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Celebrating my human rights!

Last week, I missed the blog because I was busy celebrating my 30th birthday. But amongst the celebrations, I got thinking about the human rights I have enjoyed over the past three decades, without which “right now” would not be so cool. It is important to acknowledge and celebrate these human rights because people with disabilities are not guaranteed them (often are denied them). When I reflect on them, my experience of these basic human rights has made for an interesting story probably because they are not guaranteed for us, like they can be for people without disabilities. My top three human rights which every person should have, but I have been especially grateful for are - Education People with disabilities are not afforded the right to education in Australia. To have equal access to education, students with disabilities must be offered inclusive education, not segregation or integration within mainstream settings. In Australia, we still have “special schools” which offer students with disabilities are a separate school option to students without disabilities. We also have “special needs units” or “disability units” (I am sure there are many other names) where there is a specific classroom or section of the school community which caters for students with disabilities. These units are within the mainstream school but separate students with disabilities from those without. These different schooling options have been available for a long time, and despite a continued push by human rights advocates for inclusive education, they persist. When I went to school (1995 - 2007), I attended two mainstream schools. At both schools, I was allowed to learn within the mainstream classroom with my non-disabled peers. I deliberately say “allowed” because I was not confined to a separate section of the school. I have a physical disability so physical modifications were made to classrooms so I could access the different parts of the school campus and ensured I could learn on an equal basis with my peers. When my parents went to enrol me in the same primary school as my older, non-disabled sister in 1995 I had to undergo psychological testing to ensure that I had the intellectual capacity to attend school. Throughout my childhood, I had met all of my intellectual, cognitive and social development goals. I was verbal, had some reading down-pat and was able to engage in usual tasks of children my age. However, I had reached none of the physical development goals, though (i.e. I was not able to walk or crawl). In an era where professionals were unclear of the difference between physical and intellectual disability, and where the concept that people with intellectual disabilities too should have equal access to education was light-years away, the IQ testing was a condition of my enrolment. I vaguely recall spending some time with a man who had finger puppets and asked me what I thought were redundant and boring questions. Safe to say, I passed the tests with flying colours and was able to join my sister at the school for the new school year! This was the start of 13 years of school education which led me to another seven years of university studying law. Having the right to access inclusive education, on an equal basis with others has been paramount to my employment opportunities (more on that later), feeling of self-worth, ability to maintain social connections with my peers and a whole host of other life benefits and skills that come from being educated. It is easy to take your education for granted. Most Australians have the opportunity to go to school. Some like and others don’t, but most people get to go! This is not the experience of people with disabilities. We know that 32% of people with disabilities graduate from year 12, compared to 62% of non-disabled students. We also know that 9% of students with disabilities aged 15 years or older face discrimination in an education setting. This is my call on all teachers, schools and education departments to have a close look at how they are providing education to students with disabilities. If you aren’t doing it well, take the opportunity to rectify that. You could create a new generation of children with disabilities who are afforded their human right to education. What a fabulous and bright future that would be! Housing We don’t often frame “housing” in terms of “human rights” in everyday language. We all know that people have houses; home ownership, rentals, interest rates and smashed avo are all pretty common Aussie conversations. But what happens in that conversation for people with disabilities when the rental market does not provide accessible options or homeownership is suffocated by poor employment opportunities (more on that in a moment!)? A horrifying statistic that is often quoted is that 45% of people with disability live below the poverty line. The number of people with a severe or profound disability seeking Specialist Homeless Support has increased by 57% in the past four years. Housing is a significant issue for people with disabilities. When I moved away from my family home (to be closer to uni), my first home was in a “cluster site”. It was a group of 7 independent units available for people with disabilities that were serviced by the same provider. However, within two years of living there and with the advent of individualised funding in South Australia, I emancipated myself from the default service provider to self-manage my services. I lived there for 10 years! It was nearby the CBD which was ideal for uni when I was there and for work ever since. The house itself was accessible with a lower kitchen and large bathroom. Like most young adults, living independently was a steep learning curve, but it is one denied to many young people with disabilities. I could not have just moved into a private rental property because I use a wheelchair and require significant modifications to a standard home. From the cluster site, I was able to leapfrog into homeownership. Again, a human right denied to many people with disabilities. Having a safe home is the backbone of anyone’s life. Being able to leave home is a rite of passage for young people, including those with disabilities. Everyone has the right to housing, and it needs to be more readily available to people with disabilities. Rental properties that are accessible need to be made available and universal design needs to be incorporated more readily into building homes. Employment I have written a few blogs now about the right to employment. It is a human right that is very close to my heart. Employment gives people the best opportunity to meet other goals in life. With employment comes economic security, social participation and a sense of inclusion. In Australia, having a job is central to our identity. Whenever you go to a social event or are stuck in line at a cafe, the most popular question is “so, what do you do?”. We associate value and standing in the community with our jobs. But as regular readers of the blog would know by now, people with disabilities experience unemployment rates double those without a disability. There are significant physical and attitudinal barriers to employment that keep people with disabilities out of work. I don’t need to rehearse my employment history for the purposes of this blog, but with the exception of founding Equality Lawyers, I have always been a public servant. The South Australia public service workforce is made up of only 1.31% of people with disabilities. The Australian Public Service report that they are employing fewer people with disabilities and people with disabilities are leaving at a faster rate. Employment has offered me the opportunity to earn money (and buy that house), make friends and have an answer to that dreaded question of “what do you do?”. I cannot say enough how important it is for people with disabilities to be included in the workforce. If you own a business, are a manager in a team or have any say in employing people, employ more people with disabilities! It’s good for your team, good for us and overall, no different to employing someone without a disability. Defy your unconscious (or conscious) bias and do it! You can help change these woeful statistics. So, after 30 years’ these are not the only, but definitely my top three human rights that I celebrated last week. Let’s keep celebrating where we win and fighting where we are not being afforded our basic human rights.

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