women. Thousands of people with reduced mobility — because of ageing, temporary injury, disability or even just travelling with children or lugging groceries — benefit from the introduction of disability accessible transport as it spreads nationally.
But inconvenience, and even danger, still plague disabled transport users. In Geelong, Victoria’s second biggest city, only six accessible buses are in service, making it impossible for the timetables and routes to match the demand. On the trains — which are staffed only by the driver — getting on and off in a wheelchair is time-consuming and frustrating for everyone. On rural routes, wheelchair commuters ride in goods carriages! With no means of safely securing the chair, these trains are also cold in the winter and sweltering in the summer.
Most urban and rural railway crossings are in disrepair, and extremely hazardous. The uneven and potholed surfaces make getting across in a wheelchair life- threatening. The recent death of Chris Jones made this longstanding problem into a public scandal.
Half-price taxis for disability pensioners could be an alternative. But taxi fares, even discounted, are expensive. And they’re not always available. It’s not unusual to wait up to four hours!
It doesn’t have to be like this! Disability oppression, like sexism, racism or homophobia, is a feature of capitalism. In fact, most disabilities are caused by capitalism’s wars, its workplaces or its contamination of the environment.
When the basis for profit-making is destroyed, then all forms of exploitation will end. Cuba shows how. This workers’ state is built from a socialist revolution. It directs the economy toward meeting the needs of all its people, including the disabled. It prioritises free, quality healthcare and rehabilitation, education and housing. The country has 427 special schools for the severely disabled. People with disabilities actively participate in making policy through their involvement in various disability organisations. The Federation of Cuban Women assists women who have disabled children and can’t stand in the long food lines created by the U.S. embargo.
People with disabilities are part of every social group — as women, queers, workers, unionists, Indigenous people, immigrants, the young and the seniors. Their demands are integral to every movement. Try these: free, quality healthcare; equal access to jobs; safe and healthy working conditions; equal pay; a livable income for all; free, quality access to education and transportation; quality, affordable housing; full economic independence; sexual and reproductive freedom.
Once society prioritises human needs, rather than the drive for profits, everybody can enjoy a good life. Imagine what working people could do if we controlled the economy and made the decisions. Let’s do it!