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An Inclusive Democracy? - Paper to the Women’s Constitutional Convention 2002 “Trust the Women”, by Christina Ryan for Women with Disabilities ACT. Page 1 of 5

An Inclusive Democracy?

Paper by Christina Ryan for delivery at the Women’s Constitutional Convention 2002 - Trust the Women.

1. Access to democracy, the current status of women with disabilities.

In Australia there is a social myth that everyone is equal and that we all have the same capacity to participate in, and contribute to, our community. As women we know that this isn’t the case, but for women with disabilities it is even less so. There are very real barriers that are preventing those with disabilities from interacting with the community, and women with disabilities are even more disadvantaged than men with disabilities. Its one of those ugly realities that we all just try and forget about as a society, but if we wish to be truly egalitarian then we shall have to develop methods for overcoming it.

I am particularly interested in women with disabilities achieving leadership positions and taking responsibility for making decisions about the community. Why are there so few women with disabilities in senior management and leadership positions? Women with disabilities are still considered better off rarely seen and never heard. Even the disability movement is predominantly governed by men, and yet the proportion of the population that has a disability is equal for both sexes.

Women with disabilities must pursue the positions in the community that everyone else can aspire to? There must come a day when women with disabilities sit on prestigious boards, run governments, the United Nations, and global corporations.

We are still not being given the responsibility for making decisions for ourselves - far less making the decisions that affect the wider community. The community remains uncomfortable with assigning women with disabilities intelligence and trusting us to make tough decisions. There is

An Inclusive Democracy? - Paper to the Women’s Constitutional Convention 2002 “Trust the Women”, by Christina Ryan for Women with Disabilities ACT. Page 2 of 5

still a social cringe in seeing women, who are not physically perfect, taking responsibility for the broader community and making decisions that affect others.

No one ever suggested that Louise Sauvage should be the next Governor General because this is still a step further than everyone is able to comfortably take.

People with disabilities make up 19 per cent of the population, and women are half of all Australians with disabilities. Many live from day to day dealing with one access barrier after another. This may be physical access, like the lack of a ramp or a hearing loop, or it may be an attitude barrier like discouragement or hatred. For most women with disabilities it is also poverty. Around half of all women with disabilities live on an amount that is equivalent to the pension, less than $200 per week, compared to 36 per cent of men with a disability. Only 16 per cent of women with a disability earn over $400 per week, compared to 33 per cent of men with a disability.

The poverty experienced by women with disabilities is compounded by a further discrepancy in the allocation of support services. At present we are fighting in my State for women with disabilities to have equal representation to men with disabilities on various Government bodies. There is also concern that between 70 and 80 per cent of the Federal Government money provided to the State for support services for people with disabilities goes to men. There is a similar gender discrepancy in the employment services budget with around 70 per cent of Commonwealth disability employment support going to men. This goes a long way to explaining why men with disabilities earn substantially more than their female counterparts.

This impacts directly on the capacity of women with disabilities to achieve positions of leadership and representation in the community. If you are stuck at home in poverty, with a bare minimum of support services, and spend most of your time finding the assistance you need to get through the next week, how can you interact with the community? More importantly how can you interact to the extent necessary to become a community leader?

Think about how you have achieved your positions within your communities: you go to functions, buy the clothes necessary to make an impression, use your phone and internet to be informed and contacted, and drive a car. You also contribute to charity and the community sector and use this as a way of building networks. You have probably also taken membership with several key organisations and subscribe to magazines or journals in your particular field.

An Inclusive Democracy? - Paper to the Women’s Constitutional Convention 2002 “Trust the Women”, by Christina Ryan for Women with Disabilities ACT. Page 3 of 5

How could you maintain this interactive level on $200 per week?

Poverty is a major issue and a barrier for women with disabilities, but it is not the only thing preventing us from taking our place as community leaders.

The world is simply not built for those of us with disabilities. It is still the case that many buildings are not equipped for people who require wheelchair access, that they are also not equipped with hearing loops, or tactile lifts, or have hard surfaces that make it impossible for blind people (and guide dogs) to tolerate the noise level. It is not uncommon for me to have to refuse an invitation because I would be unable to attend without a high level of assistance, or more commonly, I can’t get in at all or there is no toilet.

Our political systems are not structured to take into account issues like poverty and access. Most of the electoral systems in this country favour fit and healthy, physically attractive, people who have some access to funds and are not bothered by going to strange locations. In the ACT, for example, we have a proportional representation system called Hare Clark for our single house of parliament. The system elects several members in only a few large electorates, not unlike the Senate system federally. Added on for good measure is something called Robson Rotation which means each ballot paper is different to the next one. Candidates must have a capacity to personally reach the whole electorate, and they must do so in competition with other candidates from their own parties. What this produces is a system where parties are not able to run tickets, and where the only real way to get yourself elected is to have more money than other candidates so that you can afford more publicity. Women, and those coming from disadvantaged circumstances, are automatically excluded from such a system.

How do we overcome some of these systemic barriers?

2. Overcoming systemic disadvantage and discrimination, individual examples of excellence.

At present we are still relying on individual people to change systemic disadvantage rather than the community addressing it as a whole. Individual people can disappear off the scene just as quickly as they appear, and when you are talking about people with disabilities they have a higher likelihood of needing to take time out.

Somehow we get conned into believing that a single example of someone overcoming the odds, means that the odds have been overcome for all. Just because I am here today does not mean that all women with disabilities suddenly have the opportunity to attend conferences such as

An Inclusive Democracy? - Paper to the Women’s Constitutional Convention 2002 “Trust the Women”, by Christina Ryan for Women with Disabilities ACT. Page 4 of 5

this one. This applies to the wider community as well. We are still relying on a belief that a few examples of individuals overcoming systemic disadvantage means that the system has improved.

There are various government machinery and legislative measures that could be used to overcome the barriers that prevent women with disabilities from engaging with the community.

A first, and vital step, is the gender auditing of all government programs and policies. Gender auditing is designed to identify any discrepancies relating to one gender benefiting over the other in government spending or program and service delivery. Gender auditing would have picked up the serious discrepancy in support services allocation, and employment services support, that currently exists. Gender auditing would also identify why the discrepancy exists.

A further mechanism urgently needed is a rights based discrimination system, rather than a complaints based system as currently exists:

If someone commits an assault or theft then it is a clear breach of the law and the police are brought in to assess the situation, lay charges and progress the matter through the justice system if necessary. When someone is discriminatory, or breaches the Disability Discrimination Act, they have also broken the law. In this case, though, it is up to the victim to complain to the Human Rights Commission and to progress that complaint themselves. Most people with disabilities have a case proceeding in the Human Rights Commission on a regular basis. It takes about a year for most cases to work through the various steps and come to completion. The onus for continuing is up to the individual with a disability, rather than the justice system.

If people with disabilities went to the Human Rights Commission with every breach of their rights they would do nothing else with their time. As it is the number of occasions when they face major discrimination and must pursue their rights is remarkably high. This creates a large systemic barrier to interacting with the community. Not only is the discrimination occurring in the first place, but the only way to deal with it is to undertake a lengthy personal battle.

If breaking the law under the Disability Discrimination Act was treated the same as every other crime then people with disabilities could get on with something else. It would also serve to overcome discriminatory practices more readily as those facing a visit from the police tend to consider their actions more seriously.

Another system that must be considered when overcoming disadvantage in accessing the community is the political system. None of our political

An Inclusive Democracy? - Paper to the Women’s Constitutional Convention 2002 “Trust the Women”, by Christina Ryan for Women with Disabilities ACT. Page 5 of 5

parties has an Access Action Plan in place to ensure the inclusion of people with disabilities. In the same way that mechanisms have been developed to assist the inclusion of women at all levels of political activity, mechanisms must be developed for inclusion of people with disabilities. Meetings must be held in accessible venues, websites must adhere to accessible design codes, and money must not be a barrier to involvement in party activities or campaigns.

3. What to do? What needs to be done to have a more inclusive democratic system that is truly reflective of the whole population?

What needs to be done to have a more inclusive democratic system that is truly reflective of the whole population?

The development of a rights system, including a constitutional Bill of Rights, which treats breaches as criminal offences would make a substantial contribution to overcoming the major systemic discrimination that presently exists.

Governments, business, and the community, must address inclusiveness and access concerns on a constant basis. Access Action Plans must be developed and implemented as a matter of course. Whole of Government access strategies must be put in place to provide for all members of the community, with gender auditing to ensure that women are provided with the same level of opportunity as men.

Most importantly, our community must consider just how inclusive and egalitarian it wants to be. This must start at the grass roots level with local planning and basic access, and move right up to who we have representing our community at the parliamentary level. Without these considerations women with disabilities will never rise to the top in any meaningful way. Rather we shall continue to rely on individual examples of excellence to overcome the odds and continue the illusion that this is an inclusive democracy.