By any measure Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability are amongst some of the most disadvantaged Australians; often facing multiple barriers to meaningful participation within their own communities and the wider community.
The prevalence of disability amongst Aboriginal and Torres Islander people is significantly higher than of the general population. Until recently, the prevalence of disability in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities has only been anecdotally reported. However, a report by the Commonwealth Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision made the following conclusions:
The proportion of the indigenous population 15 years and over, reporting a disability or long-term health condition was 37 per cent (102 900 people). The proportions were similar in remote and non-remote areas. This measure of disability does not specifically include people with a psychological disability. [note 1]
The high prevalence of disability, approximately twice that of the non-indigenous population, occurs in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities for a range of social reasons, including poor health care, poor nutrition, exposure to violence and psychological trauma (e.g. arising from removal from family and community) and substance abuse, as well as the breakdown of traditional community structures in some areas. Aboriginal people with disability are significantly over-represented on a population group basis among homeless people, in the criminal and juvenile justice systems[note 2], and in the care and protection system (both as parents and children).[note 3]
The advent of the National Disability Insurance Scheme (NDIS) presents an opportunity for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disabilities to engage – many for the first time – with the disability service system in a substantive way. Currently, most Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disabilities remain at the periphery of the disability service system. This continues to occur for a range of reasons some of which are well established. However, one factor that remains little understood is the reluctance of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disabilities to identify as people with disability. This preference to not identify presents a fundamental barrier for the successful implementation of the NDIS. The First Peoples Disability Network (Australia) (FPDN) argues that it has a central role in addressing not only this fundamental barrier but also in facilitating the roll out of the NDIS more broadly into Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
FPDN argues passionately that for positive change to happen in the lives of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability, the change must be driven by community itself. It cannot be imposed, implied, intervened or developed with well-meaning intention from an external service system that the vast majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disabilities have little or no experience of in the first place.
Throughout many communities across the country, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability are supported and accepted as members of their communities. However, many communities lack the resources to adequately support people with disability. Furthermore, the service system tends to operate from a ‘doing for’ as opposed to ‘doing with’ approach, which only further disenfranchises communities because they simply do not feel that they can self-direct their future. The NDIS does have the potential to address some of these concerns by giving Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability the opportunity to self-direct their funding, for instance. The challenge in this area will be that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability have had little or no experience in self-managing funds.
It must be remembered that in many ways the social movement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability is starting from an absolute baseline position. This is reflected, for example, by the fact that few Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability have an understanding of the language of the disability service system. It is the view of FPDN that the application of the NDIS in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities will need to have a different look and approach to what is advocated for with regard the rest of the Australian population. It may be that the application of the NDIS in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities takes a longer process. But the FPDN argues that it is critical to get it right as it is the experience of many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people that they are usually the first to be blamed when new programs are not taken up by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.
FPDN has developed a 10-point plan for the implementation of the NDIS in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disabilities. The development of this 10 point plan is based upon extensive consultation as well as drawing upon the decade long experience of the FPDN in advocating for the rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders people with disabilities.
The plan was launched in May 2013 at Parliament House, Canberra.
- Recognise that the starting point is the vast majority of Aboriginal people with disability do not self-identify as people with disability. This occurs for a range of reasons including the fact that in traditional languages there are no comparable words for disability. Also, many Aboriginal people with disability are reluctant to take on the label of disability; particularly when they already experience discrimination based on their Aboriginality. In many ways disability is a new conversation in many communities. In these instances the NDIS is starting from a baseline position. As a consequence change in this area is likely to happen on a different timeline to that of the mainstream NDIS.
- Awareness raising via a concerted outreach approach informing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability, their families and communities about their rights and entitlements, and informing Aboriginal and Torres Strait communities about the NDIS itself and how to work this new system effectively. There is no better way to raise awareness then by direct face-to-face consultation. Brochures and pamphlets will not be appropriate as this is a new conversation in many communities.
- Establish the NDIS Expert Working Group on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander People with disability and the NDIS. In recognition of the fact that there is a stand-alone building block for the NDIS focused upon Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability, FPDN views it not only as critical but logical that a specific Expert Working Group be established to focus on Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability. The new working group would operate in the same way the four current working groups do, that is it would be chaired by two members of the National People with Disability and Carers Council. To ensure its effectiveness but also critically to influence prominent Aboriginal leaders as well as the disability sector, members would be drawn from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people in community leadership positions, as well as involving prominent disability leaders. The FPDN believes such an approach is warranted not only because of the degree of unmet need that is well established but also because this has the potential to be a very practical and meaningful partnership between government, the non-government sector, and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
- Build the capacity of the non-Indigenous disability service system to meet the needs of Aboriginal people with disability in a culturally appropriate way. Legislate an additional standard into the Disability Services Act focused upon culturally appropriate service delivery and require disability services to demonstrate their cultural competencies.
- Conduct research on the prevalence of disability and a range other relevant matters. Critically, this work must be undertaken in partnership with Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability to ensure a culturally appropriate methodology. There remains very little reference material about disability in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities. This needs to be rectified to ensure that we are getting a true picture of the lived experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people with disability.
- Recognise that a workforce already exists in many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that does important work, often informally. This work needs to valued and recognised, with the potential for employment opportunities in some communities.
- Recognise that it’s not always about services. Many communities just need more resources so that they can continue to meet the needs of their own people with disabilities. There may be perfectly appropriate ways of supporting people already in place, however what is often lacking is access to current technologies or appropriate technical aids or sufficient training for family and community members to provide the optimum level of support.
- Recruitment of more Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people into the disability service sector.
- Build the capacity of the social movement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders with disability by supporting existing networks and building new ones in addition to fostering Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander leaders with disability. These networks play a critical role in breaking down stigma that may exist in some communities but are also the conduits for change, and will be integral to the successful implementation of the NDIS in Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities.
- Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander ‘Launch’ sites focused upon remote, very remote, regional and urban settings. It is critical that this major reform be done right. Therefore it is appropriate to effectively trial its implementation. To this end, FPDN can readily identify key communities that would be appropriate as trial sites.
- Commonwealth Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage Key Indicators 2005 Report. Page 3.6
- Aboriginal people are 11 times more likely to be imprisoned than other Australians. Source: Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage Key Indicators 2005; Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision. There is no empirical evidence to quantify the number of Aboriginal people with disability in particular with intellectual disability and mental illness in the criminal justice system. The prevalence of intellectual disability for instance in the prison population is often contested with wide variation in percentages. However a report by the Law Reform Commission published in 1996 entitled People with an Intellectual Disability and the Criminal Justice System noted that 12-13% of the prison population were people with an intellectual disability.
- Overcoming Indigenous Disadvantage Key Indicators 2005; Steering Committee for the Review of Government Service Provision states ‘The rate of children on care and protection orders (for a combination of all states and territories except NSW) was five times higher for indigenous children (20 per 1000 children in the population aged 0 – 17 years) than for non-indigenous children (4 per 1000 children). Pg 9.5