What happens when an entire population group is absent from decision making forums? It makes it possible to forget them. The people who are most affected and should be central considerations in emergency responses are left out, and that means poor decisions are made. At best they are remembered later, and the response is retrofitted in some way to include them.
Recently, the Disability Royal Commission took evidence from the Commonwealth Health Department. In damming testimony it became clear that Health had completely failed to include any considerations around disability in its pandemic planning. The original plans taken to National Cabinet in March did not mention disability once.
It took another 6 weeks of intense lobbying and commitment by disabled peoples organisations to have a plan developed and approved which acknowledged the disproportional impact of the pandemic on disabled people. The international lessons have been stark and could have been averted with specific proactive measures, yet no advice was provided to National Cabinet, and no work was done on a national plan until disabled people reminded the government that we existed.
How could this happen? How could the largest minority group in the country, expected to be heavily impacted by the pandemic, be completely forgotten and left unmentioned?
It’s been a rough year in Australia, and around the world.
Starting from late 2019 we have been in emergency mode, scrambling to respond to massive bushfires, living with hazardous smoke levels for months, surviving a severe hailstorm, dealing with floods, and now a pandemic.
In a year that we would all rather forget, there is also something we should be noticing and remembering. Decisions are being made by a very narrow cast group of people and it shows. There is very little diversity in our decision making rooms.
Remember the haircut decision? We could all continue to have haircuts so long as they took less than half an hour. It quickly became clear that this decision had been made by men. Few women were able to abide by the 30 minute restriction. It was a classic example of how decisions made by an homogenous group risk leaving out other groups in the community.
The disability community has observed this repeatedly over this entire period of emergencies and natural disasters. There are almost no disabled people in leadership or decision making positions, so the decisions being made, and the solutions being offered, rarely suit people with disabilities. A constant rearguard action lobbying to retrofit decisions and plans has been underway since late 2019, including ensuring bushfire relief is accessible, masks can be bought with NDIS plan funds, Auslan interpreters are available to public housing tenants in sudden lockdown, and that disability group homes will be adequately resourced to prevent virus outbreaks, to name a few.
The Department of Health is like most government agencies, it has low numbers of disabled people in its workforce and even less at senior levels. Most federal government agencies struggle to have people with disabilities in their workforce, and most of those are in the lower half of the hierarchy. Across the entire public sector there are just a handful of openly disabled people at senior executive (SES) level. Even the department which has primary responsibility for disability policy, the Department of Social Services, has no openly disabled people in its senior ranks.
Forgetting disabled people becomes easy under these circumstances. Disability will never be central to policy making, or decision making, while disabled people are nowhere to be seen in the critical rooms where fast responses to emergencies are constructed.
To make good decisions, good responses, and good plans, disabled people need to be in the room as equal contributors to decision making.
It has been long established that having women in board rooms and executive suites leads to stronger outcomes, yet, curiously, there is not a similar understanding that the same strategy is required for other diversity groups like disabled people. This thinking was abandoned decades ago in relation to women yet persists in relation to disabled people.
Whenever someone remembers that disabled people exist, we are invited onto an advisory or reference group. We are rarely asked to take a seat at the main table where decisions are made.
During emergencies rapid responses are required. There is no time to “consult”. Taking the time to talk to people outside the room becomes impractical. The solution is to have diversity inside the rapid response decision making rooms to ensure that all members of the community are considered. We have learned this in regard to other diversity groups, yet somehow in 2020 disabled people are still left out in the cold and are regularly forgotten.
This is a critical time for leaders and decision makers. The community needs diverse decision makers and policy advisors to ensure the whole community is part of the response. Without that we will continue to see disabled people being forgotten and left by the wayside.
Sign up for regular updates from the Disability Leadership Institute.
Christina Ryan is the CEO of the Disability Leadership Institute, which provides professional development and support for disability leaders. She identifies as a disabled person.