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Jun 6, 2014

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.

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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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