Changing Discourses of Disability and Human Rights in Australia


A paper written and presented by Helen Meekosha at the Conference of the Asia Pacific Sociological Association (APSA), “Transitions in Asia Pacific Societies” at Kwansei Gakuin University, Nishinomiya, Japan, held 14-16 September 2000. Copyright 2000.


1. Human Rights as legislation and practice

While it is now possible to talk of global movements for social transformation of societies and affirmation of marginalised peoples, backed by international measures, many governments are beginning to question, and indeed, step outside their obligations to human rights on the domestic front. Human rights obligations, these governments argue, remain a matter of internal sovereignty and not an area to be policed by the United Nations, “with its ridiculous committees sitting pompously by the shores of Lake Geneva” (Thomson, 2000).

In Australia, the current conservative Liberal/National Party government take this position over a range of human rights issues. These include the mandatory sentencing laws in the Northern Territory, detention of asylum seekers, attempts to constrain and dilute the Sex Discrimination Act and, more broadly, processes designed to undermine societal support for and government responsibility for human rights and anti-discrimination legislation. Andrew Thomson MP, chairman of Australia’ s Federal Joint Standing Committee on Treaties, recently called on the Australian people, to cast aside the UN Human Rights Committee system calling it “an outdated, under – resourced, and biased relic of the 1970s” (Thomson, 2000). This statement was made in the context of a report by Human Rights Committee of the UN that raised issues about the mandatory sentencing laws, which unduly affect Aboriginal people, in terms of compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. The report raised similar doubts concerning the mandatory detention under the Migration Act of asylum seekers (Brace, 2000).

Yet, in recent decades, advances have been made in many countries as governments formally recognised UN covenants and declarations and moved to adopt anti-discrimination laws and measures. In a climate of social justice, many of these measures have targetted discrimination on the grounds of disability, along with gender and race. Yet we live in a world of increasing visible tensions between groups, and in a growing backlash against notions of liberal equality. Ethnic tensions and divisions are increasingly common, as could be seen in the recent coup attempt in Fiji. This coup leaders claimed to be acting to realise basic ‘rights’ of indigenous Fijians over Fijian Indians. Such divisions continually challenge any communitarian ideals and universal commitment to the task of combating and eliminating hatred based on group affiliation – especially where they overturn the fine balance between community identity and societal cohesion.

Ethnic and racial tensions accelerate, splitting communities and nations, They often overshadow a different type of development, that of disability movements, both global and local, which have emerged as international phenomena. Disability activists are working on issues in advanced capitalist, industrialized and industrializing post-colonial societies. Thai wheelchair users have challenged the inaccessibility of the multi-million dollar skytrain rapid transit system in Bangkok, Australian disabled women are pushing for national action on forced sterilization of disabled women in institutions, and Japanese disabled people are seeking compensation for forced sterilization under the Eugenics law.

Disability activists increasingly use human rights as a vehicle for pursuing their goals – whether it is calling governments to account via international instruments, arguing for effective domestic Human Rights legislation or indeed, taking action under disability legislation as part of an overall strategy for change. Yet, drawing on the Australian experience, this paper argues that despite the pressure of an emerging and strong social movement, human rights legislation cannot and does not deliver the promises of a socially transformed reality for many disabled people. As Martha Minow has pointed out, rights analysis

runs aground on the two-track system of legal treatment. One track offers basic rights of self determination and participation for those who satisfy the criteria of rational thought and independence, the other offers special treatment and, quite often, social and political exclusion. (Minow, 1990:146).

Moreover, human rights legislation has been co-opted by New Right and market rationalist governments using discourses antithetical to social justice and redistributive agendas. Margaret Thornton argues that “Anti Discrimination legislation provides a graphic case study of how liberal legalism, through a natural veneer of legal form, acts as a brake on the realisation of a social justice agenda” (Thornton, 2000:12) . She demonstrates that the individual nature of the complaints mechanisms, whereby the burden of proof rests with the individual, embeds the assumption of equality before the law. Such a perspective denies the major power and financial differences that clearly exist between an individual complainant, and big corporations. It also reinforces the separation of public and private life, with disempowering consequences for disability organisations (Thornton, 2000:13-14) .

In the Australian context the dominant discourse of disability ensures that, for the most part, disabled people continue to be medicalised, to be treated as different from the ‘norm’. Rather than being full citizens, they face restricted access to economic, social, political and cultural participation. With deinstitutionalisation and a the new philosophy of normalisation which emerged originally in the Scandinavian countries in the 1960s and then in the US under Wolf Wolfensberg, the emphasis moved to community living and disabled people as valued, living ‘ordinary’ lives. These new philosophies were not without substantial problems, (see also Meekosha and Dowse, 1997; Meekosha and Jakubowicz , 1996) but at the very least, they raised awareness of a group of people hitherto hidden away from society without any civil rights. While legislation and policy in the 1980s and 1990s reflected both these discourses (medical and de-institutional), the signs are increasingly of a return to and a refinement of medical and economic arguments to justify punitive treatment and discrimination of disabled people. Thus, for many people with disabilities, Australia, at the beginning of a new millennium is experienced as a battleground. At a time when citizenship is a catch-cry in public debate, disabled Australians are effectively denied many of the simple rights their fellows take as given. Furthermore the rights approaches to disability prevailing at the end of the 20th century are being eroded.

A person with a psychiatric disability is shot dead on Bondi Beach in Sydney because his behaviour appears bizarre to the police; a blind woman has her guide dog seized from her in the street by hooligans, and she is left abandoned; a disabled academic in a wheelchair is struck by a truck on campus trying to make her way to work in a university with no access policy. At least one in five women affected by domestic violence is a woman with a disability. (Frohmader, 1999). In addition, it has become evident that countless people in institutions are left in the most horrendous, unhygienic and isolated circumstances; unlawful killings have emerged as a regular practice in some institutions. The Disability Council of New South Wales in a submission to a parliamentary inquiry into increasing prison population highlighted that people with an intellectual disability make up 12-13% of prison population. The submission noted that the prevalence in the community is only 2-3%, although 40% of woman inmates have a psychiatric disability (Disability Council of New South Wales, 2000).

At a micro level there are thousands of stories in a minor key, which reveal the exhausting struggle for simple services, self-respect and basic rights. A university leases a building for conferences, knowing it to be inaccessible and in breach of its own Access Plan. Taxi drivers abuse women whose physical appearance they find strange or threatening. Local neighbourhood residents take Apprehended Violence Orders (AVOs) against intellectually disabled people trying to live in ‘their’ community. Parents, especially mothers, lose custody battles simply on the basis of their impairment.

Recent debates that have taken place on the nature of citizenship, the constitution and the future of the Australian nation have largely ignored and thereby excluded the 19% of the population who are people with disabilities. Indeed many people with disabilities are effectively denied the opportunity to realise the basic rights and responsibilities of other Australian citizens. While disabled people (the majority of who are women) constitute nearly one-fifth of the population, they are neither visible in the community, nor likely to hold high office in the public or private sectors. At some point in their lives most of them are at serious risk of poverty, abuse and discrimination. They simply are not considered worthy of the “right to life, liberty and security of person” (United Nations Declaration of Human Rights Article 3).

In 2000, the Australian government began to develop a National Action Plan on Human Rights, in which it intends to draw together Australia’s policies relating to the implementation and development of human rights as set out in the various UN declarations and conventions. As part of this process, the Federal Department of Family and Community Services responded to the National Action Plan, by offering lists of current policies and programs already in place. The Department, which has a major responsibility for the services to disabled Australians, ignored some of the key violations repeatedly identified by disability organisations – for example regarding the right to social security and housing. The same concerns were raised by the Human Rights Council Inc of Australia in their submission to the UN Human Rights Committee on Australia’s Third and Fourth reports under the ICCPR. In the opening paragraph of the submission the question was raised “Could the government refer to some specific examples … of where and how the issues raised by non-government organisations were taken into account in the preparation of the reports? ” (Human Rights Council of Australia Inc., 2000). It would appear that the Australian government has become less and less concerned with compliance and commitment to the international instruments to which it is a signatory.

This paper focuses on the processes, which constrain and restrict the access to basic rights of disabled people and how these relate to the differing discourses of disability. Human Rights are provided not solely in legislation, but most directly through services and activities in the community. When these ignore, deny or exclude disabled people no legislation is sufficient. Two major government initiatives will be examined – reforms of the welfare (or income support) system and a review of federal funding to disability organisations.


2. Australian context: discourses of medicalisation and economism coalescing against discourses of liberation and affirmation.

The sense that disability as discourse is constituted through the language and strategies used to contain and manage, reflects contemporary scholarship on power in society. ‘Disability’ is viewed as a form of oppression and the fundamental issue is not one of an individual’s inabilities or limitations, but rather a hostile and unadaptive society (Barton in Thomas, 1999).

Disability sits in a discursive space of its own, through which many specific disciplinary and professional discourses intersect, without necessarily interacting. This section maps the terrain and seeking to unravel the most important competing and colliding ideologies and practices. The boundaries between discursive fields are permeable and fluctuating over time. Never the less they can be conceptualised and differentiated through a recognition of the social institutions and practices in which they are embedded and chiefly operate.

The concept of disability is buffeted by the tensions and arguments within each of the discourses – so that the space which disability inhabits is a sector of extreme turbulence. The institutional approach taken here, directs our attention in specific ways –

  • towards the hierarchies of the medical world and its competing power groups;
  • to the public policy world with its increasing consideration of economic determinants of government decisions; and
  • to the human services industries with their dependence on strategies for programming human behaviour and modifying ‘deviance’.

Against and within these institutions are the social movements of the disabled world – reflecting the impact of race and gender and sexuality politics, with their articulation of a politics of liberation – challenging each of the institutional power spaces through contests with their paradigms and their authenticity. The cultural industries offer another important space for the working through of these institutional struggles, from the realm of the academy and the humanities, to the fiercer and demanding arena of the mass media.

Traditionally the most powerful professional space has been that of the medicalisation of the disability relationship, increasingly facilitated by discourses of economic rationalism.


3. Discourses 1 – medical power and economic rationalism

Medicine has promulgated a powerful discourse of disability. The medical profession constitutes an ensemble of power; that is, it either seeks to cure, rehabilitate, or destroy (as in decisions about lives worth living and the quality of life). The individuation of disability; continues through categorisation of impairment which is again under the control of the medical profession.

The medicalisation of disabled people emerged alongside industrialisation, paralleling the rise in the power of the medical profession. In the developing world, medicalisation is more the result of colonisation or the spread of global aid institutions. As Gilman and Foucault have shown, disability became subject to two intertwined regimes of discipline – the control of the individual body through its classification as a medical problem to be treated or cured, and the regimentation of the body in institutions of constraint, such as asylums, hospitals and prisons. Often the former took place within the latter, with powerful institutional reinforcement of the professional ‘truths’ told about disability and the disabled person (Gilman, 1995) (Gutting, 1994).

For disabled people the medical profession often sits together with the repressive and custodial apparatus of the state, to which the former abandon them when their techniques of cure appear to fail. In the final solution, disabled people may encounter the medical and punitive institutions colluding in their extermination, if they cannot be returned to normality as fit subjects and conforming citizens both.

In contemporary societies, medicine as an institution may offer disabled people a gruesome promise – they may have been ‘saved’ by their heroic surgeons after a medical intervention, yet afterwards high tech medicine is not interested in how they survive economically in a declining services environment of poor social support. Yet the medicalisation of disability also carries the promise of survival if the medical diagnosis and access to the practitioner is sustained – for then the state may offer disability benefits certified by a medical practitioner. Such survival tools range from low cost pharmaceutical products (increasingly being restricted) to access to disabled parking, to cheap movie tickets. Yet psychic, and with increasing frequency, financial costs are involved for someone who has to demonstrate continuous high levels of impairment in order to be classified by a doctor as disabled enough to receive state support.

The medical discourse raises significant problems with the power relations of disability. While the discourse is often constructed internally in ways that prevent engagement with the fundamental dominance of the medical establishment, its institutions and intellectual edifice, nevertheless in recent times the medical world view has had to take into account the wider context of disability. The ethical and social consequences of medical practice increasingly face far greater scrutiny by ethicists and consumer organisations – out of which has emerged increasing patient empowerment. But it is not just the reaction against threat that has caused the discourse to open up; there has been a shift within medicine to encompass an awareness of the inseparability of psyche and soma, and the crucial part played by social relations in determining well-being. Bio-ethical issues are part of the ever-expansive medical discourse – the Human Genome Project, euthanasia, the right to die/ live.

These changes clearly are most apparent where consumer action is most intense – where medicine itself is advanced and its recipients are well educated, have access to a degree of social support, and are willing to use democratic structures to advance their interests. It is in this situation, where activism engages with medicine, that a particularly important discourse of disability has been constituted, that of liberation of the disabled person from a disabling society.

Depending on their position in the political spectrum, governments of both left and right persuasions favour the economistic discourses of disability to a greater or lesser degree. The costs of providing an accessible environment, transport and so on are seen as excessive, the implicit assumption that the costs outweigh the benefits. Social, economic and political participation of disabled people are not accorded a monetary value (much as the unpaid labour of women is not counted in the calculation of GNP) (Frisch, 2000). Thus, the economistic discourse of disability portrays those with impairments as a costly group and society (often in the terms of business and government), already carrying the costs of care, as unable to afford the ‘extra’ costs of accessibility. This is largely a war of ideology, couched in a strict cost benefit analysis. Yet, society at large does not carry anything like the costs of care – most often these are born by the people themselves, their families and friends. Moreover disabled people have different needs and ways of living … they are not simply an economic burden to the social order, and have much to offer to a diverse world.

The advocates of economic rationalist theory, in favour of less state intervention and reduced support to those in need, and the freeing up of market restraints, point to the duty of the ‘community’ or, more exactly to the family as the appropriate policy response. In this model community, traditional roles of father as breadwinner and mother as homemaker and nurturer apply. Those in need should act responsibly under the rubric of mutual obligation. Business has a responsibility to give (but is not compelled) whereas those in receipt of income support are compelled to ‘work’ for unemployment or disability benefits, or demonstrate some other social contribution. The melding of economic rationalism with conservative communitarianism becomes particularly dangerous for disabled people.

One example of the mind-set which emerges from this confluence of the free market with socially conservative values can be seen in the proposal from coalition MPs, that those on welfare benefits should be obliged to join the Army Reserve (Farr, 2000). Here the underlying concept carries with it punitive overtones, and belongs within the discourse of discipline, surveillance and control. It is also not without a touch of irony that war is one of the most disabling of all institutions and once disabled, armed services personnel are summarily dismissed on account of their disability (Cheshire, 1999).


4. Discourses 2 – social participation and equality of difference

Counteracting ideologies exist in contestation with the ideologies of control. Liberation as a political discourse of disability has emerged through crusades for civil and human rights. The independent living movement (Charlton, 1998) (Oliver, 1997) (Shapiro, 1994) calls for de-institutionalisation and integration (Johnson, 1998). Others articulate aspirations for the development of a disability culture (Peters, 2000), a politics of recognition of difference, and make demands for respect and freedom of movement. The liberation discourse has its roots in the anti-psychiatry insights of the 1960s and the black and women’s rights movements of the 1970s. Whilst undergoing distinct developments in the industrialised countries, such as influence of Marxism in the UK and a minority rights perspective in the US, fundamental unifying philosophies and strategies have emerged.

The basic beliefs espoused by the movement can be summarised thus –

  • that disabled people must be recognised as free and full human beings, regardless of race, gender, sexuality or age;
  • that a society without disabled people would be a less vibrant and active society,
  • that disabled people bring to society a diversity of experiences and a richness of culture that must be recognized, and
  • that disabled people need a reconciliation process with the broader community in order that we may speak about past wrongs and oppression.

The political discourse of disability reflects its recognition of social constructionist perspectives on the nature of individual and group differences. Such an approach understands all socially significant differences as socially generated, expressions of hierarchies of power and embedded institutional advantages laid down over time to benefit, either consciously or not, socially dominant groups – reflecting ranking by class, gender, race and bodily capacity. Thus, the pattern of barriers experienced by people with impairments (which demonstrate their low status and marginalisation), are in fact what disables them. A more sensitive, responsive and individually affirming set of social and environmental arrangements would go a long way to reducing the disability experience of people with impairments.

The liberation philosophy highlights a number of serious universal human rights violations that need to be addressed as a first step in the emancipation of disabled people. In many countries they are denied even the most basic social, political, economic and cultural rights. Disabled people in institutions continue to live in appalling conditions and suffer ongoing abuse and degradation of their basic human rights. In Australia, over 8000 people with disabilities nationally have been placed in largely inappropriate institutional care facilities, which may offer a modicum of care for their basic physical needs (and often not even that) but do little to affirm their lives and opportunities.

Disabled people continue to be significantly over-represented in police lock ups, courts and prisons, unemployment queues, and grossly under-represented in secondary and higher education and employment. In 1998, the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare identified 13,500 people with disabilities in urgent need of accommodation and support services. A significant number of people with psychiatric disabilities continues to live in sub-standard housing, without appropriate support services. Women with disabilities continue to be denied communication with, and access to, emergency accommodation and refuges in escaping violence and abuse.


5. The legislative attack

The Universal Declaration of Human Rights (UDHR), signed in 1948, marked the beginning of an era when all states committed themselves to respect the rights of their citizens. In 1999, in Australia, as in many other parts of the world, widespread abuse of people with disabilities constitutes serious violation of many of the articles contained in the UDHR and later covenants. The current political, economic and social climate in Australia is seriously undermining gains that have been made by the disability movement over the last two decades.

The Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission has suffered diminishing resources in recent years. Furthermore, in September 1999, the Federal Government passed the Human Rights Legislative Amendment Act, which had a regressive impact on the rights of disabled people. The position of Disability Discrimination Commissioner has been removed (although some specific commissioners have been retained such as the Sex Discrimination Commissioner after women and human rights activists caused a public furore). This removal is hardly consistent with either the government’s own Commonwealth Disability Strategy or its obligations under the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights.

The Human Rights Legislative Amendment Act moved the hearing and determination powers to the Federal Court – increasing the barriers and costs to those seeking justice. The Disability Discrimination Act Regulation Amendment (1999) has exempted State legislation from Federal rights provisions, thereby permitting the discrimination of people with disabilities in employment, education and mental health in some States. The change of name from the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission to the Human Rights and Responsibilities Commission suggests more than a symbolic move. Rather it demonstrates the creation of an equivalence – universal human rights are now subject to an individual’s willingness (and implicitly, capacity) to carry out government defined responsibilities. For disabled people, the combination of elements signals their reduction in status and their relegation to a socially redundant category.

Australian Attorney-General, Daryl Williams, has tried to put an alternative gloss on the name, claiming that “(The Commission) will also be made more flexible, with a less top heavy structure. The name change is not simply cosmetic. It reflects the important role in the education of all Australians about their responsibility to respect each other’s human rights. …” (Williams, 1999). Yet this renaming is contrary to the spirit of human rights and equal opportunity discourse. If a person’s human rights are being violated, then what does it mean for these individuals to have responsibilities?

In the area of disability many people are not recognised as citizens. As Axel Honneth argues, recognition is a precursor to citizenship with the associated rights and responsibilities:

What has emerged time and time again is that in order to be involved as morally responsible persons, individuals need not only legal protection from interference in their liberty but also legally assured opportunity for participation in the public process of will-formation. An opportunity they can only take advantage of if they have a certain standard of living. Thus, what is acceptable is a minimum standard of cultural education and economic security. (Honneth, 1995:117).

Under the current national government, there has been a watering down of Federal Human Rights legislation, with increased costs for appellants, the stalling of the implementation of disability standards and a reduced commitment overall to human rights. For instance, in mid 2000, the Olympic Road and Transport Authority (ORTA) in New South Wales was exempted from the Disability Discrimination Act in order to allow it to requisition accessible transport from all states and territories for the nine weeks of the Olympic period. While this exemption would allow ORTA to supplement Sydney’s woeful accessible public transport, it ensured that the very real problems of accessibility during the Olympics/ Paralympics would be bypassed, though it could only do so by creating a disability transport crisis in other states.


6. The policy attack 1 – the welfare reform agenda and economistic constraints on social participation

In November 1999, Senator the Hon Jocelyn Newman, Minister for Family and Community Services released a discussion paper The Challenge Of Welfare Dependency In The 21st Century. Fundamentally, the paper looked to the principles of mutual obligation, self-reliance and early intervention as the basis for a radical rethink of “welfare dependency”.

The government was anxious to embed its philosophy of ‘mutual obligation’ – its strong sense that social benefits should only flow to those in ‘need’. However obligation is just one element in a string of relations in a society. Before obligation can be imposed, or accepted, there is a need for the social recognition of disabled people as participants in society – with rights to a satisfying and fulfilling life, and the chance to contribute to the economic and social life of the nation. This recognition question is fundamental to any resolution of the detailed questions raised by the Reform Agenda.

Yet the Reform Agenda did not seriously deal with disability and welfare – other than temporary disability and the ‘incentive’ to return to work. There was no discussion of income support or the systemic discrimination against people with disabilities, or of the extra costs incurred because of having an impairment. The Agenda depends heavily for its ideological focus on the morally laden terminology of ‘welfare dependence’. This concept demeans and devalues the extraordinary efforts of disabled people to survive in a disabling social and physical environment. To reinforce an image that disabled people are or wish to be dependent on welfare, can be used to undermine attempts to achieve equitable participation.

The welfare reform discussion paper and the subsequent report of a review team, Participation Support for a More Equitable Society, can best understood as coming within the economistic discourse of disability. While the reports were strong on the language of community, they did little to reflect the deeper issues about community development and equitable participation. In keeping with the Review team’s evident discomfort about longer-term disability and the obvious contradictions in the mutual obligation litanies when applied to people with high support needs, none of the ‘reforms’ originally suggested in the discussion paper refer to the costs of disability. They took no account of prejudice and discrimination, nor the disincentives, that exist in relation to employing disabled workers, and the barriers to economic participation embedded in the social security and community services systems for disabled people anxious to enter or re-enter the workforce. However the Disability organisations responded critically to this omission, and the final report does propose additional payments relating to the costs of disability (McClure, 2000).

If disability was initially poorly dealt with, then differences among disabled people – on gender and ethnicity grounds – are rarely mentioned in the final report.. There was no discussion in either document that suggests an understanding of the differential issues affecting women with disabilities as opposed to men, nor of the cultural diversity of disabled people – rather each of the categories is referred to separately (McClure, 2000:53). Women with Disabilities Australia (WWDA), the national peak advocacy organisation for women with disabilities in Australia, has argued that the document is not merely ignorant and dismissive of the issues affecting women with disabilities, but is actively dangerous in excluding them from the policy arena.

The concept of mutual obligation is essentially coercive, with its elaboration of a system of sanctions for those on welfare who ‘fail’ their obligations. Before obligation can be imposed, or accepted, there is a need for the social recognition of disabled people as participants in society. The proposed welfare reforms represent an ideological and philosophical shift in line with similar moves in the US and the UK; in particular the abandonment of a social justice and human rights perspective.


7. The policy attack 2 – the disability organisations review and medicalising the social movement

In July 2000, the Australian Federal Department of Family and Community Services (FACS) released a Discussion Paper on the future funding structure for peak (umbrella) bodies currently funded through the Department. The paper, Funding Peak Bodies – A Discussion Paper proposes a new model, which if implemented would see a number of existing non-government organisations disappear, the most obvious being Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA).

The paper suggests disability organisations could be arranged by diagnostic groups; physical, intellectual, neurological, sensory, and psychiatric disabilities. According to Women With Disabilities Australia (WWDA), “Once again, the disability sector has been cast in a medical ‘deficit’ model despite the rhetoric of ‘social and economic participation'”

The government proposed that overall funding arrangements needed to be changed because there was a need:

  • to respond to expectations for change;
  • to provide each sector with a fairer funding share;
  • to create more funding certainty;
  • to improve accountability and audit procedures;
  • to support peak bodies that truly represent their sectors and are ‘consumer’ driven;
  • to avoid duplication;
  • to identify and fill funding ‘gaps’;
  • to encourage the disabilities and families sectors to create their own peak bodies;
  • to develop world ‘best practice’ funding arrangements (FACS, 2000).

Whilst the language of representation and consumerism is to the fore, the reality is that disability activists have for a number of decades taken a united strong position against the discourse which separates disability groups on the basis of imposed medical categories. This has been shown to be a major source of oppression. The new medicalising discourse, combined with a divide and rule approach, could splinter and weaken the disability movement, dependent as it is in Australia on the endowment of government grants.


8. Conclusion – disability rights as a site of struggle between discourses, as expressive of underlying hierarchies of power and resistance

The backlash against advances made in policy and legislation has occurred almost a decade and a half after the first major initiatives of the reformist Labor government of the mid-1980s. At that time it seemed that a steady, progressive agenda, had been enunciated, and would be put into place through carefully structured policies and programs. These policies had as their apparent core priorities the interests of people with disabilities as participants in an egalitarian society. This perspective had replaced the discourses that placed societal mores of physical, neurological and psychological normality and a system of rigid exclusion of deviant appearances and behaviours, at the centre of policy debates.

However more recently the economistic bias in social policy and a conservative ethos in social mores and values has undermined many of the egalitarian notions of the previous decade, and sought to impel disabled people to accept a subordinate place in the social order. Under the cover of ideologies of participation and mutuality, those unable to meet the conditions of the obligatory regimes being put in place, may well discover they lack any purchase in the struggle for political rights to participation. Furthermore they may discover that any antagonistic engagements with the state may result in their enduring enforced classification as mendicants unwilling to accept their “responsibilities” and thus no longer entitled to benefits paid for by the taxpayers. Language remains a powerful avenue for advancing rights and contesting their erosion.


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