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Senator Jordan Steele-John

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Hello, I’m Jordan. I’m one of the Green Senators for WA and also the Greens spokesperson for Disability Rights and Justice.

My experience of the pandemic was, I think, similar in many ways to disabled people across Australia. I think we, as a disability community, had a unique experience during Covid-19, during the first waves particularly, that were kind of similar, but heightened, to some experiences in the community, but also unique in some really important ways.

Let me explain first, the kind of, the similarities. I think everybody, through the Covid-19 experience, would identify with a period of great fear and uncertainty. And we, as disabled people, definitely felt that. As a community, I felt it personally, particularly in those first six months, when it became really clear that our government, at the federal level, did not have a plan which effectively involved, or in any way, saw the reality that disabled people exist.

There was, I think, it was six weeks into the pandemic here in Australia, before there was even a mention of disabled people in the response plan. And subsequently the Royal Commission into Violence, Abuse, Exploitation and Neglect of Disabled People confirmed what a lot of advocates have experienced on the ground, which was that there literally wasn’t a person in the Department of Health at the beginning of the pandemic whose job was to ensure that the response actually worked for disabled people.

What that meant, and I had a kind of personal role in this, was that we as disabled people, any disabled person with any kind of connection to decision-makers, state government, local government, federal government, dropped everything that we were doing to focus completely on ensuring that disabled people didn’t die. Because we could see what was happening in the UK, in Europe, where as the system, as the health system became overloaded, disabled people were forced to the back of the queue because of a bunch of really ableist assumptions about our ability to survive and therefore the urgency of supporting us if we got sick.

So I had many, many, many a long night making phone calls, talking to people, talking to organisations – everybody from like the Minister for Social Services through to the CEO of Coles, you know, and everybody in between. Advocates on the ground in Tasmania, people up in the Northern Territory as every part of the system, which we had to say what people understood didn’t really work well for us at the best of times, strained or completely failed under the pressure of Covid-19. The ability to get your shopping in was not accessible for a disabled person. The ability to get support under the NDIS didn’t really work in a Covid context. The health and hospital system wasn’t prepared. Every bit didn’t exist.

And so we had to drop everything and attend meeting after meeting after meeting to try to provide this expert advice to government, to decision-makers, and then often have that advice rejected, or have to argue about whether it should be implemented or not. All the while as human beings processing the fear and the worry that comes with living in a global pandemic, not only for yourself, but also for the people you care about.

Like, I’ve got a brother with asthma, I’ve got parents with health conditions, I’ve got grandparents who are in their 80s and 90s. And so you had to kind of try to do this thing of, this is what you’ve got to do for the community, this is where you’ve got to put your energy and somehow back-end the stuff you felt about yourself and the people that you care about and the people that you love.

Difficult thing to do, particularly when, you know, when we did start to hit some of those barriers where people would hear what you’d say and say, I don’t think we can do that. That would be a moment of, I think, high emotion, because you’d know that that came within the context where the answer, I don’t think we could do that, came all the time. And yet in this Covid context, the rules, the boundaries of the possible, were melting away for massive sections of our community in a way that they absolutely should. And yet, they still felt like they existed for disabled people, which kind of takes me on to the second part, which was the kind of unique, some of the unique experiences that we, as disabled people, have had through this process. Because fear, uncertainty, the system not working – I think everybody can identify with that in one way or another, unless you’re, you know, very rich and in a particular position of power and probably very white, then things were more or less normal. But everyone else has had a similar experience.

For disabled people, contextually, we’ve been arguing for things like the ability to work from home, more events being online, more opportunities to participate in spaces together online, for literally decades. And we were always told that it wasn’t possible, that it was too hard, that it was too complicated. And then overnight, overnight work moved online, social events moved online, activism moved, you know, online in new ways that it hadn’t done before. And for many of us, suddenly you could participate in that in a way that you couldn’t do before.

Not only because of access challenges, but also financially. I mean, think of how many conferences that would have been over east or in the city that just financially we couldn’t get to for multiple reasons, you could now be in and participate in fully. And you have Auslan interpreters on the television explaining to you what, you know, officials were saying when for years the deaf community have been arguing for Auslan interpreters. And suddenly, you know, we have many Auslan interpreters now that are famous in their local states because they’re the ones that appear continually behind the premier or the Prime Minister.

So some of those things were actually breakthrough moments that we’ve been arguing for for decades. And then there was this other element, I think, which comes closest to what you might call a culturally unique disabled reaction to the pandemic. Which was a kind of almost schadenfreude but not schadenfreude reaction, which I saw in loads of people. And I felt a bit in myself where you’d have non-disabled people come up to you and say, well, virtually come up to you at this point, and talk about the difficulties of isolation. Oh, it’s so hard. We can’t go out. We can’t see our friends. We can’t, you know, all of these barriers now exist for us when they didn’t before. And there’s a bit of your mind, as a disabled person, that’s like, welcome to our world, buddy. And how awful that you haven’t been able to go outside and see your friends? I wish I knew what that was like.

And that was a lot in the online spaces and, like, now so many people are experiencing what is our day to day. And that wasn’t for a space of like, you’re trapped in here with us now, but more from a kind of, wow, finally people understand. And a bit of a, yeah, it is awful, isn’t it? We’ve been telling you that for a while, we should actually address some of these issues. So, I think that was a unique reaction from our community. But yeah, those are my key reflections.

And thanks so much for wanting to get them recorded. Bye.

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