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Disability dissent silenced as ABC’s Ramp Up scrapped

Abolishing the ABC’s Ramp Up, a national platform for disabled voices, looks like an attempt to suppress dissent at a crucial moment for the sector, writes Shakira Hussein.

Yesterday afternoon, the ABC disability website Ramp Up announced that it would cease publication on June 30 after failing to renew its contract with the federal government.

Ramp Up editor and rising media superstar Stella Young broke the news to contributors (myself included) on Tuesday. Her email noted that in the three-and-a-half years of Ramp Up’s existence:

“… we have published over 500 pieces of original content, facilitated discussion on a broad range of disability issues, developed a strong social media presence and, perhaps most importantly, published stories and perspectives that put forward a strong case for the establishment of the NDIS. We’ve also had the pleasure of publishing great work from many talented, emerging writers with disability.”

Young herself will remain with the ABC, and her email encouraged Ramp Up writers to continue to submit their work to The Drum. Her deputy Karen Palenzuela, however, will no longer be employed by the ABC.

The closure of Ramp Up comes shortly after the announcement that the federal government is abolishing the position of Disability Discrimination Commissioner, currently occupied by Graham Innes (disability-related cases make up the largest component of the complaints to the commission — almost 40%). Instead, the Human Rights Commission now features a so-called “Freedom Commissioner” in the form of Tim Wilson. Innes’ duties will be distributed among the other commissioners — just as Ramp Up’s coverage will be distributed among other areas of the ABC.

Disability issues can be dealt with in one’s spare time, after all.

Removing the most important national disability advocate as well abolishing a national platform for disabled voices looks like an attempt to suppress dissent at a crucial moment for the sector. Disability pensions have been targeted for punitive “reform” in the budget, with those under 35 deemed fit enough to work eight hours a week to be put on “participation plans”, with penalties for non-compliance. Funding for the long-planned National Disability Insurance scheme is safe — for now. The degree of oversight, however, has been substantially reduced.

Although I live with multiple sclerosis, the immediate impact of these changes on my own life is fairly limited. I am fortunate enough to to remain in paid employment, and in any case multiple sclerosis does not carry the association with scrounging that is carried by some other disabilities. This was clear from the reaction of the Centrelink employee who took my call when I phoned shortly after the budget to ask about the changes and express my trepidation. The government isn’t targeting people like you, she said. They’re going after other people — “we all know they exist” — who should never have been on disability support in the first place.

But gaining access to disability support has never been as straightforward as turning up at a Centrelink office with a doctor’s certificate from a dodgy GP. It has always required an extensive evaluation process, despite the folklore about the perfectly healthy guy next door who is sitting around on his bum and claiming DSP. Disability does not always manifest in visible forms, in wheelchairs and guide dogs. But in deference to the popular urban myth about hordes of DSP scroungers driving the nation into bankruptcy, a person’s ability to work is set to be assessed by “experts” other than the medical professionals who know the patient best.

I began writing about disability reluctantly, and only after years of grappling with topics like racism, gender, and post-9/11 politics. Even once the multiple sclerosis became too powerful a factor in my own life to ignore, I published articles about it in outlets such as Crikey, New Matilda and The Age before contributing to Ramp Up.

I did not regard Ramp Up as a soft entry into publishing, a special provision for disabled writers. Rather, it was an opportunity to publish alongside other writers with knowledge and expertise in a space that proclaimed the existence and importance of a disability community. Now that space is gone, but the anger and sense of urgency around the issues it addressed is only going to grow.

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  • 1
    The Pav
    Posted Friday, 6 June 2014 at 1:45 pm | Permalink

    Another rerason why economic rationalism is neither rational nor logical

  • 2
    Graeski
    Posted Friday, 6 June 2014 at 1:57 pm | Permalink

    What else can you expect of a political party that is the moral equivalent of a coward-punch?

  • 3
    Luke Hellboy
    Posted Friday, 6 June 2014 at 2:58 pm | Permalink

    Is Brandis going to tell us we have the right to discriminate against people with disabilities next? It certainly follows the govt’s agenda to close down or merge with another vaguely related public institution that might cause embarrassment to it’s ideologically driven, intellectually bankrupt policies (anything environmental, immigration and citizenship, ABC,the entire f’ing science dept!) Given

  • 4
    Luke Hellboy
    Posted Friday, 6 June 2014 at 3:00 pm | Permalink

    … the govt’s budget fiasco, maybe Treasury or the Finance dept should start getting a bit nervous…

  • 5
    Rob Watts
    Posted Friday, 6 June 2014 at 3:06 pm | Permalink

    As a regular user of Ramp Up and ABC podcasts I am skeptical about Ramp Ups gritty “dissent” especially in an area rife with injustices and corruption. I suffer two chronic conditions - one related to work injuries - I was horrified and disappointed in Ramp Ups backward anti- Voluntary Euthanasia stand or trying to discriminate against the majority of Australians who support basic human rights in that area on the bias that VE choice was in fact just being scared of be badly disabled. I would expect George Brandis to have this view not Ramp Up.

    Along with the religiously and medically politically correct your right to deeply suffer, endlessly, and needlessly - and usually profitably by health providers - is well enshrined in many nanny states such as ours or more enlightened liberal nations.

    RN radio national does a great job of rigorously tackling many of the disabled issues that are now in the national consciousness.

    If the issues need particular attention it is with investigative journalism not an “in-club” that the mainstream may never see in there drop down menu of news items.

  • 6
    AR
    Posted Friday, 6 June 2014 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    Pav - nor even economic, in that the costs are kicked down the road until too great to be ignored.

  • 7
    AR
    Posted Friday, 6 June 2014 at 6:54 pm | Permalink

    Graeksi - that is toooo perfect a comparison. May I steal it for future use?

  • 8
    Ellen Read
    Posted Saturday, 7 June 2014 at 2:14 pm | Permalink

    Rob I think you’ll find that Ramp Up itself doesn’t promote particular views re stuff like that. It is a space for writers with a range of opinions to share their views. If you take a look around you will see this. One example is Ms Young’s article on the changes to DSP, where she expressed her view that the changes are a bad thing. Shortly after another article was published suggesting that the changes might be a good thing. I certainly don’t agree with every article on Ramp Up. This is one of the best things about it - people with disabilities are diverse and Ramp Up reflects this diversity well.

  • 9
    Kate Sommerville
    Posted Tuesday, 10 June 2014 at 7:21 am | Permalink

    I agree with Ellen, enjoying the variety of articles on ‘Ramp Up’ over the years.

    I love the fact that it gave people with disabilities and something to say an opportunity to write and to have their work published. It also fostered a sense of community in a complex range of people and views.

    Perhaps other places will emerge to fill the gap. Web journals like Crikey.com itself are possibilities but there may be others.

    Graham Innes’ demise as Disability Rights Commissioner is a tremendous loss to the Australian disability communities.

    I first heard him speak at a forum in Ballarat in 2006 and didn’t actually realise until after the speech that he is blind. At that time I had just taken up a position in local government as a Disability Planner and his analysis of the issues in planning from the perspectives of human rights and history had a profound impact.

    Graham Innes has an amazing sense of humour as well, and we certainly need that at this point in time. :)

  • 10
    Rob Watts
    Posted Tuesday, 10 June 2014 at 8:44 am | Permalink

    @ellen. Incorrect, I was in fact refering to an article written by Stella in Ramp Up. Ramp Up is reflecting a mainstream position not dissenting nor diversity on this cornerstone issue. For thousands like me voluntary euthanasia is the ultimate disability insurance - a right currently enjoyed by the rich who can fly to a country with euthanasia rights. If Ramp Up discriminates against basic and key rights then I cannot support it.

  • 11
    Kate Sommerville
    Posted Tuesday, 10 June 2014 at 10:16 am | Permalink

    @Rob Watts I remember reading Stella Young’s article, later reprinted in the ‘Guardian’ and have just reread it.

    It seems to me to state Stella’s own view, not an official ‘Ramp Up’ view and I think she makes valuable points about the need for discussion and the need for society to improve situations for people who are severely disabled so that they have reasonable autonomy and quality of life. We still have a long way to go, despite the NDIS.

    I have had MS since I was 22 years old and at first my fear about loss of autonomy made me think that death would be a preferable option if it came to that. It has not turned out that way for me, for which I am both lucky and grateful, but I think that the options around assisted death in certain circumstances should continue to be discussed.

    I think that ‘Ramp Up’ has discussed a number of other issues which are ethically and spiritually challenging, and that is something which will me missed.

  • 12
    Kate Sommerville
    Posted Tuesday, 10 June 2014 at 10:49 am | Permalink

    Sorry - typo in last line should read ‘….something which will be missed’.

    Issues like voluntary euthanasia are very difficult to discuss in some contexts because people sometimes assume that even considering voluntary euthanasia reflects somehow on the value of people with disabilities themselves.

    I, for one, don’t believe that at all. It is just being realistic and honest. Rigorous ethical and legal safe guards would be in place if Australia ever gets to the point of making VE legal.

    However, the issue should not distract from the social obligation to improve access and inclusion in the physical and social environments for people with disabilities and support for their friends and carers.

  • 13
    Rob Watts
    Posted Tuesday, 10 June 2014 at 2:20 pm | Permalink

    Sure it is Stellas view as the editor of Ramp Up. Which is like saying Chris Mitchell the editor of The Australian discusses a key issue of social justice like climate change with a sense of balance and making the comfortable uncomfortable? It is discrimination borne of ignorance of even mainstream polling and global liberalism. Forget spiritual issues and ethics if basic hunan rights are dismissed so easily. Where exactly is unique gritty dissent and diversity that is missing from mainstream debate on Ramp Up that this sector so badly needs?

  • 14
    Rob Watts
    Posted Tuesday, 10 June 2014 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    Also Kate surveys show that a significant proportion of VE choice is simply being ‘weary of life’. Or weary of the poverty and 1970-ing mistreatment, and future promises etc etc it is not a distraction, it is one and the same. Part of the backwardness of our nanny state lies in the disability sector itself. No other issue gets to the heart of this sector like this issue

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