Are the voices of people with disabilities going unheard?


Pictured: Tricia Malowney

Are the voices of people with disabilities going unheard?

Grant J Everett

While we’ve seen marked improvements in recent years, minority groups are still relatively underrepresented in Parliament. However, there’s no law preventing Australian adults from any demographic running for their local council, or even the Senate, so it’s not a matter of deliberate, legal exclusion. Politicians with a visible disability, though, are borderline mythical. We found a grand total of two upper house MPs throughout Australia Kelly Vincent (South Australia) and Rob Pyne (Federal). In order to shed some light on this issue, we spoke with somebody who is passionate about people with disabilities getting into politics: TRICIA MALOWNEY. She’s the former President of the Victorian Disability Services Board.

PANORAMA: Why don’t PWD have more government representation?

TRICIA: ‘I don’t think that most people are mature enough to see past a disability. It’s the same issue we have with political candidates who are women or CALD or from an Indigenous background or whatever falls outside the norm: unless you are an able-bodied white male, you are deemed to be incompetent by default.’

P: Do you think it’s likely that some politicians have a lived experience of “invisible” disabilities, but are reluctant to reveal them due to the risk of stigma?

TRICIA: ‘The use of the term “have a lived experience” highlights the reason that people don’t disclose their mental illness. The language we use implies that having a disability, including mental illness, is shameful. But yes, there are probably many people who have mental illnesses in politics who are afraid to disclose because of the media’s handling of the issue.’

P: What could we do to get more PWD into councils and parliaments.

TRICIA: ‘Highlighting the achievements of people rather than talking about how inspirational they are would help. I can’t help feeling that we have to be loud and proud about who we are. For instance, Tony Clark (who has a vision impairment) unsuccessfully ran for the seat of Deakin in the last election. He didn’t run as the “blind candidate”, but rather as a candidate who just so happens to be blind. His memorable slogan was “No sight, great vision.” In hindsight, I wonder if he would have won if he’d pushed the blindness issue more?’

“Highlighting the achievements of people rather than talking about how inspirational they are would help.” – Tricia Malowney

P: Do you think much would change in this country if PWD had more representation?

TRICIA: ‘The only change might be an acknowledgement that being a PWD doesn’t mean being “unable”. However, it must be noted that being a PWD does not mean that we all think the same way. We have people from both sides of the aisle, and some of those who have a chance of getting in could be used as stooges, in the same way that some politicians will use gender, LGBTI status, religious beliefs or ethnic origins to score points.’

P: What do you think the odds are of more PWD climbing the ranks in politics?

TRICIA: ‘If the major parties were serious about real diversity and true representation, then PWD would undoubtedly be encouraged to participate in the political process and would be actively sought out. Unfortunately, the major parties only communicate with service providers and parents or family members rather than the PWD themselves.’

P: What would you like to say to somebody with a disability who wants to get involved with politics?

TRICIA: ‘Keep at it, but be prepared to get sidelined unless you have a backer with money.’

P: You have an interest in running for office and making a real difference. Has this been on your mind for a while?

TRICIA: ‘Yes, although sometimes I wonder if I’m not already more effective as an activist and advocate! For instance, a while back I put my name forward to take Stephen Conroy’s Senate seat, even though I knew I had no chance, purely because I wanted to get PWD on the agenda. But it would be great to be taken seriously as a member of Parliament in the eyes of the media. I doubt if I will ever get elected though, as I am too outspoken for party politics, and not rich enough to stand as an independent!’

P: The list of things (in your Pro Bono article) that you’d like to achieve if you made it into politics would bring about huge change. What things would you most like to achieve?

TRICIA: ‘I think higher employment rates among PWD is achievable if we can get the politicians to take it seriously. We need to have employment quotas in public service, which is already in place in the USA and Ireland. I think it would greatly assist the cause if every minister with the disability portfolio was required to have an advisor with a disability. I would also like to see “abuse” renamed “violence,” which is what it is. I think that if we call it violence, the justice system would take it more seriously. In Victoria, the Family Violence Protection Act definition of violence clearly outlines what violence is, yet when it happens to PWD, particularly Women With Disability, it is called abuse. This could be achieved if we had a genuine emphasis on the National Disability Strategy and tier two of the NDIS, now called Information, Linkages and Capacity Building.’

“Senator Malowney? Surely It Is Time,” Malowney, T (2016)

“How representative is our parliament?” Hunter, R (2013)

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