As the Tokyo Paralympic Games drew to a close, Australian prime minister Scott Morrison announced the federal government would facilitate equal prize money for Olympic and Paralympic medallists. My performances, and those of my teammates, were to be valued equally, through a gesture that acknowledged our years of toil in pursuit of sporting excellence. After 61 years of Australian participation at the Paralympic Games, were our lawmakers finally recognising the contributions people with disability make in this country?
Perhaps, but I’m not so sure. Heartbreakingly, our nation’s laws still fail to protect the most fundamental human rights of my community, with some laws existing solely to perpetuate such violations. This failure to protect my community has persisted since federation, and until the government takes action to resolve it, any declaration of equality serves merely as a glimpse of how things should be for all people with disabilities – not just Paralympians.
Since 1901, Australia has insisted on calculating the ‘burden’ of disability without considering the contributions people with disabilities can make to society. One of our nation’s first laws not only implemented the infamous White Australia Policy, but also an ‘able-bodied Australia policy’ prohibiting people with disabilities or mental health conditions from entering the country. This policy persisted during the refugee intake in the aftermath of the Second World War. Under the pretence of humanitarianism, Australia categorically excluded people with disabilities, including children, from qualifying for our protection. Cruelly, this intent to discriminate against disability tore families apart, with some parents pressured into leaving such children behind.
Our history is shocking, but these principles of discrimination remain entrenched in the actions of our government. The migration policy makes it clear: our government does not want people with disabilities. Lawmakers were so intent on holding onto this discrimination that when legislating the Disability Discrimination Act, they made sure to exempt the Migration Act. This exemption allows our government to exclude people solely on the basis of their disability. It is astounding that laws seeking to prevent discrimination can also grant permission for that discrimination to continue against the very people it’s supposed to protect. No one should ever have the power to choose when discrimination is OK.
The consequences of this facade have already played out in the most tragic circumstances. Pakistani refugee, Shiraz Kiane, applied three time in four years to have his family join him in Australia. The only problem was, his daughter had cerebral palsy. In breach of human rights principles, applications for his family were rejected due to the estimated financial burden his daughter posed for Australia. He could never return home for fear of religious persecution and the Australian government could not muster the compassion to unite him with his family. In 2001, while suffering from depression, Mr Kiane set himself on fire outside Parliament House in Canberra. Several weeks later, he died from the burns he sustained.
People with disabilities shouldn’t have to be exceptional in order to be accepted
This should never have happened, and yet nothing changed. Recently, the issuing of deportation notices to families on the basis that their child’s disability was a national burden is, in my opinion, one of the most shameful policies pursued in this country. Some of these children were born in Australia, for others it’s all they know, but still, we won’t help them.
We did not want to help Kayaan Katyal, a six-year-old born with cerebral palsy years after his parents moved to Australia. We did not want to help Kayban Jamshaad, a child who acquired both a brain injury and haemophilia shortly after being born in a Bunbury hospital. We did not want to help the families of children with autism, even though their parents promised to cover all associated costs. And we did not want to help the family who had called Australia home for a decade because their daughter was diagnosed with cystic fibrosis.
When they issue these deportation notices, the government not only refuses to ignore the great contributions children with disabilities can make in this country, but they also dismiss the contributions of their families, who include doctors, teachers, and SES volunteers. For non-citizens, this means an accident or the decision to have children could end in deportation. Fortunately, public outrage has secured ministerial interventions for some but not all according to disability advocates – a hollow victory for those permitted to stay in a country that openly admitted it did not want them.
I don’t have to make the case that my community contributes to this country. The government acknowledged this by granting my Paralympic teammates Vanessa Low and Michal Burian with Australian citizenship, despite their disabilities. As Paralympic medallists, I only wonder if the government included their prize money as they include lung transplants or speech therapy in calculating the financial burden their disabilities might pose?
As another teammate of mine, Madison de Rozario, says: “People with disabilities shouldn’t have to be exceptional in order to be accepted”.