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Indigenous people with disabilities face racism and ableism. What’s needed is action not another report

The Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Neglect and Exploitation of People with Disability continues. Its terms of reference acknowledge “the particular situation of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and culturally and linguistically diverse people with disability”.

Recent public hearings aired the experiences of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disabilities and their engagement with the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) in remote communities.

According to the 2015 Survey of Disability, Ageing, and Carers (the most reliable survey of disability prevalence in Australia) there were around 38,000 Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability living in outer-regional and remote regions.

As an Aboriginal disability scholar, I know governments have long been aware of the key issues affecting us mob living in remote communities but have continually failed us.

The art of political distraction

Like the old Roman breads and circuses, it seems that when government wants to delay action on a social or political problem, they call an inquiry. We’ve seen this with child protection and the stolen generations, education and employment.

As far back as the early 1980s, the Grimes report informed the development of 1986’s Disability Services Act and 1985’s Home and Community Care Act. But the Grimes report only mentioned Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability living in remote communities in a few hundred words.

My research and that of others shows the challenges faced by this group were always characterised as a “specialised field”. This means governments were aware of the issues but still failed to properly engage with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability in remote regions.

Read more: Why Aboriginal voices need to be front and centre in the disability Royal Commission

Defining disability in language

Many people and government agencies state “there is no Aboriginal definition of disability”. This statement has the effect of scuttling debate and unjustifiably throwing the blame or responsibility on us mob.

Firstly, it’s true that so far we haven’t found a word equivalent to the English collective noun “disability” in any Aboriginal or Torres Strait Islander language.

However, many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander languages around the country have traditional words for disability types, such as deafness and physical disabilities. There are examples from the NPY Women’s Council and recorded as far back as Edward Curr’s 1886 colonial reports in the Australian Race. If disability service providers claim to be person-centred they should be able to tailor disability services in a culturally and linguistically respectful way.

Secondly, government has never had a consistent concept of disability for their funded and administered disability services and programs.

The Disability Support Pension has a different definition to that of the NDIS. ABS census surveys use different definitions of disability among their data collection instruments and methodologies.

The research I’ve done with colleagues shows people and government authorities have incorrectly stated that around 40% of the Aboriginal population experiences disability. This figure is taken from the National Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Social Survey (NATSISS). If this statistic was true, then official population projections mean over 350,000 Aboriginal and Torres strait Islander people would be experiencing disability today.

The NATSISS blends disability and identified health conditions into one category. As such, the Royal Commission has situated and justified itself on incorrect and poorly understood statistics.

Staying in your own community is incredibly important for people with disability.

Acknowledging the experience of ‘racial-ableism’

The Commission has captured and acknowledged experiences of racism and ableism. I coined the term “racial-ableism” to capture the intersectionality of these experiences at the cultural interface. Separating the two is impossible.

This intersection has been noted in other parts of the world too. Racism and ableism have been described as “parallel systems of oppression” that ignore the experience of people of colour/ethnicity with disabilities and also how their circumstances may be pathologised in racist and colonial ways. In simplest terms, I experienced this as a child as playground insults that referred to my speech and hearing impairment in the same phrase as a racial slur about my skin colour.

I continue to fight and observe this form of discrimination everyday, at both the personal and policy level. The Commission must place more emphasis on racial-ableism as this oppresses Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability to the lowest classes of Australia at a systemic level from childhood to adulthood. The existence of racial-ableism in Australia contravenes the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Disabled Persons to which it is a signatory. The UN convention cites “full and effective participation and inclusion in society” as a core principle.

Read more: Here's why the planned NDIS reforms discriminate against Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people

Toxic foundations

The Royal Commission has not properly focused on the ideological foundations of the NDIS for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote communities. Instead, government has been heavily focused on actuarial studies of the “market” to ascertain where disability service gaps exist in these regions.

The NDIS is a model that attempts to blend the “for profit” values of the business sector with the “not for profit” values of the charity sector. Business profits are only achieved where there exists a “supply” and “demand”. Reports have repeatedly shown the NDIS has not yet fairly benefited Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people living in remote, rural, and regional communities because the absence of local services. This is because there is no “business market” compared to the metropolitan regions and can be seen in provider shrinkage in areas such as East Arnhem land. This is geographic discrimination and racial-ableism.

All of the money spent on the Royal Commission should have been spent on grounded community initiatives under the NDIS in regional, rural, and remote communities. These could have included advocacy programs, secondary and tertiary education programs, long-term government service funding agreements, training of NDIA and allied health staff, Aboriginal employment in the NDIA, and Aboriginal-owned and operated disability support programs.

It is not time for another inquiry and another report. It’s time for action.

Read more: First Nations people in the NT receive just 16% of the Medicare funding of an average Australian

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