Tuesday, August 9, 2016

Census Fail Makes Disabled Australians Grin A Bit

Like other disabled Australians, the #censusfail furore is making me grin. 

Over the past month, the nation has been immersed in the type of outrage only afforded to the privileged.  Billboards encourage passersby to tell the government that they are atheist if they no longer subscribe to a religious belief.  Impassioned expressions of outrage about loss of privacy and the potential for the government to know your business are flooding social media.  And the news that the ABS Census website crashed last night, allegedly due to ‘overseas hackers’, has been greeted with delighted handclapping and a virulent spray of ‘I told you so’s’.  

Instead of talking about white people problems, we need a new hashtag, #ablepeopleproblems.

When it comes to the Census, many disabled people are not even counted. 

That big snapshot of what’s happening across Australia for communities of people tells government a lot.  It might inform community and program development when government realise that too few people in the CaLD community are using local services.  It could tell us important things about youth unemployment, direct understanding about the types of infrastructure we need in Australia in the future.  

It does this by asking us how old we are, how much we earn, where we live, who we worship, what language we speak, whether we rent or buy, whether we work, what our ancestry is comprised of.

But, unbelievably, it doesn’t ask Australians if they actually have a disability.  

As a disabled Australian who does not receive formal care and support, I’m not counted.  The Census questions around disability asks questions about whether we have a carer or whether we get help with daily activities.  For many of us who manage our own daily assistance, we’re actively counted out.

Able people’s problems.  While you’re protesting the intrusion on your privacy, we’re struggling to be recognised at all. 

I’m not suggesting that this is all pearl clutching.  Privacy concerns should be taken seriously.  There is a need to protect our information, especially if we are not clear about the ways in which government will use or protect it.  But consider this. 

Whilst social media explodes in Census website-crash outrage, problems with the new government run NDIS portal has halted millions in payments to service providers.   It’s been months now, but it’s caused barely a ripple in the media.  Social Services minister Christian Porter has announced that there will be a ‘review’.  

The portal that we’re talking about collects information that is far more sensitive than that collected by the Census.  It’s not just our names and addresses we are talking about – imagine uploading your whole life plan, bank account details, intimate and personal details of your goals, dreams, sexuality, plans for the future.  

Half of all disabled Australians live in poverty.  We rank 27 of 27 of all Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries for relative poverty risk, and 21st out of 29 OECD countries in employment rates for people with a disability.  Think about that.  Because they are only the people we are counting.

They're serious issues for disabled people and the wider community, but #portalfail or #povocrips are never going to be trending hashtags.  

Issues for disabled people aren’t considered in the same way as they are in mainstream, white, able Australia.  We can’t even be ticked off on a national checklist.  We’re as invisible as nineteen murdered crips in a Japanese care facility.  

We’ve just embarked on one of the greatest disability reforms of all time, the National Disability Insurance Scheme.  Part of that scheme is the Information,Linkages and Capacity program, which is supposed to target about 800,000 disabled people and their families and carers who are not eligible for the NDIS.  It’s supposed to enable greater access to the social and economic life of the community, and you’d think the government would want to know which of us were gaining access to education, employment, services and facilities.  

Instead, they’re collecting information about which God you worship and where your father was born. 

Craig Wallace wrote an article about this same issue in 2011, at the time of the last Census.  It was only six months after disabled people, families and providers began lobbying for the NDIS.  That campaign was named ‘Every Australian Counts’.  

I wish we did. 

Image description:  A form which reads 'It's time to complete your census questionnaire'.

Saturday, April 9, 2016

On homelessness - and a blanket, under the stars.

I know what it is to sleep rough.

I lived in the city, with other young people.  I was only fourteen, and the streets were the safest place for me. 

It was safer living under a bridge than it was living at home, because there was nobody on the streets who had ever tried to hurt me.

In the eyes of the law, I would not have been regarded as a 'genuine homeless' person.  I had a home, with a bed, with a blanket.  In the eyes of the law, I would have been seen as a runaway.  In the eyes of someone like the Lord Mayor of Perth, I would have been seen as someone who was 'not actually homeless'.  In the eyes of the City of Perth, I would have been regarded as someone who should be 'moved on'.

That's what happened last week to more than 100 mostly Aboriginal people living at Matagarup, a registered heritage site and Aboriginal meeting, camp site and hunting ground.

Homeless folk were forced to leave by police and council rangers, who arrested at least one man, issued two move on notices and seized personal property. 

What does that actually mean?

Here's a picture of Kirsty Oehlers from the First Nations Homelessness Project, assisting homeless Koori children during a police backed City of Perth raid aimed to move on the homeless from the Heirisson Island Matargarup First Nations Refugee Camp. These children and their parents were subsequently police escorted to a carpark at the Burswood casino (the next Shire), and just left there.

'I can explain what happened here,' says Kirsty.

'We were given a short reprieve to get things out of this family's tent before they started dismantling it and throwing things into bags (probably later to be binned).

The kids' father and I went to their tent and I asked the kids to collect the things they wanted. They took their favourite blankets, soft toys and books. Too sad for words to see them quickly taking their treasured things...beautiful kids and family.'

I know this child.  She sat on my knee once, and told me that she had a blanket with stars on it.  She told me that princesses lived in castles.

That family has travelled around Australia.  'I was in Shark Bay,' the child told me.  Her mother absentmindedly tucked her hair behind her ear so that it wouldn't fall in her eyes as she was talking to me.  Her little sister, the baby you see in the photograph behind the shopping cart, fell over and was picked up by a community member with the kind of practised ease you see when others are taking care of children in their care, in their community. 

Those children are included in the comments by well meaning white folk who argue that there are criteria for 'genuine homelessness', that perhaps they should not get involved.  Perhaps they shouldn't be there, they say.  Why won't they go?  Why are they there?

The City of Perth is doing a great job of painting the issue of homelessness as an issue of criminality.  Over 80 percent of tents removed on Tuesday were vacant, they say.  Vehicles were unregistered.  A media statement was issued saying that the raids were carried out 'in line with community and ratepayers expectations'.  The Lord Mayor of Perth, Lisa Scaffidi, has previously stated that she is in possession 'of strong anecdotal evidence' that 'professional beggars were potentially earning hundreds of dollars a day.'

They are the same agency that, according to a member of the WA Police force, that have told WA police to continue to raid the island until the people no longer return.

They are the same agency that tipped out food, poured out water in raids.  Illegally destroyed people's property or took it, telling people they could pick it up if they could pay the 'costs of removing, impounding and storing the item'. 

They are the same agency that ticketed journalists for parking their cars during the raid - $75, then another $100 for not moving.  Shortly after 6PR tweeted about the fines, two rangers removed the tickets and cancelled them. 

They are the same agency who slapped a $500 fine on a broken down car parked at the Island.  The car is owned by a homeless family with five children who cannot afford to pay it. Senator Sue Lines created a go fund me account to pay the fine, which was raised by the public in under six hours.

Inside Cover journalist Ben O'Shea says that people had returned to the island within a few hours, and wondered out loud why people were being moved on - yet again, for the ninth or tenth time.

'If something didn't work after the third go, you'd do something different, wouldn't you?' he asked. 

There's also the issue of cost.  Homelessness activist Jennifer Kaeshagen says that the heavily financed, police escorted City of Perth raids are estimated in the mainstream media as costing about 20 grand.  That's for planning, conducting and enforcing each raid, not working with the homelessness community or linking with agencies.  During last week's raid, no assistance from homelessness agencies could be arranged, except for the Aboriginal Health Service and Nyoongar Patrol (who attended of their own accord).

'And as for the the City of Perth welfare officer,' says another activist,

'She considered that she was doing her job by simply giving me brochures to hand out to the homeless.'

Jennifer believes that it is 'a budgeted war on Black poor'. And it's being waged on a (Federal and State recognised) Registered Aboriginal (Sacred) Site.

Nine young women who had previously sheltered at Matagarup under the care of the Aboriginal people at the site are now sleeping rough under bridges.  The others have scattered, are missing.  The community are dispersed.  The children were dumped in a car park. 

I will not be sleeping outside tonight.  There is a storm brewing over the city - I can see lightning flashes from outside my window.  Inside my home, the temperature is set to a cosy 21 degrees.

My bed is warm.  

Water comes from the tap.  

I can cook without searching for gas or wood, keep my food cold without ice.  

I do not have to dig a hole or go far to find a toilet.  

My children are safe. 

I am safe.

That wasn't the case all those years ago.  When the police brought me home that last time, my father grabbed me by the neck of my shirt, smashed the back of my head against the hallway wall.

You won't do that again, he said.  Embarrass me like that.  He rubbed with his sleeve at the smear of blood my head had left on the plaster, and arranged for me to be sent away to live with a distant relative in a third world country, eight and a half thousand kilometres away.

Nobody sees the reasons for homelessness.  They are invisible, as invisible as a child with a shopping trolley in a casino car park, as invisible as the faint smear of blood on a hallway wall.  The seven year waiting list for social housing, the 'too-big' families, the intergenerational disadvantage, the intersectional issues like violence and racism and ableism and bigotry.

And in the end, it is not up to you or I to judge how or why we should offer assistance, whether or not people are the 'deserving homeless'.

I have a bed, not just a blanket.

There is a roof between my blanket and the stars.
I am not in danger, or sleeping on the streets. 

Most likely, neither are you. 

Here's what you can do to help - from Jennifer.

'What I would advise supporters at this point in time, further to visiting the island and building relationships with individuals there in need of support who can best let you know what they need at this mad time and how, would be to contribute to the strategic campaign of pushing back against such draconian measures as practiced by the City of Perth just to 'move on', criminalise, punish the homeless.'
Write to politicians you think may engage in the bigger picture, respectfully, in terms of the homeless at Matagarup.

Write to the media.

Write to the Perth City Council members.  Educate them as to the reality of the people, and call them to account.

Here are their email contact details.

Lord Mayor Lisa Scaffidi lord.mayor@cityofperth.wa.gov.au
Deputy Lord Mayor James Limns james.limnios@cityofperth.wa.gov.au
Janet Davidson, OAM JP (Councillor) janet.davidson@cityofperth.wa.gov.au
Jim Adamos (Councillor) jim.adamos@cityofperth.wa.gov.au
Lily Chen (Councillor) lily.chen@cityofperth.wa.gov.au
Jemma Green (Councillor) jemma.green@cityofperth.wa.gov.au
Judy McEvoy (Councillor) judy.mcevoy@cityofperth.wa.gov.au
Reece Harley (Councillor) reece.harley@cityofperth.wa.gov.au
Keith Yong (Councillor) keith.Yong@cityofperth.wa.gov.au

I wonder where that child's blanket is right now.  You know, the one with the stars on it.

Image description - a woman pushes a shopping cart loaded with clothes.

A police van is in the background.  

Three small children are carrying their belongings, including toys. 

Monday, April 4, 2016

Petition - We Went To Lunch

Yesterday, people with disability got mad.

They got mad because they were asked to use an unsafe, terrible ramp (at a brand new restaurant called 'Petition') to get to the accessible toilet.

You can read about that here.

Petition has been built as part of a larger refurbishment, one that cost 108 million dollars.  After the blog was published, a City of Perth Councillor told us that actually, there was an accessible toilet.

It just wasn't easy to get to, and it was a shame nobody was directed there, he said.

He pointed out that it was a heritage listed building, that getting upset was a bit 'silly' and that the developers had gone to great expense to install lifts. 

We thought we'd go and see for ourselves.

Jackie, Tom and I set out for lunch at Petition.  This what happened.

11.45am:  We arrive at the Kings car park and make our way down to St George's Terrace.  The City of Perth councillor has told us that there are lifts on the Terrace, and we're keen to check them out for ourselves.  

We get to the building.  There are shop signs that advertise the shops that are presumably accessible below, but the railing is at exactly at my eye height - I can't see them at all.  There's nothing else to tell me that this isn't just any old government building.

We reach the first lift, and after much pressing of buttons (there are only three, but it's not clear how they work) the lift starts rising to the street level. 

There's a small, weird little sign that neither of us have ever seen before.  It says, 'limited mobility access'.  We're not sure what that means - I'm guessing that they don't want to use the word 'disability'. 

 Image description - Lift buttons which direct people up and down.  The third is a red knob.  Beneath the knob are the words 'limited mobility access' with an image of a wheelchair (universal access symbol).   Second image - a glass door beside the lift buttons.  The lift is a platform lift that is open to the elements. 

11.50am:  Jackie wanders down the stairs and says that the shops are shut.  She points out the writing on the door - small, all in capitals, black.  Hard to read.  I peer over the edge and notice that there are no tactile ground surface indicators on the top of the stairs - the stairs are steep and a little roll over the edge would not be fun.  Fortunately, the blind people will be able to notice that there's an impending hazard AFTER they've fallen down the stairs, because there is a neat, compliant row at the bottom.

We notice that someone has gone to the trouble to 'antique' the down pipe.  And the non compliant handrails.

Image description - A steep flight of stairs.  At the bottom is a row of shiny TGSIs.  At the top, there is nothing. 

The shops are shut downstairs, and the second lift doesn't work at all.  We don't know if it is broken or turned off.  I look at the small catchment down the bottom and wonder if I would ever use this lift.  Clearly, I'm not going to be using it on a Sunday.

Second image - Stencilled letters which read 'opening hours, Monday to Friday, 10am to 5pm.  Saturday 10am to 4pm. 

Image description:  The second lift has a 'limited mobility access' sticker on it.  The first has been peeled off.  

- We get to Petition and are confronted by an imposing flight of stairs.  Fortunately, there is a small, easily recognisable blue sign with a wheelchair and an arrow.  We follow it.

When we get to the next arrow, we gasp.

Now we know why there were no TGSIs at the top of the frighteningly steep staircase.  They'd used them all on the bizarre feature pictured - a strange, graduating, double step that is confusingly lined with double roles of TGSIs.  At the bottom, at the top almost everywhere.  It is a glorious TGSI overdose.  It looks like the architect has eaten TGSIs and vomited them over the oddly shaped steps.


The steps, which terminate near the rise, do not comply with the access regulations about minimum luminous contrast.  That is a technical terms that means, 'Paint that dangerous edge shit in different colours so that the folks with low vision, the drunk folks and the old folks can see it and so that they don't break their necks'.  It's a rule, and it wasn't followed - there is a clear trip hazard that's going to make someone's life interesting when they file the first law suit.

Here's a picture from another angle.  It clearly shows how dangerous this two step access nightmare is. 

Here are Tom and I.  The top 'path' is where I've wandered along in my wheelchair.  TGSIs are hated but tolerated by most wheelchair users, but we usually just encounter small rows of them before hazards and we know that the blind folk need them.  This - well, in order to access the restaurant, I can either find out that there's a long way, or go down along the TGSIs in a bumpy three metre ride to the restaurant, castors turning, voice bouncing like it did when we were little kids going down a gravel road in the car.

The edge is frighteningly close to the edge of my chair and I wonder how close it would be for a person with a big, electric wheelchair.

We enter, and the staff rush to the door to open it.  We kind of suspect that after the flurry of social media the night before, they've been expecting a call. 

12.10pm - We enjoy a leisurely lunch and enjoy the great peach bellinis.  What Petition lack in access, they make up for in food - Jackie has something with eleventy billion shades of mushroom, and Tom and I feast on the very good cheeseburgers.  The wine list is a bit overpriced, but it's not the house red, so bellinis it is.

We notice that the good customer service extends to Tom, who doesn't use a lot of spoken language and who has Down syndrome.  He's offered a menu, called sir, and generally treated as you'd expect to be treated.  This is part of good access, so we mentally note it.

When it's time to go, we wonder whether to casually ask to use the toilet or call over the staff member and let him know why we are there.  We're pretty sure they already know, so we decide on the second.  The staff member is personable, friendly and truthful - all qualities we very much appreciate. 

'What would happen, then, if I wanted to go to the toilet now?' I asked after our conversation about the ramp finished.

He hesitated.  'I would have to take you.'  I make a face and ask him when the last time it was that HE was taken to the toilet.

I often ask, he tells us, but that's different from being 'taken'.  He gets it.  'I should have said 'escorted',' he says, and I launch into a completely unnecessary discussion about how it feels to be 'taken' or 'escorted' to a toilet and to know that you have to hurry up and not pee loudly.  Poor guy. 

We thank him, because Petition's access aside, it was a good experience.  As tenants, they have specific restrictions - for example, they cannot hang anything on the wall.

2.30pm - We decide to wander through the rest of the State Buildings, curious to see if the dodgy access extends to the rest of the place - and interested to know how easy the toilet was to find without being 'escorted'.

And this is what we found.

Here's the - I am assuming - Chinese restaurant, which is inaccessible to me on a Sunday because the lift is not in use and the outside doors are locked.

 Image description - a flight of stairs lead to a lit up sign that reads, 'Long Chim'.

Here's the toilet?  See it?  No?  Neither could we.  That tiny light box on the right hand side was a clever interior designer's idea of wayfaring - it's a backlit laser etched piece of metal with a discreet 'restrooms' embossed upon it.  To the right, in that little alcove, is the actual toilet.  There's no way to find it or see it unless you're directed there - 'taken to the toilet', I guess.

The accessible toilet had a staff member in it, getting changed.  We'll assume that in four years time, it will be filled with cleaning products because it is 'never used'.

Image description - a long hallway with a flight of stairs at the end.  Women stand at the top of the stairs.  A sign that says 'Petition' stands in the hallway.  Some entries branch off the hallway.  A small light box is visible.

Here's a closer view of the laser etched light box.  The only way you can read it, really, is by standing in front of it.  And to do that, you'll first need to know that it's a sign - not a light - and you'll, secondly, have to be able to find it. 

We stumbled across the lift to the hotel completely by accident.  Despite the plethora of 'other kit' that was printed in vinyl on the walls - those 'essential' items like fire extinguisher signs - and lights and fire sprinklers and fittings that were fitted to the new ceilings, it seemed that the designers were loathe to install anything that could actually be used to find your way around the building.  In, or in case of a fire, out - something you'd think would be a fairly obvious consideration.

2.50pm - Before leaving, we bought some products from some of the lovely little shops in the building.  Not the shop that Jackie described caustically as providing 'white dresses for thin people', nor the Argyle diamond shop.  But upon chatting with one of the vendors, we realised that the issues of lack of universal access were not restricted to being a disability issue.  'I have to bring stock in,' said one vendor, 'And I am by myself and often have to leave it outside on the pavement, because I have to lug it up the stairs.'

How to solve these issues?  Well, they're pretty obvious.  Involve disabled people at all stages of a building or refit.  It's far, far cheaper to get us involved as access auditors and/or advisory group members or as folks who have both lived and professional expertise than have some disabled person die in a fire, crash off an inaccessible step or sue a business for poor access.  It's also cheaper than than trying to stock an empty white elephant of a building with viable businesses - on the day that we visited, the place should have been a hive of activity, not a ghost town.

Ensure that those 'last minute' access modifications are actually checked during big fitouts and constructs - the installations of TGSIs, for example, are rarely checked.  The accessibility flaws to these premises should never have been approved.

The many wheelchair users who were directed to use an unsafe ramp were just as discriminated against as if there had been no accessible bathroom at all, and this is important to note.  If the end result is that you are treated less favourably than your able bodied equivalent - in this case, that you cannot piss - then you've been discriminated against, unless the discriminator can prove that they couldn't afford to treat you equitably. 

The questions to be answered in finding whether there is indirect discrimination are:
  • was a condition or requirement imposed;
  • was the person with a disability able to comply with it; and
  • was it reasonable.
Good access is good business.  And although we appreciate maintaining the heritage aspect of a historic building - you can read more here about how the DDA trumps heritage legislation - the design or refurbishment should not just recognise the building's past, but should accommodate its present.  Including the citizens' who are going to shop, eat, or drink there - including citizens with a disability. 

Good as the peach bellinis were - I won't be going back.

Friday, April 1, 2016

Petition – The 108 Million Dollar Redevelopment WIth No Disability Access

Their website proudly boasts, ‘Over 100 years ago, petitioners would gather in the centre of Perth to lobby for causes they believed in. They would march down the terrace, lining the building where Petition now stands; on the Barrack St. side of the State Buildings. Here sits Petition Beer Corner, Petition Kitchen and Petition Wine Bar & Merchant. Three spaces that offer an 18-tap craft beer bar, a bistro and an inner city wine bar. Come and add your signature.’

Such a cute idea for a brand-new eatery. I hold fond memories of the State Buildings, where, as a sixteen year old outside clerk, I traipsed up and down stairs or into rickety lifts to deliver documents or have titles searched or stamped. Back then, I was not yet a wheelchair user. As a disability activist, it thrilled me that the old buildings held a history of social activism, of places where people came together for a cause.

That’s why it shocked me when I spotted this post in a friend’s newsfeed on social media.
‘$100+ million on refurbishments and multiple fuckwits think this ramp is acceptable? The staff member put his foot on it to keep it stable.’

And then the picture, of a steep shard of metal with an almost 30 degree aspect, the type of adventurous activity that most wheelchair users would write off as being dangerous, impractical and downright discriminatory.

Disabled Perth lawyer Prue Hawkins also visited Petition – just yesterday, in fact. She asked where the accessible bathroom was, and was directed to a flight of stairs.

I looked at the stairs and the girl who was directing me said brightly, oh, it’s okay, we have a ramp,’ she said.

‘They brought this thing out and put it down and I said, thanks, but no thanks. First of all, that ramp is so steep it’s ridiculous. It isn’t a fixed ramp, it moves. There are no sides, and my wheelchair weighs 150 kilos. It doesn’t matter if you’re Michael Schumacher or some complete dick who can’t drive a wheelchair, it’s dangerous.

Prue, who has previously worked as a disability discrimination lawyer, says that she would have minded less if the building had not been very recently refurbished at a cost of over 100 million.

‘If it was some old building where they just couldn’t make the access work, then you tend to be a bit more forgiving,’ she said.

‘This is just straightforward discrimination.

It’s also illegal.

In Australia, the Australian Standards Council has regulations for slopes of permanent ramps into buildings. The standard gradient is one in fourteen.

We also have standards that say that you can’t NOT provide access. The relevant rule is known as ‘AS 1428.1’ and it requires new buildings to have a ramp - a ramp with a maximum incline of 1 in 14, a minimum width of 1000mm, level landings every 9 metres, safety kerb rails of at least 65mm height and handrails at heights between 865 and 1000mm. It applies to all new buildings that are used for commercial purposes, and it certainly applies to the building at Petition.

The only defence in court against a discrimination claim is that the builder, business or company couldn’t afford the access arrangement. And with a 108 million price tag, it’s pretty unlikely that this was the case – good luck to the luxury hotel chain in proving ‘unjustifiable hardship’.

The City of Perth, who approved the reburbishment that was carried out by luxury hotel chain the COMO group, disbanded their Access Advisory Committee two years ago. A disability advocate says that it just ‘fell apart’ after a change of staff and through ‘lack of interest’, despite opposition from the disability community.

'The refurbishment should never have been approved,' he said.

108 million dollars, and disabled people are still regarded as second class citizens, as an afterthought. I wonder if those Barrack Street petitioners of 100 years ago included disabled people who lobbied for better access, for the right to be able to use the toilet or eat in public like other Western Australians.

Or maybe they couldn’t get up the steps.
Footnote: A group of disability advocates 'added their signature' to the above photo, with a message of complaint on Petition’s social media wall. The post was promptly removed. Disabled patrons are now lodging disability discrimination complaints against the developers.

Image description: A steep portable ramp, made of steel, leans up across some stairs at an eatery. The sign on the wall reads, 'Petition'.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Man Stood Up Out of His Wheelchair After a Roger Federer Miracle Shot

Caption - the author, five years ago. Text description - A woman half sitting on a car bonnet with a forearm crutch in her hands.

You don’t see that every day, the article says.

The headline is compelling. ‘A man has sensationally jumped out of his wheelchair after Roger Federer hit an unbelievable shot in his three sets to one loss against Novak Djokavic at the Australian Open semi finals’.

A miracle, they say.

‘The ~miracle~ occurred after Federer managed to get onto the end of a particularly slight touch from Djokovic’, the article reads, and is followed by a flurry of Twitter posts mocking or denouncing the man in the wheelchair, who had the audacity to stand up in his excitement.

Well, it’s miracle time at my house – along with the homes of millions of other wheelchair users who do not have a spinal cord injury.

Let’s explain wheelchairs. They are mobility devices, used to assist people who cannot walk, who cannot walk far, cannot walk without pain, cannot walk for long distances because they have breathing problems, fatigue issues, brittle bones. They’re metal shapes with wheels which confer mobility, not diagnostic status, onto the user.

I have limb girdle muscular dystrophy, and I can stand. I do so to throw my wheelchair into the back of my car, and I can walk without much assistance inside my home. I hold onto furniture, I sometimes fall over, and I cannot navigate steps. My ability to walk is decreasing, and my gait is peculiar – I look a little like a Thunderbird. It is like I have ball bearings in my hips. Getting up from the floor is harder than standing from a sitting position.

This is not unusual for many wheelchair users. Folks with cerebral palsy often use a wheelchair for the same reason and many of them can also stand and walk. Different people have different levels of impairment – my disability is degenerative. And there is no blanket rule that says, ‘Wheelchair users cannot stand’.

Don’t get me wrong. We have enormous fun with your shitty, ableist, stereotyping misconceptions. I have lost count of the number of times a well meaning and prayerful person has ‘laid hands’ on me to pray for my ‘recovery’ – it is always hilarious when you stand up at the end. And I thank the stars that my feet still work when I need to get up or down a curb or step, and curse those same stars when I stand up with shopping on the back of my chair, which painfully smashes the footplate into my non-paralysed feet as it tips over.

But this gets old very quickly. Like many other wheelchair users, I am reluctant to stand in supermarkets for just this reason – people make assumptions about my impairment, decide ‘how disabled’ I am. If you can walk, they ask, why do you need a wheelchair? It does not matter how far you can walk, or how much difficulty it takes you, or whether you are likely to dislocate a leg or shoulder – you are ‘not disabled’.

This image, shared by George Takei last year, is another example of where stereotyping leads to public mockery, stigmatising and hate speech against people with disability.

Image description - A disabled woman stands up out of her wheelchair to reach the top shelf of the liquor aisle. The image is taken from a screenshot of a Facebook page. The meme reads, 'There has been a miracle'.

That stereotyping reinforces misconceptions and stigmas around disabled people. It’s not far from the language of ‘burden’, tossed out on the front page of a newspaper to tell Australians why we were not worthy of receiving disability care and support, or a disability support pension. It is why disabled people are dying in the United Kingdom, why we constantly have to ‘prove’ how disabled we are. It is why we painted as leaners and scroungers and rorters, people who are too busy sitting down being lazy to get a job or people who live off benefits, even when we are unable to find employment because of that same stigmatisation.

I’m walking away from this conversation – not very steadily, but walking nonetheless.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

The March

Image description: A woman with red hair and a green shirt is being pushed in a wheelchair. A sign on the back of the wheelchair says, 'Black lives matter. Disabled lives matter.'

“Will you come and march with us on January 26?”

I think about it. The young man who is asking me is a young indigenous man named Clinton, and we are sitting at the outskirts of a homelessness community at Matagarup, a place that means ‘leg-deep’. It is home to a dozen homeless families, a few hard core activists protesting the closure of black communities, a few people who are travelling from interstate or who have moved to the city after their communities have been closed.

‘Why would we march?’, I ask. I am a disability rights activist, but I sometimes visit the island. The people there are always warm and polite and helpful. Sometimes I take food. Always, I learn something.

‘For change,’ Clinton says. ‘For the Australia we want to be. Do you want anything to change in Australia? I do.’

And we talk about the Australia we are living in – an Australia which celebrates the anniversary of white Australia occupying this land and commencing the mass genocide of his people, an Australia where half of my people, disabled folk, are living near or below the poverty line. An Australia where people who cannot marry who they want, where racism and bigotry and ableism is rife. An Australia whose history has informed our present, where disabled people are still living in institutions and black men, women and children cannot get jobs or housing and are still living in poverty.

And so I agree to march.

My day starts in uniform, in my own rural community. We raise and salute the flag, the children and I. There are awards presented to deserving recipients, hardworking members of my community. There is a citizenship ceremony, where the new Australians are given a potted native plant wrapped in a green and gold ribbon. The Councillors cook us breakfast and we volunteers talk to each other, the fire brigade members, Scouts, Mens Shed members.

Of three hundred or so people, there are five Aboriginal people. They stand slightly aside from the crowd.

I take off my uniform in the car and put on a green tee shirt. It is a teeshirt from FRIDA, the Feminist Response In Disability Activism collective, and was sent to me by a disabled sister in the US. There’s corflute for a sign for my wheelchair, carefully marked with the words, ‘Black Lives Matter, Disabled Lives Matter’. As I am writing it, I think of the Aboriginal Australians with disability who I will march for – my friend Marlon Noble, who was incarcerated for a decade without charge, Rosie Ann Fulton, others who have been deemed to be held indefinitely without charge under the Mentally Impaired Accused Act in this state. I think of other Australians, 22 year old Ms Dhu, whose inquest continues this year, who died from the injuries that the police disregarded when she was in their care, of Mr Ward, who was literally cooked to death in an unairconditioned police cell on a country trip. Kate Bugmy, Lala Mardigan – the names go on. They are the people I will march for, I decide.

It is a hot day. My wheelchair is fitted with an off road wheel, but it bogs down in the sand on the island.

‘Do you want a hand, or shall I just watch you struggle?’ A man strides over to me and I gratefully accept his help. If it was on the street, I would have said no. This is a community where people help one another.

He pushes me into the shade of a tarp, erected between a forked stick and a tent. There’s a chair beside me and an upturned piece of bark. It is filled with feathers, sprayed black and yellow and red, a half coke can filled with crushed charcoal, balls of wool and braided lengths, ready for decoration.

‘How do these work?’ I ask Herbert, who is sitting near me. ‘Where do you wear them?’

‘You’ll see, in a minute. We will be all dressed up.’ Herbert is an Aboriginal man who is one of the camp leaders. He directs the young men and boys and shows them how to paint their bodies and tuck the red material into their shorts, and I am greatly amused watching Clinton working out how to tuck his mobile phone into his traditional garb.

‘In case the media ring,’ he explains. And rubs charcoal across his chest, ties gumleaves to his arms.

There are more of us gathering, a two hundred strong crowd, but it is all very casual. The young boys are dressed by their brothers and fathers and uncles, and a few of them go off to play football, showing off impressive footy skills that my home team would die for. The young men talk about the heat of the bitumen and whether they should wear thongs.

‘No black man wore thongs,’ declares Herbert, and I tell him that no black man traditionally had to walk on bitumen. He grins. ‘We will walk barefoot,’ he says, and the young men put their footwear away.

The sun is shining and there is a breeze coming off the river. Someone is playing a radio, and others are laughing and talking in family groups. There is a small girl on my knee, and another small girl is telling me, earnestly, that all princesses live in castles.

‘Fuck off, you black cunts!’ They scream it from a car that was passing on the Causeway, and everybody freezes. It is a car full of white revellers, travelling to celebrate Australia Day. The community stop and look in that direction, then return to what they are doing. The little girl cocks her head and opens her blue eyes a little wider.

‘Does that happen often?’ I ask. Yes, I am told. Day and night. People scream abuse out their car windows, sometimes come to the camp to cause violence. The men at the camp protect the women and children, I am told.

A few minutes later, it happens again.

Herbert gathers us around. He is painted in white clay, and is today a ghost man, invisible in his own country. ‘When you hear the first bang of the first firework,’ he tells us, ‘That is the bang of the first gun that was fired by Captain Cook at black men when they arrived in our country. Our ancestors died for us.’ The children listen, the young men look sombre. He speaks of land and birthright and racism and colonialisation. He speaks of the reality for his people, right now.

My daughter joins me and my friend. We are not the only white people marching – the march is mostly made up of Aboriginal men, women and children, but there are folks from every conceivable background holding signs, wearing teeshirts. Many of them are pushing prams. The children are wearing shoes, carrying water bottles, tucked into strollers. We set off down the street, stopping the traffic, the police escort just in front of us. This is a peaceful protest. There is no anger and I have not heard a single person swear. It is a community march, a family rally, a statement of a position, a message that this community of people is not invisible.

The ground is hot. There is a three legged dog in front of us with an Aboriginal flag tied to his collar. Clinton leads the chant via his microphone – ‘Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land!’ Some people are chatting quietly, the young men are dancing at the front of the crowd and carrying a thick silver chain. We walk through the city and Aboriginal people in cars give us the thumbs up, white people look at us darkly. We have disrupted their day of celebration. We keep walking, deep into the heart of the city.

My daughter is sweating, pushing me up a hill that I cannot navigate without her help. And suddenly there is a scream – somebody has thrown a coconut from fifteen stories up, down into the crowd. It narrowly misses a baby in a pram, and it is the mother who has screamed. Seconds later, missiles pelt down into the crowd – a large stone, the type you get from a pot plant, water bottles filled with water. They explode and we are splashed. Nobody is hit, nobody is hurt, but the force of the missiles would almost certainly have meant that a person could have been killed. People are covering their children, their babies. We huddle together in the street. There is nowhere to go, and then the rally turn their faces up to the missile throwers, defiantly.

Caption: The building at 237 Adelaide Tce where the occupants of apartments 15 and 16 - and 9 and 10 threw projectiles at the marching men, women and children below. Image description: A tall building with balconies. The photograph is taken from the ground, looking up at the building.

‘Always was, always will be, Aboriginal land,’ they chant. They stand together and chant up at their attackers, unflinchingly, for long minutes before Clinton moves them on. ‘It’s what they want, let’s keep going,’ he says, and the crowd follows his lead. The television cameras are rolling, and they faithfully record every move.

It is a long walk to the Survival Concert, and heads turn as we proceed through the stalls at the park, disrupt the radio station’s live broadcast. A sea of blue and white tee shirts and here is a sea of chanting people dressed in red and black and yellow, headed up by mostly naked men wearing feathers and paint. The Aboriginal flag flies above us and I notice some people joining us from the other crowd, walking with us.

Image description: A group of people marching down the street, taken from above. The group is led by Aboriginal people carrying Aboriginal flags.
Finally, we arrive at the Survival Concert. Herbert gives a rousing speech – he is not an Elder, he tells them, but an Aboriginal man who wants change for his people. The young men dance, hopping like kangaroos, and the sound of the didgeridoo is everywhere. We cannot stay for the concert, so start walking back.

I have blisters on my hands. I laugh and show the young man walking beside me, whose feet are blistered from walking on hot asphalt. He laughs and shows me his hands, blistered from climbing trees, he says. Wheelchair hands, he says.

On the way home, it is a sombre drive. I wonder how possible it is to 'get over' the trauma of your family history, the genocide of your people, particularly when others are reinforcing that hate and discrimination and racism every day. If you are unable to get a job or a house because of your skin colour. If your community has been closed down, if your parents were stolen from their families because white Australia didn't think they were 'good enough'. Particularly if you are now homeless, or disadvantaged, or having things thrown at you. Particularly if you are living in a tent.

My daughter finds the footage on Facebook, courtesy of Channel 9 News Perth. The comments are appalling.
From Luke - Let them have there little march if it makes them feel better. We shouls be giving out free metho they look thirsty from all the hard work they dont do

From Richard - I don't see them complaining about the Benefits and Royalties they get while hard working tax payers are suffering eh so wrong

From Lance - Should still have them as slaves today!!

From Frances - Can Australia legalise killing for one day please so we can do some culling

Not just a few comments. Hundreds of comments, telling Aboriginal people that they should be killed, grateful that they are living in this country, removed to somewhere away from white people.

Such hate, from white, anonymous faces. In other countries, they were concealed behind white hoods, but here they are screamed from passing cars, hurled from apartment balconies, typed from behind the anonymity of a keyboard.

I read those comments and I try to reconcile them with what I know about their targets, the respectful, warm people I spent time with yesterday, with little Olivia sitting beside me and telling me about her blanket with the stars on it and how all princesses live in castles.

I am not ashamed to be Australian. But today, I am ashamed to be white.

Image description: Aboriginal men leading the march. They are painted and wearing traditional garb.

Photographs by Jeff Tan Photography and Gerry Georgatos

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Buck Stops With Us

Let's put it into tiny little words, simple little concepts.

Do you remember the time your mother said to you, 'I feel so much grief and anger that I had you instead of the child I really wanted'?

No, neither do I.

You can't talk about love and grief in the same mouthful and expect your child to buy it. What, you'd never say it to their face? Do you not think that they see it in your eyes every time you look sad on their birthday, every time you look resigned that they didn't achieve on the same level as their peers?

End this bullshit myth that disability is tragedy and that disabled children are lesser, unworthy. I'm tired of it. I want to see we parents pulling the Welcome To Holland posters off our fridges, tearing the awareness bracelets off our wrists, stopping the channeling of hate and disappointment through our own internalised ableism.

It is the only way we can change the world for our children. The buck stops with us.