The disability minister should be a disabled person


We need more people in Parliament with lived experience of disability; who understand what the disability community needs because they’re literally a part of it. We need the disability minister to be a disabled person.

By Senator Jordon Steele-John

Have you ever really paid attention to the people who sit in our two chambers of Parliament?

If you haven’t, congratulations: you’ve probably got a life. But indulge me for a moment as I paint you a little picture in shades of red and green: they’re mostly men (especially on the government side of the houses). Mostly white. Mostly oldish. Mostly straight. All cis.

They’re also all able-bodied.

Apart from yours truly down the back of the Senate chamber, there are no physically disabled people in Parliament. In fact, there are more people in Parliament named Andrew than there are disabled people.

It begs the question: who in that place is making decisions about disabled people and our lives, and why is it able-bodied people?

And that prompts an obvious answer: the disability minister should be a disabled person.

Nothing about us without us

Remember when Tony Abbott appointed himself the shadow minister for Indigenous Affairs? I know – what a time! The Liberal party didn’t have any First Nations representation in Parliament then, so the position went to a man who infamously thanked First Nations people for “putting up with the invasion” and characterised remote Aboriginal communities as a “lifestyle choice”. It’s absolutely wild to think about.

So imagine if now, despite there now being a number of First Nations people in Parliament – though still not nearly enough – the ministry that makes decisions about First Nations peoples and issues was handed to one of the many white Andrews instead.

It would be outrageous. It would be paternalistic, unethical and deeply racist.

Substitute ‘racist’ for ‘ableist’ and this is no different. The disability minister should be a disabled person. 

We need fewer able-bodied people in Parliament making poorly informed decisions on our behalf. We need more people with lived experience of disability; who understand what the disability community needs because they’re literally a part of it.

Disabled people know what’s up

Recently, I watched on in horror as the recent floods wreaked havoc in northern NSW and southern Queensland. Equally as horrifying were the stories I heard from disabled people living there, left by the federal and state governments to completely fend for themselves.

My office heard from a number of these disabled people completely adrift – not just in the floodwaters but in finding the resources they need to simply exist safely in their flood-stricken community. 

Emergency accommodation was nonexistent. Carers and support workers were unavailable. Even finding a means to travel to the shops for essential goods – or indeed evacuate from their threatened homes – was close to impossible.

When my office contacted various authorities to establish what services had been put in place to support disabled people in flood-affected regions, we were astonished to find very little thought had been put into it. Astonished, but I might add sadly unsurprised – because, as we know, disabled people are not represented in Parliament.

The case for a disabled disability minister

It’s true that many disabilities are invisible or concealed. So it’s also true that there may be a range of people in our Parliament who are disabled by society.

The fact is that the disability minister should be a disabled person who identifies as such. One who’s proudly part of the disability community. One who has lived experience of navigating this world as a disabled person.

Because a disabled disability minister would know the unique needs of disabled people in crisis zones. 

A disabled disability minister would know that the NDIS is failing disabled people in this country because it’s chronically, critically under-resourced. 

A disabled disability minister would know that appropriate and accessible housing needs serious investment, because there simply aren’t enough suitable homes for everyone who needs one. 

They would also have known that independent assessments were a terrible idea, and that having the CEO of the NDIS empowered to make executive decisions about individuals’ plans without their consent was a recipe for disaster (and it took disabled people to convince the current non-disabled NDIS minister of these facts).

Perhaps above all, a disabled disability minister would be moved to do something about these issues, because they’d know firsthand what it means to leave them unaddressed.

Disabled people have been shut out of policy and decision-making for far too long in this country. We must commit to centering the needs and voices of disabled people, and build a person-centred disability policy that’s informed by the people it affects most.

The most effective way to do that is by having a disabled person leading it. The disability minister should be a disabled person.

Jordon Steele-John is the Australian Greens’ disability spokesperson.

Hero image: Sophie Greer.

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