Attitudes and evidence will underpin disability reform

| December 2, 2013

There still remain a lot of barriers in our urban landscape for people with a disability. Craig Wallace would like to see a national survey on community attitudes towards disability to give us solid evidence about what these attitudes are and what could leverage change.

Yesterday was the International Day of People with Disability (IDPwD) and it’s an important day in the United Nations Calendar. It reminds us that Australia was a mover and shaker in the development of the UN Convention on the Rights of People with Disability including through the stewardship of Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum AO, who was the Patron of the Day this year and also writes in Open Forum.

Australia had a very strong program of celebrations for the 21st Anniversary of IDPwD which included a set of marque National Disability Awards. The Anniversary was neatly tied off with a 21 Up project with 21 year olds talking about their lives and coming of age in an honest and empowered way.

For the first time an education kit has also been produced in association with the Australian Government that’s available to every primary school in Australia.

Beyond the projects IDPwD sparks important conversations which resonate across the year, as we saw in Senator Mitch Fifields recent address to the National Press Club.

I welcome the Minister’s commitment to the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) and the National Disability Strategy (NDS) which support us to meet obligations under the Convention.

The Minister expanded on these during a recent speech at the Awards where he observed that the awards mirror key policy areas of the NDS – employment, education, health, advocacy, accessible communities and social participation and that “all of us need to continue to work hard across the National Disability Strategy areas. We need to do this if we are to provide a solid foundation for our greatest step forward – the National Disability Insurance Scheme”.

Senator Fifield is a heavy hitter in the Government team, and we should be pleased to see him fixing on a strategic approach in a portfolio that not long ago was an airport lounge for Ministers on the way up or on the way out. With a multi-billion dollar program to deliver there is much at stake for all Australians.

As I wrote in Open Forum over a year ago there are a broader set of issues to which the successful delivery of the NDIS is entwined – the NDS is pivotal to these.

Our urban landscape remains littered with barriers; workplaces remain inaccessible and hostile to anyone outside the ‘’young and hungry’’ mould; and business has yet to grasp the potential of customers with different needs, treating us as an obscure niche.

Attitudes weave through these “mainstream” issues and governments invest in awards, campaigns and other work to change attitudes of which the International Day is a good example.

Yet we have surprisingly little hard evidence about what attitudes actually are and what might work to shift them. What we do know is cause for alarm.

In 2004 a Ministerial Council I chaired initiated Australia’s first ever internationally benchmarked research on community attitudes towards disability in one small and relatively privileged jurisdiction – the Australian Capital Territory. It involved layers of questions designed to wriggle through to real attitudes.

The results were a worry. Twenty per cent of people said, point-blank, that they thought that people with disabilities could not be as effective at work as people without disabilities (i.e, any person with any disability under any circumstances, regardless of skills); negative attitudes were held by people with a direct personal connection to disability; many didn’t know what a disability was and just about everyone held major misconceptions about intellectual disabilities. All that in a survey group that included some people with managerial profiles and high levels of tertiary education. And in a public service town.

Rather than continuing to fly without radar, Governments should invest in an internationally benchmarked national survey on community attitudes towards people with disability to give us solid evidence about what attitudes are and what might leverage change.

It would be a small but strategic investment. Attitudinal work based on evidence will continue to be important if we are to realise the scope of the economic benefits of the NDIS envisaged by the Productivity Commission, including through increased social and economic participation.