With NAIDOC week being celebrated on 3-10 July, this month, we’re taking a look at disability in Australia’s Indigenous communities. Disability affects the Indigenous population at almost two times the rate it does non-Indigenous Australians. This often comes with a double dose of discrimination – both racial discrimination and ableism. We hope that by opening a conversation, we can all start to be part of the solution in helping Indigenous Australians living with disability have every possibility to thrive in their daily lives.
First, we’ll take a look at NAIDOC Week and why it’s important and relevant today. We’ll then look at Indigenous views on disability and some stats on disability amongst the Indigenous population, as well as challenges and possibilities for the future.
What is NAIDOC Week?
NAIDOC Week began as a protest to Australia Day – the annual celebration of the landing of the First Fleet on Australian shores that marked the start of the colonisation of the country. In 1938 on the 150th celebration of Australia Day, Indigenous Australians staged a peaceful protest that included a march and a congress of over 1000 people to observe a Day of Mourning for the atrocities committed against Aboriginal Australians and the subsequent loss of aspects of culture and identity.
This became an annual event and in 1955, it was moved to the first Sunday in July and transformed from a day of protest to a day of celebration of the richness of Aboriginal culture. In 1957, a committee (the National Aborigines Day Observance Committee) was formed to oversee the celebrations. In 1975, the celebrations were extended to be one week long and in 1991, the committee expanded to include Torres Straits Islanders and the term NAIDOC was coined.
Each year, NAIDOC Week celebrations include the NAIDOC Awards to honour Indigenous Australians who’ve made outstanding contributions to improving the lives of people in their communities and advocating for Indigenous peoples’ rights. There is also an annual theme and a National NAIDOC Poster Competition, where Indigenous artists as young as 13 years old can enter their designs.
This year’s theme is Get up! Stand Up! Show Up! It aims to encourage people not to lose momentum in the fight for equality and improvement of the lives of Indigenous Australians.
How do Australia’s Indigenous peoples view disability?
In ‘western’ cultures, disability has traditionally been seen as a diagnosis and unfortunately, this has led to the stigma of defining someone by their disability first (although a lot is being done to reframe this so that the person comes first). In Indigenous cultures, however, this is not usually the case. Disability is seen more as just another aspect of being human. In many of the traditional languages in Australia, there is no word for disability.
It is often seen as a unique trait of someone, a part of life, and not something that excludes a person from society. According to the First Peoples Disability Network Australia and Peer Connect, people with disabilities in Indigenous cultures are generally not excluded from their communities but rather, caring for them is seen as a family or community responsibility. On the other hand, because disability is sometimes seen as being a result of ‘payback’ for some past wrong, ‘marrying wrong’, or a supernatural event, it may go unreported and subsequently, the person with a disability may not receive all the available supports.
What discrimination do Indigenous people with disabilities face?
Scott Avery, Policy and Research Director for the First Peoples Disability Network, led a two-year research study into Indigenous Australians living with disability, which has culminated in the publishing of a book entitled Culture is Inclusion. In the study, he notes that Indigenous people with disability are often victims of intersectional discrimination or ‘double discrimination’. This is when someone is discriminated against based on different aspects of themselves. These aspects could be their gender, sexual orientation, societal standing, etc. So, in this case, it would be racial discrimination as well as ableism.
Indigenous Australians are also in greater danger of being misdiagnosed and having their disability go unnoticed and therefore, untreated. This is what’s called ‘diagnostic overshadowing’, meaning a bias on the part of a medical practitioner leads them to examine patients through a prejudiced lens. They then attribute the symptoms to some perception they have of that person and misdiagnose the patient.
An example of this would be a doctor thinking that someone is acting as if they are coming down from drugs because they expect that person’s race or cultural group to be involved in drugs, when they may, in fact, be unwell with a stomach illness or infection.
Many cases of disability are not reported because there is a greater fear among the Indigenous communities that children with a disability might be taken away from their homes. There is also a mistrust of government systems and supports. Many supports may not be culturally sensitive, so this would serve as a barrier to someone seeking help.
If a disability is severe, the person may need to live in an institution for care and that will often be far from their traditional homes and so, the important connection that Indigenous Australians have with Country and community will be lost.
What is the prevalence of disability in the Indigenous communities of Australia?
According to the Australian Institute of Health and Welfare, Indigenous Australians are 1.9 times more likely to have a disability than non-Indigenous Australians. An estimated 24% of Indigenous Australians have a disability, 13% of which is physical disability, 8.4% psychosocial disability, 6% sensory and speech disability, and 2.5% from brain trauma.
The reasons for the higher prevalence of disability among Indigenous Australians can be attributed to social issues such as poor health care and nutrition, as well as exposure to violence, substance abuse and psychological trauma.
What support is available to Indigenous Australians with disabilities?
The NDIS provides support to all eligible Australians living with disability, but sometimes these supports may not be culturally appropriate and there may be reticence to use them. For this reason, the NDIS has teamed up with Aboriginal Community Controlled Health Organisation (NACCHO) to deliver the Aboriginal Disability Liaison Officer (ADLO) program until 30 November 2022.
The ADLOs understand the culture and language and are members of the communities they work in, so are working towards helping First Nations people use their NDIS plan in a culturally sensitive way. This project will also be used to inform the ways the NDIS works with First Nations people in future, so it’s a step in the right direction.
Looking to the future
If you’re an Indigenous Australian living with a disability, organisations like First Peoples Disability Network are a good place to start. They are advocating for improvements at a systemic level and an individual level. They have groups and communities you can join that talk about issues that are important to you.
For the wider community, increasing awareness of the issues and compounded discrimination Indigenous people with disabilities face will help to start a conversation and encourage greater tolerance and understanding for fellow Australians, no matter their race, gender, orientation or ability.
We pay our respects to the Traditional Custodians of this land, the Gadigal people of the Eora Nation, and acknowledge all Elders past, present and emerging. We respect the special relationship and connection that the Gadigal people have to the land, the waterways, the skies and all the creatures who live here.