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I almost didn’t make it to the Jobs and Skills Summit.
I had travelled to Canberra a week earlier, to facilitate the NDIS Jobs and Skills Summit. But such is the reality of living with chronic illness and disability: the first trip sucked every last bit of energy from my already overworked body.
When the guest list came out, with CEO after CEO, after billionaire… I thought, ‘how in the world did this disability rights campaigner score an invite to that room?’
Feeling tired and more than a little overwhelmed, I emailed the organisers to explain that I didn’t think I could make the trip.
But then, like my very own Charlie’s Angels, a swarm of mentors, political staffers and personal supporters wrapped me in so much love and encouragement, it almost propelled me to Canberra with its sheer force.
And within me rang one persistent thought that would never allow me to give in to any fear:
‘People with disability need to see and hear us in that room.’
So, there I was in a room full of Australia’s most important people. I had one opportunity to speak. Just one chance for one speech. I obsessed over it for days. Talked it over with trusted friends. Hand wrote dot points that morning, knowing my ADHD brain would never stick to a hard script.
And then, my moment finally arrived. I started to speak and found I wasn’t just getting through it – I was hitting my stride, making my arguments… and then – I was cut off.
The day was running over schedule. A third of the way through my perfectly curated address, and BAM! It was all over.
People reassured me that I made my arguments clearly and succinctly, but a nagging feeling remained. A frustration that I never got to say what needed to be said for my community.
That for all the talk at the summit about ‘changing community attitudes’, I wanted to make it clear. When people with disabilities are at work, we’re not facing ‘attitudes’. We’re facing blatant discrimination.
They say that to fix a problem, you have to identify it – name it. And that’s what I am proud to be able to do here.
So, thanks to the formidable team at Future Women, who had my back throughout the summit, I present my address to the Jobs and Skills Summit in full – with only slightly fewer ADHD side quests than if I’d presented it in person.
I want to begin by acknowledging the Traditional Owners of the land on which we meet, and I want to throw, as a campaigner, my strong support behind the campaign for a Voice to Parliament.
I want to begin by thanking the Prime Minister for the honour of an invitation and to Minister Shorten for the trust he has put in me, to deliver the results of the NDIS Job and Skills Summit.
‘I got my career because I had a courageous, strong, ground-breaking woman who took a chance on me.’
I also want to start by acknowledging that even though I am a proud, disabled, queer woman, I come to this summit with incredible privilege. I didn’t get my career, you won’t be surprised, with sporting prowess.
I got my career because I had a courageous, strong, ground-breaking woman who took a chance on me. I was the only disabled woman in our workplace. It certainly didn’t always go right. But that woman fiercely protected me. And we went in there every day and I did my job for her and she protected me.
But I’m not here to ask you to give people with disability a chance. I’m demanding you give people with disability a chance.
Dylan [Alcott] identified all the devastating statistics. I don’t need to go through them again. What I’m here to give you are the solutions.
These are the solutions that people with disability identified at the NDIS Jobs and Skills Summit. And Treasurer you’ll be pleased to know, not a lot of them attach money to it.
Number one, we want all organisations, businesses, government agencies whose principal function is to work with disabled people, to employ at least 15% disabled people.
Not only will that create jobs for people with disabilities, but it will mean the programs, the products, the services that are given to us are actually going to be informed by our lived experience and instead of just being the customers, we’ll also be the colleagues – truly changing workplace cultures where it matters most.
But there’s nothing stopping us from expanding this 15% goal to the entire economy – not just to businesses that look after disabled people.
But the thing standing in our way is not something we’ve been politely calling today ‘community attitudes’ – it is blatant discrimination in the workplace.
I don’t know a single disabled person who hasn’t experienced disability discrimination at work, yet I’ve never spoken to an abled bodied person who has said they’ve seen it happen in their workplace.
‘I’ve heard people say today that we need courageous leadership to get more disabled people into work. There’s nothing courageous about it. We have so much to offer your businesses, organisations and governments… the only thing standing in our way is a lack of leadership.’
This isn’t about attitudes. If I asked you to raise your hands if you thought having more people with disability in the workforce was a good thing, every hand would shoot up. But if I then asked you to keep your hand up if you would commit to hiring at least 15% people with disability in your business – how many hands would go down?
I’ve heard people say today that we need courageous leadership to get more disabled people into work. There’s nothing courageous about it. We have so much to offer your businesses, organisations and governments – but the only thing standing in our way is a lack of leadership – like the leadership that woman showed me at the beginning of my career.
Dylan said that disabled people’s moment was yesterday – I think he was being way too generous. It has always been our moment, it has just been denied to us.
No longer. The train is leaving the station and we won’t wait another second.
And like the women’s and First Nations’ movements that came before – you can decide whether you are on the right side of history.
Or you can choose to be left behind, not only to be judged by history, but missing out on the creativity, problem solving and innovation that people with disability bring to the table – and you will only have yourself to blame.
Choose today, in this moment, to be on the right side of history.
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