Thursday, November 19, 2009

Sorry, but not to you guys

On 16 November Prime Minister Kevin Rudd issued an apology to the Forgotten Australians.  As reported on the ABC, his apology noted how there were Australians who had been housed in institutions, and how many of them were treated badly, carrying scars that will never heal.  There was reference to their lack of consent, and how their lives were changed irrevocably.

Minister Jenny Macklin said it was important to recognise the terrible wrongs of the past, and Leader of the Opposition Malcolm Turnbull said that the system had failed people across the generations.

Quite right too. And well overdue.  By crikey we're at a turning point in Australia. 

And then I realised that they weren't talking about people living with disability.

Not that it isn't important to acknowledge the often awful experiences endured by kids taken from their family homes and raised in institutions and foster homes often far far away, and driven by public policy lacking in thoughtfulness about children's rights and what children need. 

Of course that's important, and it's right to have named it for what it is.  It's just that there I've been trying to find where there has been a similar public apology to the disability community for the hundreds of years of discrimination, marginalisation, and exclusion, characterised for many by neglect and abuse.  But I can find no such apology.  Nothing.  Diddly squat.

Because of the lifelong additional vulnerability that comes with a disability, the institutional response has been particularly harmful to many people's life chances, because the nature of their disability can make it much harder to bounce back.  Take for example the experience of some people living with intellectual disability, who develop unusual and sometimes disagreeable habits in response to living in unwholesome settings (large and small institutions), and as a result they get labelled as 'challenging' by those in charge and get a double dose of more of the same.

In these and other ways we have been failing people living with disability for years, for generations. But there is no public apology.  And why should we be surprised, when institutions big and small are alive and well in Australia, and imposing highly damaging lifestyles upon people who simply don't deserve such ignoble treatment.

Why aren't more people outraged by this?  There are people living with disability whose rights, choices, citizenship and dignity are being compromised on a daily basis.  We cannot stay quiet about this, and nor should those who have the responsibility of running the country.

So, dear Prime Minister, and Premiers, and Chief Ministers, let's have the public apology, and make it a good one.  And back it up with strong human rights legislation that gives back to people living with disability their authority and their citizenship.  And when we finally get a national disability strategy, make sure it puts those values into practice.  Be accountable to your citizens living with disability.

And to you who has come to read this blog posting, forward it to your local MP, your Chief Minister, your Premier, your Prime Minister, and ask for the apology.  December 3 is International day for People with Disabilities - an apology would give that day some meaning.

There's not a moment to lose.

(with thanks to ally Ross Womersley for stimulating this reflection)


  1. In my earlier blog, I forgot to mention the heated indoor swimming pool - silly me! In fact, the facility I described would fit the description of any number of retirement villages that our wealthier retirees select as a "lifestyle choice" in their later years. When you have money you can choose the place and manner of living; when you are intellectually disabled and poor, you have no choice and no voice. You must live the way ideologues insist you must. If only the disability rights zealots spent a little less energy on the right model of accommodation and a little more energy on the right to accommodation, we would perhaps be in less of a hell-hole than we now are.

  2. Where is the earlier blog? This comment makes no sense without its predecessor. You have published the foot note without the main body of the comment. Please post my earlier comment on your site or be accused of censorship!

  3. Hi Harriet,
    I'm sorry if a comment has been lost. I don't have a habit of censoring out people's comments, and I would only do so if a comment was offensive or potentially libellous.

    I don't know what's happened to any earlier blog comment from you on this topic. If you could re-send, or re-create, I can look at publishing it.


  4. OK Robbi, I'll accept that you lost my comment. I am outraged but for different reasons. I am outraged that many wonderful parent-instigated and parent-governed organizations, created from scratch back in the days when NO services existed, are now being tarred with the "institution" brush. In my local area, we had such a place. Hard working parents fund-raised for decades, did maintenance with their own hands and involved the whole community. Staff came and stayed for their entire working lives. Remember that "inclusion" is only fifty percent going out into the community; the other fifty percent is interested people coming in and doing meaningful activities with PWD. And that is what we had - volunteers running dances, music making, exercises, craft and art, camps, sport, gardening, swimming (in the above-mentioned pool that I forgot to include in my original post). The meals were better than anything we get at my place and there was furor when someone suggested frozen, pre-packaged meals. The litmus test was when PWD went home for weekends or holidays - after a day or two, they always asked to come back to their friends. Our lives with our PWD radiated out from this place and the classy hall was the setting for family celebrations, anniversaries, birthdays, even weddings, of both the PWD and other family members. It demeans the lifetime work of pioneering parents when you talk of "harmful ... unwholesome settings". Some places fit this description but many do not.

    Now, of course, all this has gone, swept away by the broom of political correctness and disability idealism. The PWD have been devolved, many to rented flats in poor neighborhoods, where they receive the most minimum drop-in support. Many of their activities are curtailed and there are reports of grieving because they can't find their friends. Funding must stretch further, transport is scarce, rents are high, boredom is prevalent.

    So I agree, an apology is in order, but not for the reasons you are suggesting. These vulnerable people have been displaced and dispersed, they have lost much of their quality of life and lifelong companions. Some of them were together for fifty years. They have gone from being the proprietors of a beautiful home in a lovely setting to disability refugees.

    This was the place I had chosen for my son and I can assure you that only the best will do for him. Of course, its demise happened before he was ready to go and now I give thanks daily that I am not one of those parents who are witnessing the painful resettlement of their adult children.

    All around Australia, there are grass roots parent movements to replicate exactly the residential setting I have described (although few will be as ritzy as this one). They are called clusters, or villages, or intentional communities or whatever, but they are what we want for our people. We don't want people with a cognitive age of four to eight years living with cursory drop-in support, we don't want them living in ones and twos with the TV for company and we don't want them isolated and lonely "in the community". And here in NSW our government has listened to us and is slowly but surely responding.