MATTERS OF PUBLIC INTEREST;Disability Services – 25 Nov 2009

I rise today to speak on a matter of public interest: people with disabilities and the role they play in our society. Firstly I want to mention the International Day of People with Disability, which occurs on 3 December. To mark the occasion, amongst other things, I am hosting in my office in early December an afternoon tea for some of the residents and carers of the residents of Oakdale Services Tasmania in Clarence. I am proud to be associated with and, where possible, to provide support to the staff, clients and volunteers at Oakdale and have visited there on a number of occasions. I have also had the pleasure of attending Oakdale with the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services, the Hon. Bill Shorten.

While on the subject of Oakdale, I must mention that a client of Oakdale, Mr Stuart Maughan, recently won the Motor Accidents Insurance Board Disability Achievement Award as part of the Tasmanian Community Achievement Awards, which I attended a couple of weeks ago. Stuart sustained a brain injury after a mountain bike accident in 2000. As a result of the injury, he lost his career as an industrial chemist and his ability to live independently. Stuart is determined to prevent others from suffering similar injuries. He presents brain injury prevention and awareness programs with Custody for Life. Stuart speaks to people at risk such as the young and those with driving offences. He has a young son of his own, and I know from speaking to Stuart that the future of young people is of particular interest to him. Stuart hopes that by sharing his experiences others will stop to think about their actions and not put themselves in harm’s way. I congratulate Stuart on his award and thank him for the hard work he does for the benefit of others.

People with disabilities are an important part of our community. The ABS Survey of Disability, Ageing and Carers conducted in 2003 found that 20 per cent of the population had a reported disability. People with a disability are less likely to complete year 12 than those without a disability. In 2003 only 24 per cent of people with a disability had completed year 12, compared to 49 per cent of people without a disability. People with a disability are less likely to be employed than those without a disability, and in 2003 only 15 per cent of people with a disability were employed, compared to 81 per cent of those without a disability. People with a disability in the workforce are more likely to work part time than those with no disability. The number of Australians with a severe or profound disability will grow from 1.5 million in 2010 to 2.3 million in 2030, according to last week’s Australian Institute of Health and Welfare report. This will happen as the number of informal carers is likely to decrease with our ageing population.

The Rudd government is committed to ensuring fair treatment for all Australians, including people with disabilities. The government has allocated over $5 billion to the National Disability Agreement for a five-year period to fund specialist disability services, and this is a significant increase compared to previous agreements. The Rudd government has also made Australia one of the first countries to ratify the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Rudd government has increased the pension so that people receiving the disability support pension are getting more money to help with their living costs and carers are also getting more money to help with the costs they incur. This year we have seen the release of the report Shut out: the experience of people with disabilities and their families in Australia. This is a national disability strategy consultation report and was prepared by the National People with Disabilities and Carer Council. This report will be used to help formulate a national disability strategy.

There is much work to be done to fix the problems that people with disabilities experience, but the government is confident that it can be achieved. More than 750 submissions were received by the council. Submissions were made by people with disabilities, family members who care for persons with a disability and individual organisations. Fifty per cent of the submissions identified barriers in the area of social inclusion and community participation. Likewise, 50 per cent cited disability services as problematic. Rights, justice and legislation were of concern to 39 per cent, and income support and the cost of disability worried 37 per cent.

Employment and accommodation rated at 34 and 32 per cent respectively. Education, transport, health and wellbeing were also considered barriers to full participation in life, with 29 per cent of people concerned about these areas. The built environment was a problem for 27 per cent of submissions, workforce issues in the disability sector was at 21 per cent and aids, equipment and assisted technology scored a 20 per cent rating. These figures clearly indicate that people with disabilities face many problems. However, these problems can be dealt with if the community as a whole has a better to attitude to people with disabilities.

Some of the submissions in the report were disturbing. One example was about a female with a physical disability who had to share housing with male autism sufferers. She feared for her safety as the men could be violent but, with her family no longer able to support her, this was the only alternative available. Another person reported that their employer would have discussions with them without an interpreter present, even though one was required. This person, of course, had trouble keeping up with what was being said, and was left feeling both embarrassed and angry.

These examples show that we need more care facilities so that people with disabilities can live in an environment that is suitable for their needs and does not put them at risk of harm. They also show that more understanding, compassion and education for the community is needed so that people realise how hard life can be for a person with a disability. They need to realise that even though they may not mean any disrespect by their actions, or lack of actions, people with disabilities may perceive it as being so.

Many people with disabilities are willing and able to work; however, finding a suitable job is not always easy. It may be because employers are wary of taking on a person with a disability, or that they think the modifications necessary for the person’s needs are too expensive. There are some agencies, such as CRS Australia, whose primary role is to help people with disability, injury or health conditions to choose, get and keep employment. These agencies help people to manage their condition and to find the right balance between work and staying as healthy as possible.

There are employers that aim to provide opportunities to disabled people in the community, such as the tip shop at Margate in Southern Tasmania, which is jointly operated by Cerebral Palsy Tasmania and the Kingborough council. The cerebral palsy tip shop is an Australian Disability Enterprises employer, which employs individuals with disability in an environment that is tailored to their needs. The shop currently employs 17 people with a disability, and this makes up the majority of the workforce. Employees are offered literacy and numeracy training as well as gaining skills in cash handling, inventory control and customer service. And they do a roaring trade down there at the Margate tip shop.

The National People with Disabilities and Carers Council has stated that the National Disability Strategy should address four key areas. Firstly, it should increase the social, economic and cultural participation of people with disabilities and their families, friends and carers. Secondly, it should introduce measures that address discrimination and human rights violations. Thirdly, it should improve disability support and services and, finally, it should build in major reform to ensure the adequate financing of disability support services over time.

Many of the submissions agreed that a national approach towards people with a disability was necessary. They highlighted the need for an office of disability to coordinate the whole-of-government approach. It was widely thought that there needed to be underlying principles to reflect the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The policies included in the strategy need to be implemented by all levels of government and there need to be key outcomes and performance indicators. Of course, the need for increased funding was also a key part of many submissions.

The input of all those who made submissions is invaluable when determining the future of all Australians with disabilities, both now and in the years to come. That is why it was so pleasing earlier this week to hear the Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, make the announcement that the Productivity Commission will undertake an inquiry into funding and delivering long-term disability care and support. This is a great opportunity to re-think our approach to disability as a society. The commission is to look at a new approach to providing long-term essential care and support to people, regardless of how their disability is acquired, and to look at whether a no-fault social insurance approach is appropriate for Australia. The Productivity Commission and the government will be advised by an independent advisory panel during this inquiry.

The Rudd government is committed to equality for all, and is doing everything possible to ensure that those with disabilities are not left out in the cold. I implore all Australians to think on the words of the Parliamentary Secretary for Disabilities and Children’s Services, Bill Shorten, from earlier this week:

We are all one bad car accident away from a serious disability. We could all have a child or grandchild born with an impairment. And we are all at risk of acquiring a disability as we age.

Words for thought for all of us—thank you.