Monday, November 17, 2008

Sydney: Disability at Australian City and State Levels

On Monday, November 10, Sharon helped arrange for me to meet with Glenn Redmayne and Dougie Herd. Glenn is the Disability Worker for Marrickville City Council, while Dougie directs the Disability Council of New South Wales. While neither Glenn nor Dougie specifically focus on women with disabilities (although it is an area that Dougie’s office addresses), I wanted to get a sense of Australian disability systems advocacy and maybe some insights on community dynamics.

Sharon dropped me off at Glenn’s office in the morning, which is situated in a 1930s Art Deco style complete with a clock tower and a ball room, not to mention an old fashioned coat check in the ladies’ room. Glenn turned out to be a ponytailed guy with a physical disability who uses a wheelchair, and we met in the Amenities Room, which was nice and quiet for me (except for when planes blasted by overhead due to the building being in the Sydney Airport flight corridor).

Marrickville City Council administers several neighborhoods in the Sydney area, such as Petersham, Dulwich Hill, etc. Glenn’s job is to help get the city to be inclusive of disability perspective in its projects, for example working on transportation or other forms of community development. In addition he helps educate community organizations about disability. The Council has twelve elected members. The Council does not focus on individual case work for people with disabilities, but if an individual comes to Council workers with a problem, they refer them as best as they can. The Council’s area is in a very old and often cramped part of town, so one issue has been making things accessible when buildings have been existing for decades.

I asked Glenn about what he thought about the Disability Discrimination Act (DDA). He pointed out that the DDA is structured so that an individual must produce a really solid case of disability discrimination before the court in order for any action to take place. Instead of having built in pre-emptive standards as the ADA does, the DDA forces individual cases to set standards, but it’s a long shot for most people to build a legally viable complaint case. It’s good that there is a complaint mechanism, but the burden of proving a solid case really weighs heavily on the individual bringing the complaint. However if a complaint does make its way through the court and discrimination is found to have reasonably occurred, then the court’s decision in that case will set a precedent. Sure seems like a long and roundabout way to make change---granted, I’m super impatient.

Glenn also said that City Councils tend to vary in their quality of workers and services provided, so that disability access work is not standardized across Councils. There can be not only variations from town to town, but regional, rural or urban variations as well.

We also remarked on the “tall poppy” situation. I’d previously read that there was a stereotype that Australians make a national sport out of “cutting down the tall poppy;” that is, cutting anyone down to size who is either full of crap or dares to be too different. Glenn agreed that he thought it could be quite an issue at times and we discussed whether in fact the tendency to denigrate anyone who takes risks or does new things is actually detrimental to the disability community, insofar as it is so critical to build creative leadership.

My overall impression of the role of City Councils for disability in Australia is that they afford an opportunity for community education and partnership, while having somewhat limited powers at times (such as not having any jurisdiction with schools for example). I also got the impression that Glenn, and others that I met, would like to see greater development of leadership and greater freedom for individuals to break barriers and make change, but that this is a cultural struggle. I had a very good time discussing these issues with Glenn and was only sorry that I had to move on to my next meeting afterwards. Thank you Glenn!

After scaring up some lunch in Marrickville (did you know Australia has a HUGE cafe culture??) and riding the bus all on my own back to Sharon’s house (and getting sunburned---the sun here is very strong), Sharon and I headed over to Dougie’s office building near the Central train station in Sydney. The Disability Council of NSW is the official group that provides policy recommendations on disability to the state government. It has several member organizations. Dougie himself is a wheelchair user and is originally from Scotland. I think several people were anxious as to whether I would actually understand Dougie’s accent, but we did pretty well as we stayed in his quiet office.

Here is the stunning thing about the Disability Council: take a look at its Board of Directors. It is unusually culturally diverse for a disability rights group with a large chunk of people from non-Anglo backgrounds. Not to mention, they have lots of folks with disabilities on the board. Very awesome! I asked Dougie how long there had been a diversity effort on the board and he said pretty much since he came on board a few years ago. Dougie himself, as it turns out, used to be an anti-apartheid activist back when he lived in Scotland and believes deeply in equality among all people.

Also, I love that the Council has developed policy portfolios on many different issues and a lot of these are online, which helps to build transparency in advocacy work. Very excellent. I asked Dougie about the DDA as well, and he highlighted the fact that a person with a disability needs money to file a legal complaint using the DDA and to pursue it through the court system. The DDA is thus only usable by those with funds.

We also discussed the overall picture of the Australian disability "community." In Australia, most of the population is concentrated in the cities, which are usually on the coast. Geographically, these urban centers are far apart from each other, so a major obstacle towards a national disability community is the difficulty in physically travelling between places. This leads to a more fragmented disability picture.

In addition, disability as a topic of national discourse tends to be dominated by the disability sector, those working in fields serving people with disabilities. The disability "community" itself does not in fact dominate discussions about disability. It is difficult to build a sense of grassroots community not only because of physical distance, but also because there is no sense of shared history as a community and no grassroots movement emphasizing change. Part of the reason there is no grassroots movement, as well, is due to the aforementioned "cutting down the tall poppy" issue, as well as people not liking to ask for help.

To me, this is different than the US, where we have a well established and shared view of a disability history, which we are working to teach our young people. We also have more people with disabilities who are physically closer to each other, as well as a network of over 500 CILs or ILCs nationwide which serve as disability-run gathering points for the disability community. Also, we have a lot of advocates who adhere to the saying "nothing about us without us" and actively seek to make the disability voice heard on every issue that impacts us.

I found it incredibly useful to speak with both Glenn and Dougie on these points, because somehow there's nothing like comparing systems to help one realize what is and is not working in one's own community. Many thanks to Glenn and Dougie, and Sharon as well, for educating me.

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