For too long the needs of Aboriginal people with disabilities and their families have been overlooked. Last week, the story of Roseanne Fulton hit the mainstream media. She is a mentally impaired Indigenous woman aged 24, who has been in a Western Australian prison for 18 months without having been convicted of a crime, simply because the Northern Territory health department – in whose care she is – cannot provide proper accommodation and care for her. On Wednesday, after a petition had gathered 100,000 signatures, the Northern Territory health ministerRobyn Lambley finally promised that Rosie would be able to return to her home in Alice Springs “as soon as it is practicable” – though she still remains in prison today.
Roseanne is just one of many Aboriginal people with disabilities whose lived experience should be causing a national outcry. They are the victims of a medical model confounded by permanent disability. At the First Peoples Disability Network we continue to encounter situations right across the country where Aboriginal people have medical interventions, but the rest of their needs relating to their disability are largely ignored.
A prime example of this is highlighted by Roseanne’s case. In the Northern Territory, responsibility for disability sits within the health department. But disability is fundamentally a social justice issue. There are many untold stories of disability that would explain poor Aboriginal education and employment outcomes.
The foundation of the National Disability Insurance Scheme recognises that it is society which creates the barriers for people with disability, and in the Aboriginal context this is experienced acutely. So, the NDIS certainly provide some hope, but we remain nervous that it will go the way of other major social reforms in Australia’s history that left Indigenous people behind.
It is critical and fundamental to the successful implementation of the NDIS in Indigenous communities that Aboriginal people with disabilities lead it. It cannot be intervened, implied or well intended from afar. It must be done sensitively, as in many cases discussing the nature of any person’s disability can be an intensely private thing.
It is possible that an appropriately resourced and innovative Aboriginal-led NDIS response could identify the needs of Aboriginal people with disabilities at a young age and hopefully put support in place at that should result in people avoiding the diabolical situation of being “accommodated” in jail simply because they have a disability and the system can’t cope with them.
In the meantime we have a more urgent need to address. We have to immediately find a better way to support Rosie and others like her. As someone who has been working in the disability sector for more than 20 years, it is difficult not to be cynical and take the view that Rosie and other Aboriginal people with disabilities don’t count because they are so comprehensively disenfranchised that the system doesn’t need to concern itself with them.
But I am greatly heartened by the response by many Australians who are outraged by Rosie’s treatment. It is a well-worn statement but it resonates so very loudly when it comes to Rosie and other vulnerable Australians, that a true measure of a society is how it supports its most vulnerable. We must never be so complacent to think by designing the NDIS then all of the work has been done.
It says sadly more about our hardened hearts that today Rosie remains in a Kalgoorlie prison. We as a nation need to stop and contemplate that for a moment. She has effectively been jailed because she is vulnerable. Being vulnerable is not Rosie’s fault; it is the fault of the system and the wider community that she has not received the appropriate support throughout her life. That is our failure – not Rosie’s.