home Arts & Literature, Australia, Human Rights What Meritocracy? Abbott’s New Disability Policy in Australia

What Meritocracy? Abbott’s New Disability Policy in Australia

Prior to Australia’s recent federal election, Global Comment feature writer Chally Kacelnik wrote about the rise of far right parties in Australia explaining that both options in our two party preferred system were sliding further to the right. Although as Chally noted much of Labor’s policies have swung to the right in recent years, they introduced a National Disability Strategy (NDS) which for the first time took Australians with disability seriously by pledging support for education, employment, infrastructure and inclusion. The NDS which was endorsed by the Council of Australian Governments (COAG) in February 2011 was developed following a nation-wide public consultation process with over 2,500 people. The policy which had bipartisan support has six priority points:

1. Inclusive and accessible communities
2. Rights protection, justice and legislation
3. Economic security
4. Personal and community support
5. Learning and skills
6. Health and wellbeing

This strategy represents a radical departure from medicalised ways of understanding disability as personal problem that should be cured through hard work, determination and medical intervention.

The medical model of disability sees the barrier to full participation as originating with a person’s impairment whereas the social model sees the barriers originating with a lack of support, inaccessibility and negative attitudes.

A simple way of understanding this is to think about a wheelchair user attempting to enter a building accessible only by stairs. When disability is located as existing in the body, the wheelchair user would be viewed as the problem. A social model approach on the other hand would describe the stairs as disabling.

Most media coverage of the NDS focused on the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS). The NDIS pledged a monetary commitment to enabling people with disability to access support that is reasonable and necessary to meet their needs. Prior to the election, University of Wollongong journalism lecturer and curator of the blog Disability Media Matters Shawn Burns said the NDS does not end with the NDIS.

With some commentators declaring they’d rather buy an extra latte than contribute to the support of people with disability, the NDIS took incredible leadership from dedicated disability reform ministers.

Following the Liberal party’s election victory, new Prime Minister Tony Abbott promised a ‘no surprises government’ and assured Australians work on the NDIS would continue.

People with disabilities and their families can be confident that the work will continue without interruption. The NDIS is now owned by the nation and I hope, remains forever above politics.

However, when Abbott revealed his ministry there was no disability minister. Now disability is in the outer ministry. Mitch Fifield, as Assistant Minister for Social Services, has responsibility for disabilities. Having committed to rolling out the NDIS, often described as the biggest Australian social reform in decades, there is surely enough work for a dedicated disability reform minister.

There were other absences in Abbott’s ministry, notably women. With only one female Minister in Julie Bishop, commentators accused Abbott of gender bias and of not giving women the opportunities they need to succeed in his government. Abbott responded with the assertion that his ministry was experienced and people could be assured he had appointed a qualified team on the basis of merit. A Meritocracy assumes that people succeed because they deserve to, not because they come from the right family or have the ability to buy their way to the top. This system is premised on the flawed notion that everyone has the same opportunities to succeed.

However, if women in the Liberal party were not being given the opportunities to succeed then how could they demonstrate their merit? With revelations that the gender imbalance would not be accepted in business and female liberal senators publishing their ‘embarrassment’ on the ABC, Monash University politics lecturer and Australian media personality Waleed Aly argued that the focus on (the lack of) women missed the point which in his view was Australia’s inability to deal with disadvantage.

While outraged commentators dissected the absence of female ministers, it was difficult to find any reasoned analysis of the lack of a disability minister for close to two days. Strange in the 24 hour news cycle but doubly strange because people with disability bring into clear focus the problem with meritocracies. People with disability are not given the same opportunities to succeed because their limitations are considered medical in nature, not social. Australians with disability agree. 85% of respondents to a survey, which is open until the end of November, see the news as reinforcing the view that disability is a medical problem. Less than 25% respondents agreed people with disability are portrayed as a multi-faceted people whose disabilities do not receive undue attention. This suggests that despite the advances made in disability reform, there is still much work to be done for ordinary Australians with disability seeking access to the six priority points identified in the NDS.

Observing merit in people with disability requires a social understanding of disability. Often, adjustments are needed to allow people with disability to succeed in education, the workforce and life in general. For example, expecting a person with vision impairment to use a computer without a screen reader does not allow them to demonstrate their ability to do the job. The screen reader allows them to demonstrate their merit. However without the opportunity to obtain a screen reader, or indeed an education, this hypothetical person is not given the same opportunity to succeed as a sighted person who does not require any adjustments.

With Abbott focusing on merit and openly critical of affirmative action and creating opportunities for underrepresented groups, the tide could shift once again against people with disability who may be perceived as being given an unfair advantage when reasonable adjustments are made.

Back in May, ABC Ramp Up editor Stella Young criticised the then government’s decision to rename the NDIS ‘Disability Care’. Young argued it was important to stop viewing people with disability as passive recipients of charity when what people with disability really wanted was support. Her critique is premised on a distinction between medical and social models of disability.

Although Fifield is considered the right person for the job by the disability sector, there is disappointment that the role is no longer judged important enough to warrant a place in the cabinet room. Despite Mr Abbott maintaining he wants to “get away from this idea that unless you have minister with your specific interest in his or her specific title, that there is going to be any lack of concern,” I’m worried about the backward step this represents.

Photo by Marcel Oosterwijk, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-Sharealike 2.0 Generic license

Dr Katie Ellis is a senior research fellow at the Curtin University internet studies department. Katie who acquired disability as a teenager is a past member of the WA Ministerial Advisory Council on Disability. Her current research includes a survey asking people with disability about digital tv accessibility and what they think about the representation of disability on television. She is also writing a book about disability and popular culture.