Politics Opinion

People with disabilities marginalised in politics and wider society

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The major parties are not doing enough to include people with disabilities (image via YouTube)

Diversity in Australia’s federal and state parliaments has been a hot topic for debate in recent years.

There's a lack of diversity in both state and federal parliaments, not just regarding women but also people with a disability like myself.

The boardrooms and workplaces continue to be host to predominately white, predominately able-bodied, middle-class men and women.

This year tennis champion Dylan Alcott was named Australian of the Year, marking a small moment in time where a person with a physical and visible disability was given his own stage to call for greater opportunities for people with disabilities.

However, the recent South Australian State Election and the upcoming Federal Election have shown that people with disabilities still aren’t taken seriously when it comes to seeking power.

Out of the 23 individuals with a disability elected to a combination of state and federal parliaments in Australia, only three of these have been women.

The only person I have seen with a physical disability actively promoted recently is Ali France, an amputee and para-athlete who has boldly taken on Defence Minister Peter Dutton in his Queensland seat of Dickson.

In South Australia, Kelly Vincent was the youngest woman to be elected to an Australian parliament and leader of the disability-rights focused Dignity Party when she was elected to the State’s Legislative Council in 2010.

Whilst the individuals above are of course two strong women, there are a number of points to address.

Why do people with disabilities still have to fight twice as hard to get to be in positions of power and why is it that we have to either sideline our adversity or point it out at every turn?

And why aren’t people with disabilities allowed greater opportunities to succeed in the major political parties?

I’m not advocating for people to be handed positions without merit.

However, the fact is we still have to work twice as hard for the positions we do get.

People with disabilities, like women, are still so often either sidelined in pre-selections or only put forward in unwinnable or at best marginal seats.

Whilst politicians boast or attack one another on their achievement of (or lack of) gender diversity, why do they continue to place people with disabilities in the "too hard basket" of demographics to advocate for and include?

The media have been preoccupied with analysing how the people in the room are being treated, the people who haven’t even been given the opportunity are left to wonder why our struggle for a respected place at the table has been forgotten once again.

Some talented and dedicated women have been elected to South Australia’s Parliament since the recent State Election and so too can be said for those currently contesting the Federal Election.

But once again, the major parties have forgotten people with disabilities.

In South Australia, the Minister for Disabilities Nat Cook does not have a disability and in the Federal Parliamentary Labor Party, Bill Shorten is the Shadow Minister for the NDIS, yet he has no disability.

With criticism about the Liberal Party’s management of the NDIS having played a large part in the Shorten and Albanese opposition period, I've been scratching my head as to why this is the only topic related to people with disabilities in Australia that has even been touched on.

Sometimes, it feels like politicians and the media only focus on people with disabilities when they are achieving something great or when they have been through something terrible.

Why is it that those of us who are striving to achieve more, to not have to rely on constantly pointing out exclusion continue to only be the focus when that exclusion can be weaponised for political purposes?

When much of the time people with disabilities it has been shown, are perceived as invisible.

Not including us is excluding us.

Even in the reporting of the experiences of people with disabilities, those stories are usually (although not always) told by people who do not themselves have disabilities.

As a third-year journalism student, I have a lot to share, not just related to disability but a whole slew of issues, particularly politics. 

But there are many of us who are capable and, whether consciously or unconsciously, are continuously overlooked.

More significant is the fact that being boxed in to only being put on display when we're focusing specifically on disability issues is one of the most insidious forms of exclusion I have both experienced and observed.

So please continue to celebrate those women who are given a seat at the parliamentary table.

But don’t forget that some of us are still trying to get a foot in the door.

Melissa Marsden is a passionate advocate for social justice and a self-confessed political junkie. You can follow Melissa on Twitter @MelMarsden96.

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