Welcome to Eureka Street

back to site

Picture is still bleak for people with disability



Disabled people in Australia are being locked up, dying young and living in poverty, according to a new report — because they are disabled, and particularly if they are Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

Disability Rights Now 2019'I am homeless to trying to meet costs of healthcare, the stress exacerbates my condition,' said one disabled man. 'I could be contributing and doing so much more if I could afford support, and people treated me fairly and well. I feel excluded and are constantly fighting,' said another disabled women.

The report, out this week and titled Disability Rights Now 2019, was developed by a coalition of disabled peoples' organisations in preparation for the review of Australia's progress towards implementing the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), which Australia ratified in 2008. This is the second time Australia has been reviewed on our progress towards implementing the treaty, and the report was written alongside a survey of nearly 900 disabled people who were asked about our lives. 

The picture the report and survey paint is bleak: disabled people feel, and are, excluded from much of mainstream, non-disabled life. Work, healthcare, sport and recreation are all filled with barriers that make it hard for disabled people to be included. These barriers can be attitudinal, but also financial.

A majority of survey respondents (61 per cent) did not have access to all the support services they need, with 60 per cent unable to afford them. 76 per cent of disabled people said they had been discriminated against because of their disability, and 82 per cent said that there isn't a good understanding of disability in the wider community. This sense of exclusion is widespread throughout the report, and backed up by the survey. We are so very far from being equal to non-disabled people, and included in the mainstream. 

One of the key issues in the report is how many disabled people are in prison, charged with offences, on remand, or found 'unfit to plea'. The report says that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander disabled people are 14 times more likely to be in prison than other people. Disabled people are up to half of those in prison, including people with psychosocial disability.

Often disabled people end up behind bars simply because they are disabled. Our behaviour, our very disability is criminalised; racism intersects with ableism so that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island disabled people end up in prison, even when they aren't convicted of any crime. The report says that 'discriminatory attitudes, a lack of support services and programs and a minimal provision of legal or procedural adjustments, often means that people with disability are viewed as not credible, not capable of giving evidence, unable to make legal decisions'.


"Australians aren't changing their minds about disabled people, leaving many of us in prison, deep in poverty and excluded from the lives non-disabled people take for granted. These attitudes about who we are, and what we can do, aren't shifting."


This isn't news — report after report has detailed how disabled people end up in prison, and how they are treated when they are in prison. And yet, we build more prisons, provide fewer services and more disabled people are locked up, particularly Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In 2016, Scott Avery, from First Peoples Disability Network, said 'by the time an Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander person with disability comes into contact with the criminal justice system, they will most likely have had a life of unmanaged disability. When disability is not recognised and addressed, contact with the police and courts are inevitable steps on a matriculation pathway into juvenile detention and prison.'

Another key aspect of the report and survey were that only nine per cent of disabled people said they have the same employment opportunities as non-disabled people; 45 per cent of disabled people live in poverty and 42 per cent of disabled people rely on income support, such as the Disability Support Pension (DSP). The tightening of eligibility for the DSP has meant that 'governments have significantly reduced the number of people receiving the DSP', but 'this has not translated into increased employment and economic security for people with disability'.

Why is this? What are the barriers that disabled people face when trying to get a job? The Australian Human Rights Commission says that discrimination against disabled people is one reason, as well as a lack of accommodation for our access needs, including for flexible work. Their 2016 report, Willing to Work, contained a number of recommendations which are yet to be implemented. 

Disabled people's organisations have called for a National Jobs Plan that provides clear pathways out of segregated workplaces, such as Australian Disability Enterprises, or sheltered workshops, and into award-wage employment, as well as significant reform to the Disability Employment Services system.

These statistics about the justice system, work and income for disabled people aren't budging. These attitudes about who we are, and what we can do, aren't shifting. Australians aren't changing their minds about disabled people, leaving many of us in prison, deep in poverty and excluded from the lives non-disabled people take for granted.

I look at people on the train on the way to work sometimes, and wonder if they work with any disabled people. Do they call the police when they see a disabled person talking or gesturing? Are they in charge of hiring, and have they done anything about employing a disabled person? Does any of this even cross their minds at all? And yet, for disabled people, these are such important issues.

These attitudes towards us fuel many of the barriers we face — we are discriminated against, we cost too much, we need to be controlled or managed by non-disabled people who of course know what is best for us.

This survey and report have been written and developed by disabled people as a way of telling the United Nations how Australia is dealing with us, and how we experience life as disabled people. Despite the introduction of the NDIS, very little has changed since Australia agreed to abide by the CRPD — will the same be true by the time the next review comes around, or will there be actual change? Time will tell.



El GibbsEl Gibbs is a freelance writer specialising in the area of disability and social services and has over 15 years experience in the community and NFP sector, as well as politics. Find her on Twitter @bluntshovels.

Topic tags: El Gibbs, disability, NDIS



submit a comment

Existing comments

I know from personal experience that the NDIS structure could be greatly improved. Parents of children with a disability often have to contend with needless bureaucratic red tape, families face tremendous financial pressure and stress is constantly managed. Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander families would be even more adversely affected given their particular needs. The quality of our care for our most vulnerable citizens, young and old, is the measure of our humanity.

Pam | 15 August 2019  

Thanks El. We have a son with mental and psychological disabilities, unable to work, finally on the NDIS after a huge struggle, on the disability support pension, but still we cannot rely on support people, need to keep an eye on them and him. We still need to help him ourselves. My fear is that after we die, he will be preyed upon, easily get inadvertently and not deliberately in trouble with the law, possibly end up on the street or in prison. We are relying on a legal trust being set up through our wills after we die, and we do have agreed trustees who we believe we can trust to look after his finances. That is the best we can do. Supported accommodation is poorly available but so necessary for people like him.

Frank S | 16 August 2019  

Frank S. It is heartbreaking that we have come to the situation you describe in this country. It is something remote from the Australia I grew up in and has its ultimate origins in the destruction of the caring society that followed in the wake of the economic basis of care for the sick, disabled and mentally ill introduced by Whitlam et al on the advice of two economists - they called it Medibank (and we now know how little banks care for people). That name was changed to Medicare creating the illusion that the government system cared for people. Such problems should not exist in a caring society and sadly do not evoke as much care and concern as they should. The environment and the native animals come before people. The politicians who really seemed to care and dream of a future that everyone could share have given us the world of me not you - an inhumane world that dismisses compassion and brings only tears. Trust in God, Frank - he loves the little children and will care for him through one of his earthly followers.

john frawley | 19 August 2019  

Similar Articles

The secretive business of detention dirty work

  • Meg Mundell
  • 20 August 2019

If you're not burdened by a conscience, it's a perfect get-rich-quick scheme: offer 'garrison' services to governments reluctant to get their hands dirty. Ensure the vulnerable people you 'manage' are hidden, demonised by politicians and right-wing commentators. Hire cheap labour, minimise your tax, and make millions.


Ovarian transplant pitch demonises menopause

  • Kate Galloway
  • 13 August 2019

As a society we have tended to ignore ageing women, and menopause has been read as a signal of our descent into decrepitude. The sales pitch for a procedure to delay menopause buys into this way of thinking. For many women menopause is not a burden, but a gift: no more menstruation, no more pregnancy, new purpose.