History of disability discrimination is present in Australia



There is a persistent vision of humans as needing to conform to a model of perfection in order to earn the right to survive: success, good looks and power. Those who flourish must be the best ... well, because they flourish. Those deemed to fall short of the mark for whatever reason — especially if they happen to have physical or other incapacities, are pushed aside.

Germans with disabilities 1939-1945While Darwin may have observed the phenomenon of 'survival of the fittest' at play in evolution, leading to a scientific veneer being given to 'social Darwinism', the logic of might makes right is, in fact, ancient.

It is brutally expressed in Thucidydes' Melian Dialogue in which the Athenians justify the genocide which they are about to commit (in 415 BCE) on the people of Melos:

'Of the gods we believe, and of men we know, that by a law of their nature wherever they can rule they will, This law was not made by us, and we are not the first who have acted upon it; we did but inherit it, and shall bequeath it to all time, and we know that you and all mankind, if you were as strong as we are, would do as we do.'

While this is ostensibly a more civilised age with lip-service being paid to the common rights of humans since the French Revolution, the Athenian world view is proving to be a remarkably persistent stain to eradicate — especially when it comes to the most vulnerable within societies.

The continuing struggles of women and people of various ethnic and religious backgrounds for equality are well-known. Less so, perhaps, is the history of disability discrimination.

People with disabilities have lived on society's margins since biblical times. In 1939, extending eugenics and sterilisation campaigns developed in the US in the early 20th century, Hitler authorised the vernichtung lebensunwerten Lebens ('the destruction of lives unworthy of life'), targeting those with extreme mental, physical and psychiatric disabilities.

This project was accelerated with the development of trucks designed to discharge their exhaust fumes within the car. The direct result was the gas chambers first tested in Sobibor and Treblinka and then used to destroy others deemed undesirable by the Nazis including, most notoriously, Jewish people.


"Meeting our need to live full and productive lives falls under a narrative of charity or pity — which can no longer be afforded when there are belts to be tightened or hard choices to be made."


But today, things are different, surely? It is true that the disability rights movement has flourished in parallel with other equality movements since the Second World War. Life expectancy and employment among those of us with various disabilities has soared, at least in the West.

Unfortunately, however, not only has discrimination not been eradicated but people with disabilities (including those adapting to the debilitating effects of age) have, like indigenous people, the poor, refugees and others with limited voice in society, been seen as soft touches.

Meeting our need to live full and productive lives falls under a narrative of charity or pity — something which can no longer be afforded when there are belts to be tightened or hard choices to be made. In other words, we are not regarded as full and equal citizens.

This came out in Britain when the Chancellor, George Osborne, in announcing his budget, announced that new tax breaks for the richest in society were to be funded by a £4 billion cut in disability services. Most of these would come from stripping people of allowances designed to allow them to adapt to their disabilities and live independently in such areas as dressing and toileting.

About 370,000 people will be affected if the cuts go ahead, in an average amount of £3000 each.

In Britain, however, those with disabilities might be saved by the referendum on the European referendum. The fight over Britain's threatened exit from the EU which has led to the resignation of the responsible minister, Ian Duncan Smith, seems to have also resulted in the cuts being kicked into the long grass ... for now.

Australia is, however, not exempt from the logic of persecuting its weakest, so spectacularly displayed in Britain. So it is that the Minister for Social Services, Christian Porter, infamously used his social media accounts late last year to favourably quote an article which described spending on people with disabilities as 'a burden'.

At around the same time, Scott Morrison (the Treasurer) announced that pensions should not be seen as an 'entitlement' but as a 'welfare payment'. The idea that 'welfare' is an act of grace and favour extended at the will of the government is pernicious — it implies that it can be withdrawn just as easily.

Equally, the idea that those too incapacitated or aged to work are 'burdens', rather than members of society entitled to support by reason of their common humanity is equally telling.

Indeed, the debility that comes to everyone with age exposes the myth of disability as something that only happens to 'them'. Then again, you don't need much history to see that the idea that some lives, the weakest and most vulnerable, are less worthy than others does not lead anywhere good.


Justin GlynJustin Glyn SJ is studying for the priesthood. Previously he practised law in South Africa and New Zealand and has a PhD in administrative and international law.

Topic tags: Justin Glyn, disability



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Existing comments

A timely reminder. The stage has moved from Eugenics to economic deprivation. Same long term result just slower. People like Osborne and Porter should hang their heads in shame.

Edward Fido | 29 March 2016  

no-one gives a toss until it happens to them; life long or otherwise.

burden47 | 29 March 2016  

Hi Justin, i wish that you had not blamed Darwin for the slogan 'survival of the fittest'. i think it originally comes from Herbert Spencer. In evolutionary terms 'survival of the fittest' is no more than the tautology: survival of those who survive. The other side of discrimination against those of us with disability in Australia concerns the absurd self-congratulation in which governments report their support for the NDIS. I've nothing against NDIS itself but pretending to support it is a bit much coming from governments who normally have no interest in making mundane changes that would help the disabled - for example, by installing traffic lights that give us time to get across.

barry hindess | 29 March 2016  

Justin, the last sentence carries an inherent contradiction. The idea that people with disabilities are weak and vulnerable is the very source of the issue at hand. People with disabilities in themselves are not weak and vunerable if they were not negatively targeted by people with less disability (for no-one is totally able or disable, it is a continuum). They are targeted by and for the benefit of the more able, whether this be financially, intellectually, sexually, emotionally. I suggest shifting the language from vulnerable to targeted, thereby placing the onus for more equitable treatment onto those doing the targeting and away from those being targeted.

Jennifer Herrick | 29 March 2016  

This article, fair enough in itself, would be vastly improved if it pointed out that many contemporary Australians with disabilities are routinely discarded as embryos, or killed in the womb when their disability is identified. It's anyone's guess as to why the ultimate injustice is overlooked in an article purporting to document the prejudicial treatment meted out to the weakest in our society.

HH | 29 March 2016  

"It's anyone's guess as to why ..." well I'll have a guess then: it's because people want to prevent unnecessary suffering. Christian Porter linked to an article in The Australian which talked about the growing amount of money needed to fund the Disability Support Pension. Even I know people who have rorted that pension - people who were not disabled. The ALP "toughened" up the rules around the DSP in 2011, so I'm not sure why Christian Porter has been singled out. I agree that there's always more to do in reducing discrimination against people (not embryos) but there's a danger in always presenting a negative view of things - there has been a huge, really huge, change for the better in recent years in the way disabled people are regarded ... something to celebrate.

Russell | 29 March 2016  

Human embryos are people. I seem to recall E.S.'s Dr Neil Ormerod eloquently defending this thesis, though I can't locate the article right now. There are many others, if one is intellectually open.

HH | 29 March 2016  

Russell, my issue is not with rorting the system or otherwise. The problem I have is that describing support for people with disabilities as a "burden" suggests that we are, at best, just a drain on society's resources. That kind of attitude does not bode well when decisions are to be made. The change, which I acknowledge in the article, has come from overcoming precisely these stereotypes to regard people with disabilities as equal members of society.

Justin Glyn SJ | 29 March 2016  

Congratulations on a finely cogent and sensitive article. I recommend use of the nomenclature Indigenous Citizens. While it is implicitly acknowledged, historically and traditionally, as well in 'charity' and 'pity,' that 'the poor' are citizens despite circumstances, to a person, the certainty that e.g. Australian Indigenous people are citizens equal to non-Indigenous Australian Citizens, eludes popular consciousness, so it seems to me, and requires pro-active naming. Cf. the affect of 'Australian people'. The eradication of discrimination requires of each individual in the face of disability, an unremitting, persevering, reflective attitude implementing, and proactively, increased options in self-management. Material poverty is a status of pathologically diminished options. Poverty of spirit a matter of delimiting awareness of options to an often piteous sense of convenience.

Margaret T. Newman | 05 April 2016  

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