Writing Place 2021

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Reflection

By Clare Langford

Mirror representation has come to dominate many conversations regarding not only our political system, but the society we live in. This theory holds that a parliament should accurately reflect the makeup of the citizenry. More broadly, companies and organisations strive for “diversity”, to improve their productivity and innovation, and to have their internal components depict the world that they are based in. Articles and opinion pieces abound on the extent to which this has been achieved. Protests erupt and social media trembles with the undying accusations against those elected to Parliament who are deemed too similar to each other. Not reflective enough of those casting votes for them.

But I stand at the outskirts of this conversation, looking in through clear but sound-proof glass as libel is discharged and arguments are made. Hearing, but silent, even should I choose to speak. And behind me I can see, in the reflection of the glass, those who have not made it into the room. Standing or sitting, watching, waiting and listening.

These are the people with disability, the 15 (17.7)% of society who find themselves on the outskirts, looking in. Always waiting, always excluded, and always last.

Two years ago, after taking part in a mock parliament that I thoroughly enjoyed, I decided to find out more about direct involvement in the political world. Despite giving up on the prospect of becoming a politician in high school, fearful of being loathed by the general populace as every politician is, I started to reconsider. My job applications were getting me nowhere, I had no career, barely any friends, and most of my family would not even tell me if they were getting married or had a new child. What had I to lose apart from pride and self-respect? But society might have something to gain, because it was clear that the other young people did not think like I did, and neither did the elected representatives who were my voice. I had a perspective to offer, and along with that, a healthy dose of intelligence, a degree in Public Policy, the ability to research and write well, dedication, and most of all…

People on the autism spectrum are known for honesty and morality, and isn’t that what we need in Parliament right now?

But as I discussed my prospects with a current Parliamentarian, I was immediately put off for my age, and warned about ageism within the halls of power. When I then raised the difficulties faced by people with ASD, and what avenues might be in place to assist them with election, I discovered that the political sphere is very much a product of ableism.

He was kind and polite, but-

Don’t bother

-was what his reply amounted to.

Social skills are an essential part of the job. There is nothing in the way of workplace adjustments or job design in Parliament.

I left bereft, disillusioned, and immensely agitated. My sense of democracy and equity had been assaulted by the notion that there were some people who simply could not participate actively in the political process, for all of their skills and abilities in things like research, public speaking, understanding and writing legislation, policy development, dedication, organisation and so forth.

It all came down to charisma. Not even the practical needs of being able to communicate – it was about hypnotising your party, and then your constituency, to believe in you, by the power of your voice and your presence.

How could I ever do that? How could anyone with ASD do that and remain true to themselves?

Was there any way for us to enter the Parliament?

Would we always be on the outside, looking in?

This year I found myself an advocate for people with disability, identifying with my own disorder and seeking to understand and aid my family members with chronic and disabling illnesses. My eyes were peeled to the injustices of the world that go blithely unnoticed.

And I saw them everywhere.

Job adverts that asked for things that were not essential to the role, but still exclusionary like a manual driver’s license, because the criteria had been copied and pasted from another position. Human resources didn’t even consider the ramifications for people with disability. Changing the job description or requirements was deemed too difficult and not worth the bureaucratic hassle, even though as it stood many people with disability were discouraged from applying. I, struggling with multi-tasking to the point where I rejected the prospect of driving a manual car, checked the duties, found a complete lack of vehicle-based transportation and applied anyway.

And was successful at the cost of many other closed tabs from disabled jobseekers.

At the polling booth I saw a lady in a wheelchair fill out her ballot paper on a children’s play table in the middle of the room, then dragged up and down the curb onto the road because corflutes took up the space on the path.

Interacting with my political party, no one appeared to have considered the abundance of stairs and lack of lifts until I mentioned them, then decided that they would change the venue if someone attending asked in advance because they could not get to the room in which policy was being decided.

I realised we were invisible; out of sight, out of mind. Even the disability-affirmative job opportunities I had been applying for specified criteria that excluded people on the autism spectrum, tested us on unnecessary skills and traits and barred us from entry after a workplace behavioural exam where over 75% of the questions seemed specifically designed to reject us. The registration process was unchanged, the selection criteria identical, the interview process had the same minor adjustments available in general roles, and we were placed with (and therefore also against) our non-disabled peers in group assessment centres.

There had been no thought but numbers, no consideration but the statistics that told them we were under-represented.

No scrutiny as to why.

Perhaps the most discouraging part of it all lies in the current authority, in the powers that be, the ones who make the decisions that shape our lives. From departments to advisory committees but in particular the Parliament itself.

Departments have rejected me time and time again for not conforming to their expectations on social and interpersonal skills.

I looked into a disability advisory committee with the WA Parliament. What I discovered disturbed me – few of the committee members actually had a disability. Two of nine, I believe it was. The rest were either working in disability support, or were parents of children with disability. The way their profiles were written, indeed the committee page was composed, implied that they were just as qualified to speak on behalf of people with disability as people with disability were.

Where is the independence, the autonomy, the agency in such a system? Our advocacy to government is being run by a P&C, as if we were school children. These parents are generally the parents of school-children as well, not reflecting that the proportion of people with disability increases with age.

Where are we when decisions relevant to us are being made?

Outside, looking in through the eyes of another as they relay what they have done for us.

The Parliament is much the same, pre-selection and election processes particularly dismissing people with disability. To be successful as a candidate, one is required to convince people to vote for them, and claiming a disability or failing to successfully mask it is not conducive to achieving this. Culturally speaking, society does not view people with disability as being capable of this sort of work. Opposition Leader Zak Kirkup was vilified in the WA Election campaign over allegations of clinical depression, despite that unfitness to work is a matter for medical professionals to decide, not one’s political opponents. Prime Minister Morrison was demonised for hiring an empathy coach, although many people with disabilities benefit from assistance in certain areas of their work, including interpersonal ones.

And as people laughed at the same time as ‘encouraging people with disability’, I hung my head from behind that window, and leant it against the glass. Looking in, wondering when I would be able to do anything more productive than watch and write complaints that were never answered.

From behind the glass we, the 15 (17.7)% know that we are under-represented. We know that there are not many people in Parliament like us, that represent us and speak of decisions affecting us (and all decisions affect us) from a position of personal experience and investment. We don’t know how many people with disability are even in Parliament, because no one but us is asking, and we can’t be heard. They are all yelling at each other for being the same, and boasting to each other about being different. The media is reporting it all.

All but us.

“A group truly knows they are marginalised when their absence from power isn’t even noticed.” – Ryan 2012

 

  1. Quote from: Ryan, F. 2012, ‘Disabled people need a louder voice in parliament to represent them,’ The Guardian, 12th Available from: https://www.theguardian.com/society/2012/sep/11/disabled-people-voice-parliament-represent [21 July 2021]
  2. 15 (17.7%) refers simultaneously to “We the 15” campaign, and that 17.7% of the Australian population had a disability in 2018 according to the ABS

 

About Clare Langford

Born and raised in regional Western Australia, Clare moved to the capital to pursue further education and haven’t managed to escape. Graduating with a Bachelor of Arts in Political Science and International Relations, Clare is interested in all things politics, government, history and culture. Clare has since completed a Master of Public Policy after a stint of unemployment that she calls her gap year. In her spare time she enjoys writing fiction and playing video games, and is a keen volunteer for community organisations and charities, particularly working with seniors.

 

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